It is the old combination of form and content – the game world itself and the issues it explores, in this case. If the tension created is believable and meaningful, even simple symbols are enough.
‘The Last Door’ and ‘To the Moon’ have overwhelmingly good reviews from its players. They also have in common a certain simplicity of the graphics- they are deliberately created pixelated, using the bare minimum of pixels. Yet they attract almost cult following.
‘To the Moon’ has a central question: What if some decisions in a long life were made differently? The game starts with an old man near his death. The game is a journey inside his head, discovering secrets form his past, suppressed memories and trauma.
‘The Last Door’ creates genuinely oppressive atmosphere. Set against Victorian background, it is about a search for ‘answers beyond’. This goes well with the slightly romantic view of the science of the time, practised mainly by the rich as a pursuit of leisure. The side characters and issues are a big part of the atmosphere. There is madness, PTSD, drug abuse, social issues, fog and a secret society.
Aviary Attorneys is not a pixelated game. It uses very simple, but beautiful animation based on 19th century caricatures by J. J. Grandville. The difficult moral choices the player must make and the severe consequences that follow, make it incredibly immersive. The feelings of guilt, after some of the consequences, are real. It can have several very different endings. I wanted to mention it here because despite its simplicity, it creates a complex world. It made me reconsider and question more.
Minimal visuals have been explored (and still are) in theatre as well. I recently watched a lovely, minimal, shadow puppet performance of the ‘Tin soldier’. The audience genuinely experienced the sad story, even though the actor/storyteller cut the characters out of paper on the stage. There were tears in the audience at the end!
We experience the story (the art) despite the simplicity of the visuals. Our brains decode the symbols and construct a whole world, that we become immersed in. We fill in the missing parts of the picture. The potential and the readiness of our imagination to live through an imaginary world is immense.
We have a hunger for good stories.