Game Theory: Leaver-Outers


The older I get, the more I appreciate elegance, simplicity, and concision in game design. Sure, there are still times I want a game that piles on the detail like a rococo basilica. It’s possible to just fall into a giant hunk of gaming like Hearts of Iron III or Fallout 3 and roll around like a pig in… well, you know.

But a game that takes the most appealing bits and distills them to their essence has a powerful draw. This is what’s so wonderful about Torchlight, which boils the Diablo experience down to its essentials and skims off all the fat. This is a brisk and entertaining bit of action RPG, with a light touch and a set of simple game mechanics that conceal hidden depths.

For a $20 title, the skill of the design is almost shocking, at least until you check the credits. Designer Travis Baldee gave us the strikingly similar Fate series, and codesigners Max and Erich Schaefer gave us… Diablo.

These are designers who have thought deeply about what gamers want and what they can live without. The overblown cinematics and expensive production of Diablo II are replaced with text descriptions and appealingly simple visuals that are so efficient they can run on a netbook.

Last year’s Hinterland accomplished a similar bit of alchemy by creating a mashup of Diablo and Caesar, stripping down both experiences to their most appealing elements, then building them into a remarkable, easy-to-grasp, fast-playing game.

The things left out of Torchlight and Hinterland are hardly missed, partly because there is an art to simplicity that has its own charms. Thomas Wolfe, in defending his sprawling novels to F. Scott Fitzgerald, described great writers as “leaver-outers” or “putter-inners.” Some artists suggest something larger by saying less, while others put in every detail they can. Both are legitimate approaches, and offer unique delights, but it’s hard to deny F. Scott’s basic point: It takes greater craft to create something small that suggests unstated depths.

Or, as Elmore Leonard said, “I like to leave out the parts people skip.” It’s something designers should keep in mind.

Thomas L. McDonald has been covering games for 17 years. He is Editor-at-Large of
Games Magazine .

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