It’s interesting that you start with the analogy to writing. I had a very similar experience, except that George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language opened my eyes instead of On Writing Well. I don’t think minimalism is the objective best of all aesthetics, but it’s one that appeals to me, and (equally important) it’s far easier for an indie to pursue than most other strategies. Auralux’s design and presentation are as much a product of my limitations and constraints as my desires and preferences. That’s not to say that the game is incomplete or handicapped; the same could probably be said of most creative works, I imagine.
I’m very happy to see that you found meaning and value in Auralux’s gameplay. I definitely hoped to expose something meaningful in the gameplay, but I’m usually hesitant to make that sort of claim myself. I’m still reticent to make concrete connections to real-world systems, though. I think that most good abstract or fictional art can teach us something within its own context, but that it’s then our job to figure out how to apply it to other contexts. So, for example, Auralux might teach something about power dynamics between single-minded and aggressive actors, and we might learn something about the concept of realpolitik from that, but Auralux makes no claims about the real-world validity of that perspective.You also wrote that “To some extent, Auralux is about seeing through the AI algorithms, and that is the game’s biggest weakness.” I completely agree. I think that, as a player gains mastery, the game changes shape in the player’s mind. At first, it’s a game about growing your forces and gaining a numerical advantage. Later, it’s a game about landing the right “sneak attacks” to cripple the enemies. Eventually, the elder game is about manipulating the AI and balancing the two enemies against each other. In this light, I totally understand why multiplayer is the most-requested feature for the game, but I’m honestly not sure whether the game would support a head-to-head matchup between truly expert players. I fear that the game would turn into a totally balanced stalemate, and the game would effectively be over as soon as one player made a minor mistake that broke that stalemate. Or, perhaps, the game would become about who can better “read” a clump of units.
I started working on a prototype for a new game that would support minimalistic, fair, and deep multiplayer strategy, but that effort unfortunately stalled out some months ago. The prototype stalled out for design reasons. I put pretty serious constraints on it, and it never quite found the fun. I occasionally still think about it, and I may still return to it, but for now it’s resting quietly. And no, it’s not on my website, though I should probably put it up.
I think small tweaks to existing mechanics can definitely push into new territory, as long as they’re truly substantive changes. And minimalistic multiplayer strategy games surely can work (see classic board games), they’re just tricky. Still, I think their trickiness and their appeal come from the same place: a desire for fair cerebral gameplay. A lot of multiplayer strategy games will rely on hiding information, adding an arbitrary rock-paper-scissors mechanic to the game, or they’ll add a strong element of mechanical skill (micro). (See Starcraft.) I don’t like those elements, and so I made a game with complete information and no micro. The problem, as you saw, is that it eventually devolves into a solve-the-AI puzzle for expert players.
My prototype was attempting to take the format of head-to-head RTS gameplay and distill a game with the same elegance and minimalism and fairness and perfection of Go. I hit a wall, but I still hold onto that goal.
All that said, it’s important to realize that fair cerebral gameplay is not the only worthy goal in game design. Frank Lantz (an NYU games professor) has some great thoughts about the value of other types of gameplay, and he often argues for recognizing the inherent beauty of gameplay and competition. After all, the player who learns how to avoid tilt in poker is probably getting a better life lesson than the chess grandmaster.
Some games depend on ornateness and complexity to work. Could you make a minimalistic version of Dota? Maybe, but I’m not sure, and I’m even less sure that it would truly be a better game.