There is a common misunderstanding that graphic designers and digital artists are fundamentally one and the same. Graphic design is seen as the commercial side of art, employing many of the same practices but in more corporate - often advertisement heavy - mediums. There is some truth to this, but though graphic designers and artists may both work in visual mediums their thought process and intentions are wildly different.
In The Legibility of the World: A Project of Graphic Design, Abraham A. Moles (who worked not as a graphic designer but an electrical engineer) defines graphic design as “the science and the technique of establishing a functional equivalency between a message and its purpose.” In short, graphic designers connect ideas to visuals. Their goal is to communicate through images, text, and graphic objects what words alone cannot, or cannot do with any sort of succinctness.
In most cases, the best design is that which goes unnoticed. While a painting demands to be focused on and scrutinized, design hopes to remain invisible, so functional as to never place itself between the viewer and the message. That is not to say that design cannot be aesthetically pleasing, but that good design does not call undue attention to itself. You may admire a sign, bottle design, or the layout of a table of contents, but ultimately design is not the end but the means to arrive at one.
Given this understanding, it is unsurprising that minimalism - the act of stripping away elements until only the utterly necessary remain - is such a prominent influence within graphic design both modern and antiquated. The designs which have endured for decades, be they logos, flags, bathroom signs, or Helvetica, have done so because good minimalist design is timeless. It is not dated by period movements or political eras but holds only the purest form of a particular method. There are certainly still flavors of minimalism which date themselves or appeal to certain audiences, but minimalism remains, and likely always will remain an essential portion of design theory as it encapsulates graphic design’s goals better than any other movement: to communicate through the most effective means possible.
Which brings us to THOTH (2016), a twin-stick shooter developed by Jeppe Carlsen, the visuals of which utilize only circles and rectangles to convey increasingly complex mechanics over the course of 64 levels. Critics have met this restraint as deconstructing the twin-stick shooter, but I feel this form of analysis perhaps misses what THOTH is actually trying to do, and trivializes how well it ultimately does.
There is a frustrating impulse within the video game industry to quantify everything. How many guns are there? How big is the map? How many polygons is the engine pushing? Is it hitting 60fps? What is the input lag? How many hours will it distract me from reality? These are legitimate, and to varying degrees, valuable questions, but the equivocation of quantity with quality leaves no room for nuance. Numbers are purposefully exact, making for easy, contextless comparisons which strip away what a game is trying to do with all that bulk while praising it purely for the sake of having it. This is a carryover from when video games were covered more or less identically to tech products, but what was reductive then is only more so now as games expand into so many unexplored avenues which may or may not make use of anything easily quantifiable. It is effectively the result of the kid pulling down the largest book in the library, intent on reading it for no other reason than that for its size it must be the best.
THOTH is neither bloated nor even comfortably full. It is an exercise in restraint in every possible way, from its visual design to its length of less than a movie, to its soundtrack which dips in and out as if just checking in on how you’re doing. What THOTH is not is hollow. Every element is exceedingly intentional, allowing the game to be at once nearly empty while overflowing with information.
First, there are the shapes themselves. Rectangles are the things you cannot penetrate. They are the walls which surround the stage while also the enemies hunting you down and sending you back to a previous stage. Contrasting these harsh cornered shapes is the circle you control. Circles denote some player involvement, whether it is something that can be switched on and off such as dotted gates, or another body the player can jump to. This dichotomy of circles and rectangles is constant, allowing for a great deal of nuance while remaining imminently comprehensible. THOTH does not present as complex, and yet is able to introduce a vast number of mechanics organically to the player without a single word.
The use of color is even more intelligent, providing one of the games few aesthetic luxuries in the form of a new scheme for every set of levels. THOTH is working on multiple levels here, firstly denoting which set of stages you are on, then defining your relationship to the level (enemies are one color, you are another, the walls are somewhere in between as something you cannot pass through but will not harm you, and the empty vacuum of space is just that, an emptiness you must avoid but cannot control). This series of relationships is what graphic designers strive to achieve, building theoretical connections between arbitrary comparisons and contradictions. THOTH achieves this within the first level, allowing it to introduce visual variety while retaining the color relationships necessary to understand the game.
The final element at work here which I have not touched on is the speed at which THOTH forces you to interpret it. Anything can be understood with time, but it is an especially challenging task to convey something quickly while doing so in a way which retains the message’s intent. Complexity within brevity is perhaps a languages biggest struggle and subsequent success, and it is one THOTH thrives at resolving.
This is why I feel it is a mistake to describe it as a deconstruction of the twin-stick shooter, rather than an evolution. THOTH may bare more visual similarity to Asteroids (1979) than Ruiner (2017), but simplicity in visuals is not the same as in mechanics. Rather than deconstruct the twin-stick shooter, THOTH compartmentalizes it. It refines mechanics that have existed for decades while not restricting itself to the limitations of 80s arcade machines. THOTH employs minimalist design by reduction but through discipline and an intense attention to detail. THOTH’s success is not in seeing what can be removed while still arriving at something recognizable. It is in creating something of great complexity with simple parts.