The way we judge what is a video game and what's not is completely messed up. Some game games are games. Some games aren't games. And the reasons tend to not make sense. Just what is a video game anyway?
Note: This is also on my blog.
To some more vocal individuals, that's an easy question. Super Mario Bros. is a game, but Gone Home isn't. Bioshock is a game, but Dear Esther isn't. The list continues, and naturally some patterns arise. These so-called "not-games" askew the standard design practices we've come to associate with normal games. They have straightforward rulesets, or a lack thereof. In some of these you mostly walk around and look at stuff. Some of them have no ending, and some others put a heavy emphasis on plot instead of action. At this point, it's pretty well documented; not even the site you're reading this on could call Dear Esther a game, even if they probably weren't being serious.
But I've noticed an even more interesting trend among the games that are not: These games are amazing. Wholly, truly, fantastic and often beautiful to boot.
All the best games aren't games, it seems; the games that touch, that make us think, that do a great many of the things we've wished "real games" would do. To the list of hits we can also add 2D games like To the Moon, Passage, Mainichi, and Dys4ia, along with a host of amazing Twine games. It's funny how some of the best games out there right now get branded with the "not-game" label, as if it were some strange mark of honor. It's as if "not a game" is just the next tier of quality after "masterpiece." At the very least, you'd think their minimalistic design choices were a factor in their success.
That's understandable. A game can do without all the bells and whistles, yes?
Take Mario for instance. Even though the series still uses a traditional lives system, changes to its core gameplay over the the years have brought it to a point where it no longer seems like a practical option. To go into detail, ever since Super Mario World in 1990, the series has shifted away from mastering things and more towards finding things, away from repeating old stages and more towards discovering new ones, throwing in features like secret exits and hidden stars that unlock closed-off worlds. And saving. That's a big one.
Now the old lives system can work in games where you have to retread old ground to squeeze the most value out of a particular section of the games, since that's more or less what they were implemented to do, to get people to start over. There are games where that's a nice fit. The people in charge of the latest Mario game, however, seemed to have reached the conclusion that making people start over in a game all about moving ahead in whatever direction would lead to headaches, teeth-gnashing, and broken hardware. Good call, guys.
Let's not pretend this was hard to get.
Not that they got rid of the lives system, mind you. They simply placed extra lives in conspicuous places, places easy enough to reach that a player can recollect them every time they have to start a section over. So they technically achieve infinite lives while still being able to say that they kept the lives system intact, even if the end result is kind of goofy from a design standpoint.
Why so goofy? Because the lives system no longer lines up with the feel and appeal of the games, that's why, not to mention that it looks like a glaringly obvious and graceless cop-out. That's no sexy game design.
But then why do it? If they have to choose between the options of either keeping the life system intact or giving the player infinite lives and taking advantage of difficulty to keep things interesting (which is pretty much they've been doing lately anyway,) why choose the former instead of the latter?
Because the first one was there in 1985.
And that's just it. The system by which we judge what is a game and what's not isn't based on some sort of rational framework or objective criteria. It's not based on form, and it's not based on merit. No, our system is based solely on time. And for what it's worth, nostalgia too. Which brings us to our next topic, retro arcade games.
You see, part of the reason we don't have a reasonable criteria for makes a video game is because at that critical point in time where we were supposed to think up a definition, technology had already narrowed it down for us.
Remember when I talked about the “Early Era of Video Games”, a period dating roughly from 1962 to 1985? Well for those of you that don’t, the reason that point in time is so important is because this is where video games became a recognizable entity. It was the classic era, encompassing many of the arcade blockbusters that have managed to permeate pop culture today as ambassadors of the art form (which is actually pretty bad news once you think about it.) And because it was the first time we as a population in general had been exposed to video games, we imprinted on the things we saw like a baby duck imprints on its mother.
It’s telling that we consider the time from ’78 to ’83, a peak moment for retro arcade games, and a period that fits snugly into the early era, to be “The Golden Age of Video Games.” It’s also slightly problematic, considering what it says about our priorities when it comes to deciding on the Greatest Games of All Time and things like that. (I personally don’t even think the Golden Age has happened yet.) But there are bigger things to worry about than that. You see, the result of all of this is that what we consider a game to be is based on antiquated, and sometimes even obsolete conventions. And herein lies the problem:
Our entire understanding of what a video game is is based on a phase that will soon be three decades old.
Behold, the pinnacle of our creation.
Not that we could help it. We really thought that was it. We simply could not foresee our games, which were at the time derided as mere children's toys, turning into Braid or The Walking Dead or anything even close. After all, most of us were children back then.
But fast-forward to 2013, by which time Braid and The Walking Dead actually have been released, along with a handful of other equally complex games, and we still judge games based on what they were back in the day, rather than taking into account the full spectrum of what games can be.
We judge games nowadays by comparing them to games back then, and for totally arbitrary reasons. Games back then had scores, so a game has to have scores. Games back then had fighting, so a game has to have fighting. Games back then had no story, so a game has to have no story. Games back then had no serious aspirations, so a game has to have no serious aspirations. Games back then had explicit objectives, so a game has to have explicit objectives. You're smart. I think you can see where this is going.
