The Atomic Unit Of Games

Listening to a recent Idle Thumbs episode (the one with The Fullbright Company’s Steve Gaynor), a reader asked a question that prompted an interesting notion from Chris Remo: atomic units. In the context of the response from Remo, he was saying that Tetris is basically a fundamental concept in video games and called it “atomic,” an implicit analogy to how atoms are pretty much the base unit for matter composition. It was a simple, almost throwaway line, but it really made me think: are there things in video games we can call atomic?

If your first instinct is to bring up subatomic particles, then all you’re really doing is building the case for the answer to be in the affirmative. Just as there are protons and electrons and so on and so forth, Tetris can similarly be divided in its atomic state to sub-elements. Blocks, for instance, are in probably every video game ever made. Scores are a staple that have been around from the get-go and don’t look to be going anywhere any time soon. We can easily (and almost trivially) subdivide Tetris ad infinitum to fit the subatomic structure. But that’s not what’s interesting here.

More so we’re talking about the conglomeration of indivisible concepts that, once gestalt and made whole, are nigh inseparable as a new idea, such as Tetris. These new ideas cannot be effectively reduced any further. Tetris has been the base of many composite ideas over the years. Many of them are still well within the realm of puzzle games, but that doesn’t stop them from being based on Tetris. It has given way to everything from Dr. Mario to Puzzle Fighter to every match-three game you see today. Tokyo Crash Mobs is built on top of Zuma and Luxor, but it all can be boiled down to the atomic unit of Tetris.

This, perhaps, is what we talk about when we discuss video games reductively. When we say Punch Quest is simply Canabalt but with punching or Jetpack Joyride is Canabalt but with jetpacks, we are really saying that Canabalt is the atomic unit of endless runners. Canabalt is the basest of endless runners because it is pure in its intent, which is endlessly run and jump to avoid falling or crashing to your doom. Anything that Canabalt has to offer is what makes up the endless runner atom.

Then in reductive conversation, we can easily identify those atoms. The combat system in the Arkham series has become atomic. The way crowds sift into singular attacks that prompt rhythmic, univalent responses can be found in Captain America: Super Soldier from 2011 and in Sleeping Dogs from last year. That has become the rhythmic response combat atom.

Denoting types of atoms is an interesting subject, too, which is to say that each composition of subatomic particles results in a different element. In that same way, the subatomic parts of gaming come together to form different atoms. Going back to Canabalt, its subatomic parts are running and jumping, but so are Mario‘s. So are every other action or adventure game ever made, but put together with forced scrolling, we have the endless runner atom.

You’ll notice, though, that this is not new. Super Mario World actually had these bits and pieces before in levels that had forced scrolling, but that also had enemies and a goal and so many other things that it is a conglomeration of other atomic pieces. Distilled to its essence, Canabalt is the endless runner base.

New atoms are discovered (or created, depending on your philosophical stance on the subject), too. Speaking to the recent Dead Space 3, it caps of a trilogy that created the methodology of creature-killing that depends solely on dismembering enemies. Necromorphs, the zombie-ish foes lost in space that Isaac Clarke finds himself to be fighting interminably, can only be defeated by shooting off limbs one at a time. This is something that hasn’t quite made it into other games (the shooting of enemies being a subatomic particle), but that doesn’t mean it won’t. Not all atoms are in all matter, after all.

Perhaps that’s why we get so excited when something new comes along like the active reload from Gears of War or the aforementioned dismembering combat style of Dead Space; it’s because it’s a discovery. It is analogous (if not tantamount) to the actual discovery/creation of new elements in the real world. We are part of the process when we take part in games that bring to light these new atoms of the table of gaming elements. We can see the fundamental framework in which our digital worlds work and we know what has been made from them.

But we don’t know what can be made, and that is so very exciting.

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  • Interesting idea, the way you defined atoms reminds me of Platonism. What I’m saying is, there are many things about Cannabalt that aren’t required to make it an endless runner, but it participates in the Platonistic form of ‘endless runner’. You could say that it’s closer to the ideal form than the other endless runners you mention.

    Anyway, I’m in some philosophy classes this semester (can you tell?), so this is the kind of stuff I think of. Here’s wikipedia’s page on Platonism, for the interested:, and another (non-wiki) encyclopedia:

    • haha, I *can* tell! And thanks for the links. I’m kind of familiar with the Theory of Forms but I hadn’t really thought about it in that way before.

  • Zephyr Birdfriend

    Have you read Unit Operation by Ian Bogost ? I think you will find it quite interesting.