Thinking Small

In 1959 Richard Feynman gave a lecture called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” If you’re not familiar with Feynman he was, without a doubt, one of the most important and influential physicists of the 20th Century, as well as being exceptionally charismatic. If he was alive today he’d probably be a Brian Cox type figure, explaining science to the general population and doing it in a way that you’d grasp instantly.

[drop2]Besides his ability to popularise science, his contributions to pure science were not insignificant, in fact he won a Nobel Prize in 1965, but for me “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” is the most important thing he ever did. The talk was about the possibilities of looking at things on an atomic scale, and manipulation individual atoms and molecules at that level, foreshadowing nanotechnology by a good few decades. While the overall impact of his talk on research and development is now disputed, it did help to fuel the acceptance and promotion of nanotechnology, bringing the field to prominence.

The central message of Feynman’s talk, at least to my thinking, is that it’s easy to look at the very big but there’s some very interesting things that can happen if you focus in on the unimaginably small. Games can learn a lot from that.

When the first computer games started to pop up developers, for the most part, had to think small. There simply weren’t the computing resources to think big, not unless you were very smart like the developers of Elite. No, in general games started out relatively small, and as technology and capabilities have grown so has the scope and size of games. We’ve grown outwards and outwards to the point that games like Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto create not only huge sprawling cities, but their surrounding environments and inhabitants.

And then something happened, mobile gaming. Ideas shrunk again, developers started to think smaller and look at what they could do on a device that fits in your pocket. Of course our phones are part of the same technological cycle, themselves becoming increasingly powerful and sophisticated, allowing developers to once again expand their horizons and grow their games outwards.

My question is this: Why is there this general obsession with making things bigger and bigger? There are still small, intimate experiences out there for sure, but they’re becoming increasingly rare and generally come with a “retro” label.

Take stories. Why do they almost always have to be big adventures, epics that cast our hero into dozens of different difficult situations? Why can we not take a character we love, Nathan Drake for example, and have a dozen smaller, more focussed stories in one game? Is there any particular reason that we’re pushed away from the short story concept, or the “Monster of the week” idea that TV shows like Buffy and early seasons of the X-Files took?

[drop]Open world games frequently feature this kind of narrative in side quests, but is there any reason we can’t take that and turn it into an entire game? Why not ten one-hour long stories instead of a single ten-hour long story? You can tie them together with an overarching plot if you want, like Doctor Who, or you can present each story as largely independent, more like the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

Obviously it’s not all about story though, and games like Super Hexagon have shown us just how entertaining a well executed, incredibly simple mechanic can be. This type of game is never going to be a AAA console game, but there’s space to explore those kind of incredibly tight mechanics as well.

While Feynman said there’s plenty of room at the bottom, I think there’s plenty of room for everything. There’s room to have huge AAA games the size of Skyrim existing side by side with Super Hexagon or Tetris. There’s room to have a game with twenty thirty-minute stories and to have a game with a story that lasts days. With digital distribution growing and indie gaming going through somewhat of a renaissance there really is the scope to play with all of these ideas, and I’d love to have people exploring them more.

There really is plenty of room.



  1. Yes.

    I see episodic gaming hopefully delivering us something like this in the long-run. I think the best route to go would actually be an adaptation of a TV series you mentioned in the article- Buffy would be perfect video-game material and featured a very large variety of villains to boot.

    I never really liked open-world gaming much anyway, I much prefer a tighter, scripted experience.

    I like my media to entertain me, I shouldn’t have to go looking through the game to find the best experiences.

  2. Variety is the key…more games…more possibilities. I have 64 games on my vita. From the game that gives me seconds of quick fun, to the story driven so called ‘AAA games’. Choice is good mostly. I say mostly, as sometimes I find myself flitting through games. Not really putting as much effort in as the days when I had less choice. I can see the benefits of the mini games popularised by the so called ‘phone gaming generation’……just as long as I have the choice for the occasional BIG experience…

  3. Couldn’t agree more, Kris. The consumer world is obsessed with things being better by being bigger. I understand certain vehicles aren’t going to work in small environments (think: GTA V and jet planes) but I found San Andreas to be quite the turn off by the time I’d started exploring the last/third region. So much so that I gave up playing which has never happened to me during any of the GTAs (post top-down outings).

    We usually assume that the thing we buy with a higher number is more powerful/advanced in some way. Look at us waiting for the PS4 and everything that’s preceded it. Software versions, car engine sizes, etc., the list is endless to be fair.

    However, I’d far prefer to see Skyrim be half the size and know that they could spend a crap-load more love on the utterly terrible animation of NPCs or hirer in actors who don’t have strong American accents when they ran out of Nordic-sounding folk. That was hysterically bad.

    I’m currently playing Saints Row the Third (with teflon) and I’m finding the three regions incredibly enjoyably, manageable and navigable. Hell, you could reduce this by a fair old wedge and still have a great game in there. It’s about the story, fun, narrative, etc., not about the size of the effing landscape!

    Re: episodic content like Walking Dead, I’m with you once more. I hope we see an enormous amount of episodic content in the next gen. Cheap to buy into to see if you enjoy it and wonderful content to look forward to assuming the devs can churn it out at a decent speed.

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