The New Yorker of December 20 has a profile of Shigero Miyamoto, the creator of the Mario Brothers and Zelda universes and a key player in the creation of the Wii (and Wii Sport and, if I had to guess from the crazy fun play, Wii Resort).
The profile talks about how surprised people were at what a success the early Mario games were and, in trying to figure out the unlikely magic, talks about a theme near and dear to me: emergence:
Again, the object was the rescue of a maiden, who has been kidnapped by Bowser, or King Koopa, an evil turtle. Mario, now a plumber, and joined by a lanky brother named Luigi, bounced through the Mushroom Kingdom, dodging or bopping enemies in the form of turtles, beetles, and squid, while seeking out magic mushrooms, coins, and hidden stars. When you set down these elements in ink, they sound ridiculous, but there is something in this scenario that is utterly and peerlessly captivating. There were eight worlds, with four levels each, which meant that you had to pass through thirty-two stages to get to the princess. You travelled through these worlds left to right, on what’s called a side-scrolling screen. It wasn’t the first side-scroll game, but it was the most charming and complex. What’s more, the complexity was subtle. Yokoi, Miyamoto’s mentor, and the inventor of the Game Boy device, had urged him to simplify his approach. The game had just fifteen or twenty dynamics in it—how the mushrooms work, how the blocks react when you hit them—yet they combined in such a way to produce a seemingly limitless array of experiences and moves, and to provide opportunities for an alternative, idiosyncratic style of play, which brings to mind nothing so much as chess. Will Wright cited the theory of emergence—the idea that complex systems arise out of the interaction of several simple things. “The hardware wasn’t much better than Atari’s,” he said. “The polish and the depth of the games were. Super Mario was so approachable, so simple, so addictive, and yet so deep.”
Emergent systems, complex systems from simple things, brings to mind “nothing so much as chess.” Embrace complexity, avoid complications.