For the past twenty-five years, the mainstream videogame industry (as indicated by the best-selling games) has been defined by its persistent drive towards the fantasy of immediacy, filmic realism, and immersivity. In this way, the dominant aesthetic of videogames continues to be determined by the language of Hollywood film. These aesthetic goals are reinforced by the technological evolution of console hardware which has been invested largely in higher resolution graphics, more realistic physics simulation, and enhanced artificial intelligences since the 1970s. The past decade, however, has inspired a small renaissance in alternative approaches to games as the availability of high-quality development tools (e.g. Flash, Unity, Unreal, etc.) and open source modding frameworks (e.g. QuArK, Torque, and Source) have allowed independent and experimental developers to experiment with genres and designes which are not necessarily targeted towards a wide commercial market. The style of game under consideration here could be characterized as minimal.
A prehistory of minimal gameplay can be seen in the loading screens, pause states, idle animations, and repetitive gameplay of all videogames. Rather than obfuscating these necessary states, as most mainstream games attempt, a few games have indulged in minimal moments for the sake of irony or meta-commentary on the nature of videogames. Two examples from popular commercial games include the ladder in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004) (youtube.com/watch?v=G67DOJMEat) and the empty world in Super Paper Mario (2007) (youtube.com/v/2yesL3ir-Aw?fs=1&hl=en_US&start=315). Aside from examples that insert a minimal moment in an otherwise standard gameplay experience, a host of independently developed games have been built which place these minimal conditions at the centre of their ludic content. A short list of examples might contain:
Guru Meditation by Ian Bogost - bogost.com/games/guru_meditation.shtml
The Graveyard by Tale of Tales - tale-of-tales.com/TheGraveyard
Don't Shoot the Puppy by RRRR - rrrrthats5rs.com/games/dont-shoot-the-puppy
Burn the Rope by Kian Bashiri - kongregate.com/games/Mazapan/you-have-to-burn-the-rope
Close Range by the Onion - closerangegame.com
You Only Live Once by Raitendo - kongregate.com/games/raitendo/you-only-live-once
4 Minutes 33 Seconds of Uniqueness by Petri Purho - kloonigames.com/blog/games/4mins33secs
Basho's Frogger by Neil Hennessy - epc.buffalo.edu/authors/hennessey/data/basho_frogger/index.html
Desert Bus by Absolute Entertainment - desertbus-game.org
In many ways, the genre of minimal games could be said to culminate the production of what have been called “Helen Keller Simulators.” The Helen Keller Simulator is an unpopular internet meme which continues to propagate across the network in a myriad of forms despite its simplicity and puerile nature. A quick Google search will reveal a series of websites, Flash games, and even YouTube videos of Helen Keller Simulators: google.com/search?&q=helen+keller+simulator. There are many versions of the Helen Keller Simulator. Like differential calculus or the “aristocrats” joke, it has been re-invented multiple times by different individuals. The “simulators” inevitably consist of a black (or blank) image with no audio and the title "Helen Keller Simulator." Much like Rod Humble's The Marriage (rodvik.com/rodgames/marriage.html), the title is a significant gameplay element. The irony hinges on the suggested impossibility of representing Helen Keller's worldview through videogames and the cognitive dissonance produced from the encounter between the player and a soundless, monochrome screen.
Though easy to dismiss as a tasteless joke, the Helen Keller Simulator offers an interesting contrast to the aesthetic strategies of the mainstream games industry. Rather than focusing on visual complexity and rich representations, the Helen Keller Simulator excises all but the haptic to imagine an alternative history of gaming dedicated to other sensory regimes. Aside from its potential focus on touch, the Helen Keller Simulator also functions as the negation of videogames—a null set or empty game. Engaging with the history of black monochrome painting—from Malevich's black-on-black to Rauchenberg and Reinhardt's mid-century monochromes to Frederik De Wilde's nanotube paintings (featuring the darkest black known to man)—the Helen Keller Simulators sit at a limit point between pure materiality, with its excesses of human significance, and the representation of nothingness.
Signifying nothing is harder than it seems. One might expect a blank canvas or blank screen to accomplish this type of signification automatically but the viewer/player is an engine of associations. No matter how quickly the monochrome retreats from representation, the degree of emptiness represented can be thought to always mirror the amount of associative potential. However, despite the very human reflex to fill this void, an indigestible kernel remains: the idea of nothingness. The most radical aspect of the Helen Keller Simulator (well beyond its reference to Helen Keller) is this idea which drives the original joke: can we build a game of nothing? The paradox of attempting to think outside human thought, away from human meaning, and beyond human anthropomorphisms is the secret discourse of the monochrome and the core component of its speculative aesthetic.
Taking the entertainment industry as my contrast and these games as my model, I am interested in building new gameplay genres which both critically play games while modeling an approach to making art. The Helen Keller Simulator figures as my first step away from the visual, toward alternative fields of play.