Sunday, January 6, 2013

On Hundreds

Let's not waste time dwelling on the past, making top 10 lists of games from the last year.  Instead, let's aim our sights on the future, the bright and glorious 2013, which has already given us a fascinating new release in the iOS title Hundreds by Semi Secret Software.

There are thousands of ways to make a puzzle game.  Games like Portal and Professor Layton, however different they may be, embellish their puzzles with plot lines and characters.  They create not only riddles for the player to solve, but worlds to explore.  On the other hand, there are games like Tetris that focus on simplicity.  The only characters are the player and the blocks he drops, and the only story is about how far the player gets before losing.

Beyond Tetris, there are some games that are not only simple, but minimalist.  These games use simple game-play and art design, not because they are limited by technology, but to make an artistic statement or create a specific effect.  Hundreds falls into this category.

Despite its title's implications, Hundreds keeps its game-play and visuals very small.  You see a series of balls bouncing around the screen.  Most of them begin each level at zero and have to be expanded until you reach the score of one hundred.  Complexity comes from your inability to let them touch while being enlarged, and the increasing number of little tricks and obstacles introduced the longer you play.

Visually, there are only four colors.  Black, white, and varying shades of grey are used for the backgrounds and balls when everything is static.  Red is implemented as the color of a growing ball and the game over screen.  Because of this, progress and failure are visually connected, as they are in game-play.  You cannot lose unless you try to make progress.

In Tetris, letting the controller waste away as the game runs will lead to inevitable failure.  Only by intervening can you stave off defeat.  In Hundreds, the little grey balls will just sit or bounce around, patiently waiting for you to take a risk, throw a splash of red onto the screen, and go for a hundred.  By touching the screen, you bring color and action into the otherwise banal world of Hundreds.  Poor reflexes or lack of forethought leads to a clash of two circles and the screen overflows with red.  You messed up, kid.  Too much, too fast.  And failure, like victory, is solely the responsibility of the player's actions.

This use of color is only one instance where the minimalist design is executed to create a beautifully complex effect.  The increasingly challenging goal of getting to one hundred stands in stark contrast to many puzzle games' endless and often arbitrary point systems.  Here, the numbers are invaluable.  As you expand the balls, their numeric value increases, as does their worth to you, and it becomes heart breaking to watch a tiny buzzsaw blade bump your forty-point circle, deflating it to zero and erasing any hard work and patience pumped into it.

The game, also, gives you no instructions on how to play.  Any language or narration quickly degenerates into nonsensical jumbles of letters, so you have to figure out the purpose of each new element by yourself and these things are often very clear without explanation.  Bubbles stop your ball from expanding and cannot be expanded themselves.  Pop 'em!  Each device is introduced in a vacuum, so you can become acquainted with them before they are combined for more challenging exercises.  Once again, the player is entirely responsible for himself.

Minimalism by itself can be just another neat visual trick.  However, Hundreds uses it to teach the player how to play.  The alarmingly bright red color of a growing ball signals a step toward both success and failure.  The simple goal is easy to understand and never changes, even as tools and obstacles do.  Instructions are nonexistent and the player has to guide himself.  All these things train the player to be responsible for himself and to think critically about his surroundings.  By being simple, by being minimal, complexity is crafted.

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