“Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If in your bold creative way you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.”
The Dinner Party
A friend of yours who is attending culinary school has invited you to a dinner party. You’re excited, because you know that he is especially skilled at making desserts, and you haven’t had a chance to enjoy his work in a long time, so you can only imagine how much he’s improved.
You arrive with a dozen other guests, and before long dinner is served. Imagine your surprise when the appetizers make their way to the table: tortilla chips and queso blanco, hand-battered onion rings, sushi rolls with caviar and gold flake, little smokies in store-bought barbecue sauce, deep fried cheese curds and battered, fried chicken wings in a spicy plum sauce.
It seems like a lot for just the appetizers, and there are so many different kinds of food here. They don’t seem to go together, and the quality varies a lot. When this is brought up to the host, he brushes it off.
“I just had a lot of good ideas.” he says, “I considered cutting out some of this stuff, but I wanted everyone to be happy no matter what their tastes were. Don’t worry about it guys, dessert is going to knock your socks off!”
Then the entrees arrive, and they’re even stranger than the appetizers. Orange sesame chicken breast. Porterhouse steaks wrapped in six slices of bacon apiece. Grilled vegetables in a brown sugar sauce. Powdered mashed potatoes. Sweet potato fries dressed in celery salt and hand-crafted vinaigrette. Also, cheeseburgers from a nearby fast food restaurant for some reason.
The worst part is, none of it is cooked properly. The chicken breast is raw, but the steak is overdone!
“Sorry.” the host says, “I got a little overwhelmed trying to keep so many dishes going at once. The fast food cheeseburgers are cold because they sat on the counter for hours while everything else was cooking.”
The chef gets a little indignant at all of the questions people keep asking. “I know the cheeseburgers are out of place, but c’mon, they’re your favorite!” he says to you, “You used to get those all the time when we were in high school.”
Finally, dessert comes out, and indeed, it’s magnificent: a beautiful crème brûlée that uses all of your friend’s talent and skill. It’s perfect. Unfortunately, at this point only a few guests have even bothered to stay for dessert, and they are all stuffed; battling upset stomachs because of how rancid dinner was.
What a disaster.
Your friend is a good chef, and yet his lack of focus and inability to say “no” to any idea he could justify in any small way turned things into a huge mess.
It is an unfortunate reality that many JRPGs turn into messes just as regrettable as the dinner party I just described. Even those developed by big AAA dev companies with experienced designers.
By their nature, JRPGs are complex games with a lot of mechanics and moving parts. They are intentionally designed to capture sprawling, epic journeys, and they require complexity and depth to keep them interesting throughout their long play time.
However, this lends itself to a serious problem: JRPG designers tend to do way too much, and this can leave our product muddled, poorly made, or outright disastrous. This clutter can be lethal to a game’s immersion, fun and even player retention if things go badly enough.
So, how do we as designers navigate this thorny problem?
Perhaps you are familiar with an artistic term: negative space. This important concept refers to the shapes made by everything that an image is not.
For example, if you have a painting of a tree, the negative space in that image would be everything that is not the tree. Paying attention to and respecting negative space is an important step in creating visual art.
I propose that negative space is also an important concept in game design, just as much as it is in visual art. Yet, many game designers do not understand this fundamental principle.
In the spirit of economy this subject presents, let’s boil it down to one statement:
In game design, what you don’t include is just as important as what you do.
What Does This Game Not Do?
The easiest way to explain this concept is to dig into an example. Instead of asking the usual questions when we examine these games, we’ll be asking one very important question: “What does this game not do?”
Chrono Trigger is considered by many to be the platonic ideal of the JRPG, but people frequently have trouble putting their finger on what makes it so great. A lot is made of things like the party combination attacks and extensive end-game sidequests. Chrono Trigger does these things very well, but other games include these elements and they aren’t nearly as effective.
My theory is that Chrono Trigger makes the best use of negative space of any JRPG. So, what does Chrono Trigger not do?
There’s no weapon customization. No flashy limit break attacks or complex abilities that create stacking status effects. There are no elaborate character classes with unique resource pools. No hundred-floor end game bonus dungeons. No massive bonus boss at the bottom who boasts a million hit points and requires the player to grind to maximum level to beat it.
Chrono Trigger has bog-standard JRPG equipment, spells, and character archetypes. End-game dungeons are challenging, but aren’t intended to give hardcore players an extra hundred hours of play time.
The game designers realized that they had enough game complexity on their hands just by allowing every character to combine with every other character to perform unique, powerful team attacks.
Player needs for customization and variety are fulfilled by offering dozens of potential parties with their own strengths, weaknesses and flashy ultimate attack. It encourages the player to try out all of their different possible team compositions and play the game multiple times using different parties for a different experience. They didn’t need to add more to create a fulfilling experience.
Chrono Cross, the game’s sequel, makes much less effective use of negative space, and the game suffers greatly for it. Many people still like Chrono Cross due to all of the things it does right, but it’s worth considering how much better the game could be if the developers had exercised their discretion a bit more.
Imagine how much better the dialog could be if it didn’t have to be written generically enough that sixty different characters could all be saying roughly the same thing. They even had to use dialog filters to remind you of who was talking and what stock archetype they embody.
What if the team hadn’t been stretched thin trying to come up with unique techs for such a huge roster? Perhaps there wouldn’t have been a need for the generic Elements system that makes every character of the same color type play almost identically.
What doesn’t Chrono Cross do? It’s a lot harder to answer that question.
Suddenly the stark limitations of the basic program fell away, and we saw that we could do everything we ever dreamed. As a result, many of us are making projects that are hodgepodges of every mechanic we loved from the JRPGs of our childhoods.
That’s not a bad thing!
Taking inspiration from what has come before is a time-honored tradition among creative people. It inspires passion. It preserves good ideas while introducing new ones. However, it also carries the risk that we’re stuffing our projects full of things; just because they’re interesting, and not because they serve the larger purpose of the game.
Remember the dinner party from the introduction. Games work the same way. All of that food is tasty, but not all of it goes together. Choose an appropriate menu.
You need focus. Pick a feeling or idea your game is trying to get across and make every single part of it work toward that purpose. Don’t try to juggle so many elements that you can’t give each of them the focus needed to make them the best they can be.
Don’t forget about that neglected dessert! Even if the crown jewel mechanic is sheer brilliance, you need an audience in the mood to receive it. All of the other choices you make should serve to highlight key features instead of detracting from them.
Perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at your own project. I know it’s time to do so for mine!
I make a point of evaluating my game’s overall systems regularly, checking for this kind of excessive feature creep. It can be hard to kill a feature that you love, especially if you did a lot of hard work on it, but doing so might make your game better. Your duty as a game designer is to pull the trigger. You owe it to your players. You owe it to yourself.
What good thing will you not do so that you can do something great instead?