There's a lot to engage with gameplay whether it's complex, deep, straightforward, or simple. With mastery as the goal, you'll get a richer experience out of all games. But what about depth of meaning? What about depth of emotions? What about the kind of deep experience that is derived from complexities? How can simple games reach such levels of meaning? The answer is simple: by creating complexity from simplicity. How this happens is anything but simple.
Within the simplicity of pixel Mario comes the complexity of Mario associations. image by Derek Yu
Complexity From Simplicity
Complexity is the amount of "stuff" in a work. For gameplay systems, complexities are the rules that govern gameplay. Deeper, more open gameplay systems convey a lot of meaning through the interaction of their complexities (rules) particularly from the viewpoint of goal-seeking activity. But simple games have much less "stuff" to work with. Fewer rules generally means fewer variables, dynamics, mechanics, and interplay, the 4 ingredients that make up the explosively emergent recipe for gameplay of interesting choices (read more here). Fewer rules also means fewer elements to think about and learn. Overall, fewer complexities in a system means there's a smaller range of ideas that can be communicated, right? Not exactly. There's a way that simple systems can express complex ideas, but first we have to consider what it takes to communicate ideas.
If you understand art, which includes video games, as a medium for expressing ideas then using language as an analogy should be quite intuitive. A gameplay system with many complexities is like having a language with a rich vocabulary. With such a rich language toolset, an artist can communicate complex ideas simply by creating the equivalent of word phrases. abstracted transposing oscillator. See what I mean? In just 3 words I created a very complex idea. Though I'm not sure what it means exactly, drawing from a rich bank of English words I was able to convey the idea very easily. As long as you know English, you have everything you need to understand what it means.
In real-life different languages have varying amounts of vocabulary and symbolic complexity. Regardless of their differences, languages manage to convey complex, and important messages. Spoken Chinese uses subtle tone and inflection changes on the same phonemes to express different words. Written Japanese is very dense because it uses 3 character systems, hiragana, katakana, and kanji. There are around 50,000 kanji to learn and most have multiple pronunciations and meanings. According to wikipedia "The Hawaiian alphabet has 13 letters, five vowels (long and short) and eight consonants, one of them being a glottal stop." And finally computer code, DNA, and binary are all languages that code detailed information. What can we learn by studying all of these languages and how they communicate complex ideas? The same thing we've known for a long time.
Like I commonly say, complexities cannot be compressed. To convey a complex message or a complex experience you need sufficient complexities to make that happen. But what I haven't explained before is that there are two main ways to load a language system with complexity; through the vocabulary or the grammar.
Let's start with a simple example. If I use a 10 digit numerical symbol system I can express natural numbers easily: 1, 2, 3, 16, 287, etc. If I use a system with a smaller vocabulary, say 2 symbols (1 and *), I can still express the same numbers: 1, 11, 111, 1*111111, 11*11111111*1111111, etc. Notice how much more complex symbol-wise this version is compared to the standard notation. It takes 19 symbols just to express a number that took 3 symbols in the standard system. Notice also that this second version utilizes all the notation rules of the standard version while adding a rule that tells us to read asterisks as separators for digits. This second version clearly has a more complex grammar.
A complex language with a rich vocabulary has its drawbacks. For one, the complexity of the language itself is a learning barrier that must be overcome before one can understand the messages. It's no coincidence that learning a new languages is commonly regarded as a difficult endeavor. On top of this, complex languages tend to feature a range of terms that are general, carry multiple meanings, and create ambiguity. With so many ideas that the vocabulary encapsulates, and so many of these terms that are built up of other terms, the complexity of complex languages gets dense really quickly.
Simple languages are much more universal because, in order to convey a message with the same level of complexity, everything must be spelled out. Instead of requiring the audience to be very familiar with a rich vocabulary of terms, a simple language explicitly lays everything out in the message itself. In this way messages of simple languages are very clear and almost universal. Using a simple language, the creation of a complex message happens right before your eyes. The simpler the language, the more clear and universal the message. The only drawback is that the simpler the language, the longer the grammar or message has to be to compensate for the lack of complexity. In this way complexity is like a balloon. The more you try to compress one part of the balloon, the more another part must swell in response.
Everything that I've covered so far applies to many different systems and languages. From spoken languages, math proofs, programming languages, formal logic systems, to DNA, systems have messages they convey in a very particular way. While we typically think of the vocabulary of a language as the key meaning carrying components, the structure that the vocabulary is put into (grammar) is equally as important. It might help to think of language as being a coding system for messages where the vocabulary and the grammar work together to encode meaning in a concrete structure (the medium) only to be decoded by the audience. Now I want to talk about a very specific type of grammar by which messages can be structured, coded, and decoded.
Being a set of rules, grammar brings a level of regularity to messages. In this way grammar uses patterns and resonance to create the necessary complexity bearing structures. For a language with a rich vocabulary, a complex grammatical system isn't needed to convey complex meaning. However, to convey the same level of complex meaning simple languages need complex grammars. In other words simple languages require more space to spell out complex ideas, and the more space statements take up the more structure is needed to keep everything straight. One particular structure we'll briefly look at is repetition.
On a very fundamental level meaning, consistency, predictability, and cause-and-effect are all topics related to repetition. Repetition is one grammatical tool that creates patterns, consistency, resonance, etc. Even with very simple languages, just a bit of repetition creates special links between different events and experiences. In the movie A Beautiful Mind, the mathematician John Nash (played by Russell Crowe) deciphers a code the government intercepts. It's a beautifully mesmerizing scene that illustrates how order and meaning cannot be hidden among the chaos of meaningless symbols because meaning itself relies on patterns (see video above). As much as we try to obscure meaning to make coded messages more effective, ultimately if there is any meaning within a code at all, it can be cracked because of the patterns inherently created by its repetition. (Don't miss out on this Radiolab episode "Loops" for more on repetition). Fortunately for us the kinds of languages and meaning we're discussing aren't secrete codes and don't require deciphering. Just an open mind and a attentive eye will suffice.
While repetition is great grammatical tool for conveying ideas through a medium, there's another tool that's even better. The most powerful tool to convey complex ideas with simple languages is linearity. Remember in my series Linearity. Emergence. Convergence when I said that a linear presentation of complex ideas will invariably have "kinks" in the flow of information? Remember when I stated that a linear presentation gives the creator great control over the presentation of ideas?Linearity as a grammatical tool is what I was referring to.
Linearity is like a timeline. And being locked into a timeline with a clear beginning, a clear sequence of information, and a clear ending is what makes linearity such a powerful communicative tool. Inherent in this forward-marching-organizational structure is a kind of order; a kind of consequential cause-and-effect nature; a strong sequence of juxtapositions that lays out content in a very clear way. Linearity provides a lot of complexity and structure for any grammar system. Every language I know uses it. So surely simple, straightforward, and linear games should use this grammar tool to convey ideas as well.
So far I've outlined a few properties of language and communication while tying the conclusions to many theories and statements covered in the history of writing here at Critical-Gaming. This is a significant accomplishment in itself. But the best is yet to come. I just need you to follow me through one more step before everything can be wrapped together nicely. In part 4 our considerations get a bit more musical.