And then technology marched on and game design marched on, and we got a peek at that spectrum of things, and we threw the Fit to End All Fits. We had games that skirted the line but didn’t really, because it was all in our heads. Are you so sure that Proteus, for instance, isn’t a video game?
Proteus received a lot of criticism for not fitting in with traditional video games.
I would like to disagree. Proteus is definitely a game. So what if it doesn’t have a win state? You want to know a game that doesn’t have a win state? Tag. If Tag were released on gaming devices today, they’d call it an app. If Proteus isn't a game, then neither is Donkey Kong Country, and that’s the most by-the-book platformer I've ever played.
In fact, if Proteus isn’t a game then maybe neither is anything. I mean, think about it. We know what a traditional game is, and it’s something we’ve been getting farther and farther away from for years. Can you see the connection between Splinter Cell and Mancala? Games, sorry, video games have been developing their own conventions for ages now, and the end result is something that would boggle the mind of a strictly “traditional” gamer, and routinely has.
Even without drawing from the Golden Age, many of us have an intuitive sense of what a video game is, even if we can't put our collective finger on it. Whats the one thing these very, definitely games have in common?
...Actually, tough question. If we put games in a specific genre together, we're bound to find a few shared tropes here and there, but if we had to draw similarities from all games across all genres, even the "non-games" in question, what does that leave us? Not very much. In fact, the only thing you can say all these games have in common is that they're all interactive and that they all run on computer hardware of some shape or size. Which is sort of vague, until you realize that it's supposed to be that way.
This is the part where you say "No, it's not." Go on, say it!
See, this is why we have our criteria set up wrong. We're overcomplicating things. Before I can demonstrate why, we have to make a few assumptions. First of all, let's say that, for all intents and purposes, video games are an artistic medium. In reality, this is a pretty divisive topic, and there are many that would argue that the answers aren't clear-cut, but let's just say "Yes" for now. It'll make the rest of this easier to understand.
Now, what sets all mediums apart? Chiefly, the means by which it gets its message across. Literature uses the printed word. Film uses film. Theatre uses the stage. The fine arts use anything that can be painted or drawn on or used to sculpt something. Radio uses radio waves. Video games use computers.
But wait a minute. Film use computers too, nowadays, even if not primarily, and so does literature to an extent. But that's okay, because even similar mediums can be told apart by some small but crucial quirk or difference. Animation is different from cinematography because the images are created by hand as opposed to photographed. Graphic novels differ from regular novels in that they use images as their primary means of communication. A video game’s quirk is that it is interactive.
So, formally speaking, that would mean that “video games” are a medium that is based in computer hardware and that uses interactivity as a primary means of conveying a narrative or communicating ideas to the player, whether that idea is the meaning of life or just plain fun.
But couldn’t something fit under this definition and not be an actual game? Yes! Precisely! Has it ever occurred that maybe we’re using the wrong word? Has it ever occurred to you that maybe we haven’t been making games so much as we’ve been using them as a starting point?
It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. In its early days, film used to ape theater even more than we ape them. It was easy really. They shared a lot in common in terms of format, about as much as we would share with traditional games. And finding a medium to draw inspiration from (assuming that medium is compatible of course) gave both film and games a stable groundwork from which they could develop and experiment while they slowly came into their own. In a sense, they were training mediums.
(Funny thought: there were probably a few folks here and there in the old days that considered film to be nothing more than a kind of recorded theatre.)
And even after a medium has spread its wings and taken off, it may still hold on to a piece or two of its predecessor, as they share enough formal similarities for some details to work both ways. Movies still use scripts because they just fit, even though the practice has been altered from playwriting to fit their style. Likewise, it happens that the “game with rules” is a great lens through which to focus our ideas because rules are so strongly tied to the way we interact with things. And video games are all about interacting with things. (although despite this, it can sometimes become a constraint if you put making the game a "game" before making it any good.)
Does any of this mean anything? Absolutely. It opens up a world of new "maybes."
Maybe we don't have to be totally "gamey" to make a great game.
Maybe the reason the juxtaposition of gameplay and story feels so inelegant is that one of them isn't definite as it seems.
Maybe rules aren't as inherently "video-game" a feature as we thought they were. I mean, a games has rules, yes, but so does an office building.
Maybe games don't need to be "games" to be good games.
Maybe there are situations where not thinking about games as "games" is your best option from a design perspective.
Maybe the reason immersive sims work so well without an emphasis on gameplay is that they never needed traditional gameplay to begin with.
Maybe these "non-games" won't seem so strange in hindsight.
And maybe, free from the restraints that come with need to make something as gamelike as possible, we can make better games.
Maybe games are games. Maybe games aren't games. What matters is whether, some 50 years from now, people will still use that word to describe them. But it won't be easy to figure out what a game is, and until we do, there's nothing wrong with calling them games for, you know, practical reasons. It's for the best. I'm okay with that.
Edit: So if we were to come up with a more accurate name for our medium, what do you think it would be? Sound off in the comments below.