On Minimalism and Breakout

I remember my grandma’s desk being shuffled out to rest strangely in the corner of her basement, watching her play some Arkanoid rip off. I wanted to play it. The games are so interchangeable I’d never be able to know which one. Face against the glass of their back door I cycled through the levels as far as I could get. Never was that far. I think what was nice about it was that it made so much sense. Neatly arrayed patterns, colors; challenging but materially abstract, representational, therefore unstressful.

Gradually the blocks will disappear. For a bit the game is something changing, living. And when I return to it I’m in a trancelike dissolution and remembrance of what else I’ve felt, how my handling of the game’s intensity has changed. As the blocks dissolve so too does whatever old parts of myself I’ve negotiated away or forward, that I’m reminded of because of things like it. I chip away at the charming flatness until it gives way to a void.  

And it would later appear on browsers to be played in class, to be rediscovered on my DS, in game collections, and plug-in-plays. It’s there, I play it, and I forget about it. Like a kind charm, imbued with good and bad, safety and tumult. A constant that has absorbed and redirected simple expectations for videogames. Something unconsciously accepted among childish notions of what is correct, not to be articulated, not needing to be justified.

I think the key to minimalist art like Breakout is taking inventory. Being in a place, of a place, interrogating a needful, put upon, simple relationship with how a work corroborates with the self. Because it’s limited, it is as complicated as the self deems. That’s why, through games like Breakout, that are essentially Breakout, I feel an evolving work. Its controlled stillness, humbleness, its utter rigidity interacts with my life, experience, memory. Each mixing runs parallel, like a nonverbal journal entry.

Look at this, these gorgeous muted colors, coming from an emulated Atari 2600 version of Breakout:

Breakout2600.svg.png

Compare an Agnes Martin work, acrylic and graphite on linen, untitled, 1999:

31291_MARTIN

My paintings are not about what is seen. They are about what is known forever in the mind.

– Agnes Martin, quoted in “Geese Flying

I was talking to my sister about one of her art projects for school, which led to showing her a picture of a Rothko painting. She laughed, and bless her, I think that’s a fine reaction. Part of what makes a Rothko painting great, like the Martin painting above, is that its rebellion is funny. It’s funny to me! It awes me and such encountering an new object that is hard to understand, one of my impulses is to laugh. People have gone to incredible lengths to elicit spiritual, emotional, physical responses out of someone, and yet a similar result can be achieved with a candid, forceful glaze of three colors.

It was not that the figure had been removed, not that the figures had been swept away, but the symbols for the figures, and in turn the shapes in the later canvases were substitutes for the figures… these new shapes say … what the symbols said.

[It’s] the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea and between the idea and the observer.

– Mark Rothko, quoted in “Abstract Expressionist Painting in America

Now it seems figures are mostly valued for themselves, not for what they can represent. What else is videogame culture’s fascination with fidelity and excess? Nevertheless minimalism and abstraction aren’t replacements, they’re different ways of feeling. They can instill an irreplaceable calm in me, a melting and merging, a different state of being. An uplifting feeling, which I’ve felt from various other media as well, of course. Because part of this feeling is relation, it’s feeling a connection, on some level it’s feeling like I’m valued.

In-depth lines on a canvas will calm me, allow me my space. It’s different with complicated images, with immersive videogames, they’re often engineered to capture attention, hold it hostage with pleasure. A minimalist work deigns active engagement to be appreciated. I slow living, put everything down, and look, soak. Because they do not dominate, very much unlike the mainstream thought of a videogame, they can accompany. Ambient is minimalism; minimalism is ambient; textures are vitality.

Minimal retro games are spoken about with a boring reverence that amounts to how much they sold, what business decisions led up to their creation, how difficult the engineering process was. Little insight into the game design and construction. Not much to be said about the emotional impact, the visual space it holds within. If there ever is any it’s peppered with some apologia about how it looks and plays compared to modern games. A strange stance, since Breakout games are still being made with fundamentally little altered in their game design!

Approximately 11,000 Breakout cabinets were constructed during its production run. Breakout was sold as a standard upright or a round cocktail table. A sequel, Super Breakout, was released in 1978 and featured multiple gameplay variations.

The American Classic Arcade Museum

By today’s standards the graphics and game play were primitive. Planes looked like pixel blobs with wings. People looked like pixel blobs with legs. Race cars looked like sticks with four pixel blobs for wheels. Yet despite the simple graphics, the games captivated players.

Strong National Museum of Play

Notability of the first quote is that it’s the only mention of the game as it exists in the article. For the second, this museum of play, which I can’t actually tell what discipline it comes from, features a boring consumer report of Atari in general. Despite being a page for Breakout, no actual mention of Breakout exists on the page. Can’t a museum enable respect rather than denigration?

