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The Short Game

This month, the Experimental Gameplay Project, a monthly challenge for game designers, released the results of their latest effort. They wanted to see who could create the best games that only ran for 10 seconds. That’s it: the videogame equivalent of a mayfly. The approaches that different game designers have taken are quite fascinating. I Can Hold My Breath Forever has players controlling a little cave diver as he hunts for a mysterious person who’s gone ahead of him—but for only 10 seconds at a time. Cold as Death is a black-and-white text adventure that has you trying to avoid freezing to death. But my favorite by far was Run, Jesus, Run, a charmingly pixelated game that delivers a racing Jesus speeding through the Gospels.

As much as gamers love a long, complicated, and well-thought-out game, there’s something wonderful about brevity. I say this not as a time-strapped videogame player; rather I appreciate the creativity that arises from constraints. With videogames becoming ever more complex, mimicking the complexity of real life, what has disappeared in a sense of abstraction and a sense of restraint: Because anything can virtually be accomplished, games often move in the same direction with a focus on polish, but without a real sense of character or oddball creativity.

Anton Chekhov, a master of the short story, wrote hundreds during his life and was a master of the form. The limitations of the short story was a boon, as the novelist Richard Powers observed:

One can say with some assurance that in settling upon the short story as his chosen narrative form, Chekhov elected in essence not to represent all of life, not to make a splash, but to fashion discrete parts of life and focus our attentions and sharpest sensibilities there as a form of indispensable moral instruction. […] Chekhov made his stories precisely commensurate with life and with a view of it we can accept in an almost homely way.

The game designers for the 10 Second Contest are thinking along the same lines. By drawing back their intentions, their games pull a different type of narrative into sharp focus.

Which one is your favorite?

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