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.