This is just Breakout, a simple arcade game made of the simplest components, and yet Barr finds a large number of ways to convert its meaning and tone just by tweaking one of those components at a time. It shows us what might be possible within games if they can break out of the established formats they’re so sunken into.

– Chris Priestman, Killscreen

I know what Chris is saying here, but read closely. Simple is used as a kind of a curse word, a slur, this is “just” Breakout. A performative surprise at how Breakout managed to be an expressive vehicle, though probably not on merits of its own. I can only guess it’s because a cold minimalism, one without supplied substance, is felt to be uninteresting game design. Kind of ironic in a passage that extols possibilities.

Breakout is a simple game: an archaic Tennis for One, a single step evolution above PONG, which may cause some to question our host’s emotional stability. Nor does the book illuminate some hidden crevice of a known thinker’s past, the way Amis’ does. But the form itself reveals a type of attention and nuance hard to muster in our present era.

– Jon Irwin, Killscreen

This excerpt from a review of Pilgrim in the Microworld comes the closest to acknowledging the power of simplicity. As the writing has to, riding on the coattails of a guidebook on how minimalistic videogames affect our lives. Most mentions of Breakout treat it as something of an embarrassment. I think a bottom line is that Breakout demands very little attention, unlike what mainstream games have developed into. A game incapable of generating, forcing its own engagement, is boring.

I want to flip the script! Acknowledging the history and constraints of game’s production is important, but it should not consume our reflection. Instead of contrasting Breakout as a relic of time gladly past, I want to see games like it reclaimed and retrofitted with a new kind of meaning, in terms of being compassionate game design that easily fits in a person’s life. To recast “simplicity” as minimalism. To acknowledge that not everything this shambling culture moved away from points to some kind of necessary, futuristic improvement.

Our fragility is the engine that drives minimalism. When slight adjustments are given enough room to contain multitudes, each different thing exposed gives room to expose a difference in ourselves. Some of the initial awe, humor, or mystification with minimalism, is an uncomfortable dissociation within the realization that creations are more arbitrary than alchemy. It doesn’t, shouldn’t take much to create cavernous meaning. Though artists will, maybe need to, work and work toward larger, meandering designs anyway. Again, feelings from minimalism aren’t replacements, they’re symptoms of meditation, consideration, they reground someone into the ineffable. They’re the unconscious, the forms and shapes, that run parallel to complicated suggestions and arrangements.

I’d been playing Breakout each day, but not all that much, by no means yet your typical video addict. Nobody was around, no competition, just me and Atari on a rainy night. Over the past weeks I regularly stopped in the midst of the action, and suffered no grief for poor showings. I sometimes played sloppily, at other times well, and I couldn’t yet explain the inconsistency. About all I could sense was a need for competition, and could especially see a real gain to be had if I could witness Breakout played well. What if I’d exaggerated the potential for careful shot placement all the way through? I wanted to see, even hear, the elegance of the game, and lacking a model, it was almost like buying a piano having never heard music.

Sure Breakout is primitive compared with others even now on the market. But so are wooden recorders alongside Steinways or Moog synthesizers, and that doesn’t stop us from making great music on them. As the engineer said, “Breakout plays well”, and its very simplicity asks for further exploration. Direct descendant of the original Pong, its organizational elegance demands critical respect.

– David Sudnow, “Pilgrim in the Microworld”


BREAKSOUT points to the fragility, or transience, of game design. Though I wonder if it’s really about the fragility of us, of our symbols, of our memetic canon. A couple of these variations, could’ve been just as popular as the original. Wouldn’t they be? Really BREAKSOUT contains relativity. A few of the versions are clearly satirical, others are purely artistic. Intrinsically their strength is the strength of Breakout, and additive, and critical, and commenting. (Incidentally, this is why fanwork can be amazing).

In BREAKSOUT, one variation is “UNFAIR BREAKOUT.” What does that conjure? A game that is too fast, that will lead to impossible shots? Maybe the angles rapidly change, the paddle intermittently stops, a flat unfairness imposed on the player? I imagined something like that. It was instead Breakout with a paddle that stretched across the entire screen. A setup that isn’t unfair for a hypothetical player, but unfair to the projected goals of the software. Or maybe since thrill is gone, in a roundabout way, it is unfair to the player!

