There’s been an increasing tendency in games to include a boatload of content (guns, quests, and so on et cetera) that don’t have any reason to be there. They’re either repetitive time wasters or reskins of another weapon with no substantial reason to engage with them other than that…, well, they’re there. Games like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty are particularly bad about this, but the problem is growing.
Content added to a game needs to have a reason to be there. If all quests do is make a number go up, players will stop caring. And if weapons and abilities are functionally identical, they’ll just create noise that weighs down the experience.
Quantity, in other words, is not quality.
This is one of the many reasons why I’m such a big advocate of Indie gaming. Indie developers don’t have the luxury of bloating their games and instead tend toward a minimalist approach. Among these games, one stands out as a case study for the argument that less can often be more: 2019’s third-person action shooter Control.
Control got rave reviews when it was released, including a nomination for Game of the Year. In February of 2021, the complete edition was added as a free game of the month for PlayStation Plus, reigniting some of the love for the title. The game has so many wonderful qualities that I could talk about here: its psychedelic world, the humor, the fast-paced combat and the way an indie developer managed to take a genre usually dominated by the AAA market and do it better. But what I want to focus on here is something different: how Control, which is positioned in a shooter genre notorious for bloat, went the opposite direction and became a much better game as a result.
Quality over Quantity
Control can be considered a third-person Metroidvania. Exploration and mobility are huge parts of the game design, with many powers that are as useful for getting around as they are for fighting. But the combat is most certainly that of a third-person action shooter. You’d think this combination of disparate game styles would result in a hodgepodge of abilities and tools that drown players in options. The reality is starkly different.
For a Metroidvania or a shooter (let alone a combination of the two), Control has a surprisingly small toolkit. Five weapons and seven powers are available in the base game, depending upon whether you count a couple of add-ons you can unlock for those powers. And yet, the game never feels limited. You’re presented with wide swaths of challenges: navigating Escher-esque moving corridors, fighting invisible enemies, combating giant worms, surviving hordes of fungus-infected monsters and weaving through landscapes floating in empty space. Despite this variety of challenges, your small toolkit is more than up to the task.
Part of this is due to a subtle design strength. The same tools that allow you to explore and puzzle out the mind-bending world of the Oldest House are also perfectly functional in combat. Levitate gives you a way to survey the battlefield and maneuver. Dash is a great escape. Telekinesis sees more use in combat than it does in exploration and quest solving. Instead of providing players with two different toolkits for two disparate playstyles—one requiring fast-paced combat and the other thorough exploration—505 Games cut the total number down and made these tools overlap.
This isn’t just about budgeting either. If you don’t use a tool, you’re likely to forget it’s there. In a game with three kinds of “scenes”—puzzle solving, combat and exploration/platforming—one of the most frustrating things is getting to one kind of scene and struggling to figure out how to get ahead, only to realize after your nth try that you already had a perfect tool for it, but it’s been so long since you used it that you’d forgotten it was there. By interweaving your toolkit through every kind of scene in the game, Control undercuts this problem.
Another great result of this design philosophy is that, because you’re using these tools so often, they become second nature. You whip them out in creative ways on impulse, hardly realizing how slick that move really was. This is hard enough to achieve with simple mechanics and tools, let alone flight and telekinesis.
Not only that, every one of them is fun to use. Even the least useful mind control ability is a friggin’ kick when you turn their grenadier against them and levitate away in the chaos. That’s to say nothing of the shield, the explosive Charge gun and levitating in the air like a god.
This is topped off by the sheer variety of situations the game throws at you. When you’ve got such fun, flexible tools, the different challenges provided gives you myriad opportunities to discover nifty new ways your toys can be used. Lessons learned in navigating can become great tools in combat.
When you combine the flexibility and fun of your toolkit with equally flexible and varied situations in which to use them, this small toolkit suddenly becomes a box of skeleton keys that unlock a world of enjoyment.
Why not more?
You may already be thinking, “Well, if five or six were good, why not more?”
For one, there’s the problem of labor. Effort going into making more tools could be spent refining the ones we already have. The more you include, the greater chance something will drop through the cracks. In a world where buggy code can make a game unplayable, it’s better to do a few things right than a lot of them only okay.
More importantly, the act of adding a design element (or tool) to a game isn’t as limited as it seems. Every ability players have encourages them to act in a specific way and encourages the designers to fit something in to give that ability a purpose. It introduces more problems that need to be fit into the existing build of the game. In other words, when you add tools, you must add problems for players to solve using those tools. However, at a certain point, you go from adding content to adding “noise.” You bloat the game in a way that would be more noticeable in other media. Imagine the original Star Wars movies but with an added half hour of Luke’s aunt and uncle’s daily life on the farm. Nothing else, just a bit about them. It would break the pacing of the movie, distract you, and that added content would drag the whole movie down.
The same is true in gaming. While you shouldn’t strip things down to nothing, adding stuff just to have more content runs the risk of distracting from the point of your game.
Control excels on a design level because it doesn’t do this. Even in its side quests, this remains true. Side quests are either unique challenges with their own stories or repeatable quests that you can easily dismiss if you don’t feel like doing them.
As a result, Control stays focused. That is what makes it such a trip to play. You’re never diverting from what makes the game good. It’s all high notes all the time.