Breakout: Minimalist Gaming


Much like Pong before it, Breakout has name recognition far beyond its actual sales.  This is partly due to the large number of clones and spin-offs that have succeeded it, but a lot of it also has to do with its intimate connection to the legendary Apple II computer.  Steve Wozniak, the brains behind the Apple II design, wanted the computer to demo his version of Breakout (titled Brick Out), so he made sure to include color graphics, sound, and paddle controller support.  These same features ended up being a big part of the Apple II's success as a gaming and educational platform.

But Atari's original arcade version of Breakout, released in 1976, was a big success in its own right and is the version I'll be reviewing here.  The mechanics of Breakout are similar to Pong in that the player controls a paddle that moves in one dimension and strikes an on-coming digital ball.  However, rather than playing against another paddle, your task is to knock the ball against a wall at the top of the screen, breaking it down brick-by-brick.  If you manage to destroy all of the bricks, another screen of bricks appears and you can continue playing.  Unlike most  arcade games, Breakout has a definite end after the second screen is cleared, at which point the player has effectively "won".  There is no fanfare at the end, the ball just continues bouncing around a blank playing field.

The game was a big success, despite being released during a period of relative decline for the gaming industry.  If Pong demonstrated that video games can successfully simulate the real world, Breakout showed that they can be successful as abstractions.  A match of Pong has a direct antecedent in the real-world game of ping-pong, which plays out in more or less the same way as the video game.  The appearance is greatly simplified, but the overall concept is familiar.  On the other hand, in Breakout, while real-world analogs to the game pieces do come quickly to mind -- paddle, ball, brick -- their interactions only make sense in the game world.  The act of gradually knocking off vertically stacked walls of bricks... that's not a thing that I've ever seen outside of video games.

Despite this weirdness, or perhaps because of it, there is something compelling about the game.  From a young age, I remember being entranced by the concept of Breakout-like games, the motion of the game ball against the colored bricks being almost hypnotic.  Clones of the game continue to be popular to this day, including an easter egg that Google famously included in its image search to celebrate the original game's 37th anniversary. 

Rectangles being hit by a circle, that's all it is, so why are so many drawn to the game half a century later?  The idea that simplicity is sometimes more compelling than complexity is not a new thing in the visual arts.  Ad Reinhart, a painter active in the mid-20th century had this to say about the subject:

The more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is. More is less. Less is more. The eye is a menace to clear sight. The laying bare of oneself is obscene. Art begins with the getting rid of nature.

His words foreshadowed the minimalist movement of the '60s and '70s, but is he also describing what draws us to games like Breakout? Paintings like the one on the right, Reinhardt's own "Number 5", certainly have a similar visual style.  And consider, for a moment, the two best-selling games of all time.  Here's what one looks like:


And here's the other:


I won't speculate about the psychology behind our obsession with cubes and rectangles, but I will say this:  visual simplicity makes our interaction with a game more complete.  Every visual detail that doesn't play a role in the game is a detail we can't be bothered with when we're playing.  The spikes in Cloud's hair and the shading on the fields of Hyrule won't matter a whit when you're in the middle of a melee.  They reveal a richness in the game world that we have no part in.  By contrast, Breakout only shows us the details that matter for the gameplay: the paddle, the ball, and the bricks.

I recommend trying the original version of Breakout, even if you're already familiar with its descendants (Arkanoid et al.).  It's included as a built-in game for the discrete integrated circuit emulator (DICE), which you can get at sourceforge.  It is quite difficult, and I'll admit that the experience can be less than sublime when you're struggling to maintain a rally of more than a few bricks at a time (the paddle is tiny!).  But overall, I think it's more visually satisfying than any of its clones, and once you do get the hang of it, every brick will feel like a fundament.

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