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A different breaker subversion BLOCK was released in the 2000s. I think at least, I can’t get a date on it, best I can do is check the program modified date. Developed by Kuso-ge Lab (kusoge is a japanese portmanteau meaning basically “shitty game”) there’s a direct admission that the game is meant to be humorous. It’s slathered with a kind of bright, garish, new-optimism windows 2000 look and sound. Neatly drawn and organized, yet somehow blocky, like a child’s toy, while conveying a sterile sharpness. Boring, basically.

Maybe the aesthetic is one of innocence, of beguiling safety. I feel it was picked for its clarity and simple appeal—a dated appeal, now—but the result is basically the same. This is the most normal incarnation of the game it could be. In “Indie Game” style, there are ludic additions that remix play expectations. The ability to swing the paddle is somewhat trifling, but the ability to pitch multiple serves is decently game changing. It’s all at the player’s pace. If I feel like I can handle another ball, I toss another out. If I need to hit a particular block, I can waste a serve on it. Many screens require thoughtful serves in this way.

BLOCK is in the Arkanoid style. Which is a dorky way of saying it has some power ups, typical ones, boring ones, that modify the size of the paddle and ball. Gleefully separate from standard structure are three more power ups. Absurd, game breaking ones. One reverses gravity for twenty seconds, making it virtually impossible to lose. I pitch every serve and watch the balls bounce around effortless on the other half of the screen. Another gives me an infinite reserve of balls. It is possible to fill the screen with them, to cause the software to stutter under unhinged might, to break everything within seconds. Last is one that turns BLOCK into “UNFAIR BREAKOUT;” a complete extender, allowing the paddle to fill the entire screen, permanently nullifying any lose condition.

A dice roll, a coin flip, occurs when a red block is broken. A quick calculation determines if I instantly win the board or not. Something like a condensed roguelike. Something like a joke of a videogame. I play the game normally, indeterminately, and it can just flip upside down, it can just suddenly end itself. I’m not sure which part is the joke. Wouldn’t the joke be trying desperately to keep bouncing a ball, when it doesn’t matter? Literally, suddenly, it doesn’t matter.

A lot of my playing was watching; BLOCK played itself. Unfair breakout? Not breakout, a videogame without a player. Like a tool assisted speedrun. Well, really it was just like watching someone else play a game. No, it’s watching a game in play. It was soothing in a backwards way, being able to remove my hands from the keyboard. I could walk away entirely.

VirtualBox_l_28_10_2017_02_34_00

In the first place I was trying to assert a spirituality to Breakout. Chipping, melting away the geometric figures is a direct stream. It’s sublime, then quaintly frustrating. While the experience itself might not stick with hyperliterate gamers anymore, the game’s quiet stillness can’t be denied. Still whatever tension and suspension is a product of trying to get people to part with their quarters. It’s gambling. I said this game neatly fits into our lives, but that’s through emulators, in a retrospective. As an arcade production it was meant to intrude on our lives. Baggage that seemingly won’t go anywhere as gambling systems engineered for spending crawl back into the unfortunate forefront of videogames.

If minimalism is a reduction of figures to their most essential form, then of course there’s minimalist game design as well: a reduction or formulation of play that tries to capture essentiality. (Ludology starts to overlap with this principle and I also don’t care.) Following this line, maybe the most minimalist game is one that just needs to be turned on. I press go and it goes. As an object it still must be governed by whatever programmed physics and logic to be playable, and yet it is not.

A contradiction in terms? At least in the form of a Breakout clone it’s something triumphant. What was once a coin-op style game following “Bushnell’s Law,” it has become a chamber of absurd inevitability, capable of extracting nothing from a player, determined to resolution on its own. Becoming “UNFAIR BREAKOUT” (on a hypothetical) then is unfair to the publisher and manufacturer more than anything. There can be nothing explicitly primed for addictive exploitation in a style of play that is short, beautiful, and requires no upkeep. That’s what I mean by a videogame that “fits into our lives”: I mean that it does not require you to give up much of anything of yourself by its own design. Aren’t we tired of beguiling, duplicitous, fair games?

BLOCK can be found here. Or I guess the site went down? Here’s a personal mirror

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2 thoughts on “On Minimalism and Breakout

  1. Hi there, I run the site Musings Of A Mario Minion and would love to talk to you further about this post. It’s actually in-line with a project I’m working on at the moment that looks at the role of abstraction in indie games and the industry in general as macrocosm. If you can drop me an email via my site, that would be great as I can’t find a contact page on your site.
    Thanks!

    Like

  2. Wonderful article. Breakout is sublime because of its simplicity and yes I absolutely think a game can be minimalist. I stumbled on your article when researching a post for my own blog and was struck by how similar our thoughts were on the subject. I have not tried BLOCK, but will definitely do so.

    Like

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