2012 Has Been a Great Year For a Little to Mean a Lot in Video Games

There isn't much to Sound Shapes. That's what makes it great.

I'm not talking about the campaign, which is great and I certainly could've used more of. No, I'm talking about the experience that the new Vita game delivers. From the way you play it—pretty much just rolling and jumping—to the environments you play through, Sound Shapes is a shining example of minimalism in video games.

Now, Sound Shapes could have delivered the same core experience with a tacked-on story, a more humanoid-looking avatar and more plush environments. Even it were more Mario-esque, players could still have gotten the main thrust of its structural aesthetics, which is the tight bond between sound and action.

But that fusion of music, visuals and interactivity stands out even more because of the lack of presentational clutter. Jonathan Mak's newest game isn't the only one to soar off the benefits of skeletal structure either.

Part of what made Journey such a great experience is what was left out. No words. No distinguishing characteristics on avatars' faces. No explicitly stated motivation or impetus for your character's voyage. You could make all of that up in your head if you wanted, which makes the experience all the more memorable and personal.

Part of what made Journey such a great experience is what was left out. No words. No distinguishing characteristics on avatars' faces.

And look at Thomas Was Alone, which gave you only colored blocks to control. You didn't need fancy animations to become attached to the quirky personalities. And detailed textures wouldn't have made the environmental puzzles any better either. Everything wonderful about the game comes across with a limited architecture.

Fez's spare presentation makes its signature mechanics seem even more magical. It helps sell the conceit that being able to rotate the world into a third dimension would rock the perceptions of the creatures that live in the gameworld. And it also makes the tough puzzles in the retro-looking platformer feel that much harder. There are very few distractions in Fez, just you and the brain-teaser that's driving you crazy.

Last year, Bastion exercised a sort of minimalism, too. It scraped away a lot of the trappings that you'd normally find in an action/RPG hybrid. Supergiant's hit from last year clearly riffed on the tropes of Japanese RPGs. But a lot was pared away. There's none of the melodramatic romances or tangled subplots typical to the genre. Bastion's minimalism was one of tone, not presentation. But it still had the same multiplying effect as in the examples above, where the agonizing choices felt more monumental because they stood out more.

Excess and minimalism don't have to be mutually exclusive, either. Moments of quiet economy exist in big-deal AAA games like, say, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Gears of War 3. But the less-is-more approach can feel more brave because there's less room to hide flaws. However, when minimalism succeeds in a game like Sound Shapes, it's because the unique elements are the main thing you interact with. And you'll probably remember those more.