Play Me a Story
When video games aren't video "games"on February 6, 2014 at 8:00 am
Interactivity does not make a game.
The definition of a “video game” is broad by standards such as Wikipedia’s
an electronic game that involves human interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device.
But those of us who have grown up with the medium tend to define games more by their mechanics and challenges, rather than narratives. In the olden days, plot was conferred by still images and a few paragraphs (at most) at the start of a game. Without it, solid and understandable gameplay was still required. It was a challenge, and the story was a mere framing device.
We’re obviously well past that stage now, with multi-million dollar productions that are more akin to movies than Tetris. So perhaps a new distinction is needed. Maybe we call them “Interactive Fiction”, “Digital Stories”, or another term some marketing geniuses may find more appropriate.
We’ve hit a point where there are a lot of “games” coming out that aren’t really games. They are focused on telling stories – engaging the player’s emotions and interest – without mechanical challenges and resistance.
These things masquerade as games. They have character models and worlds built for those character models to move around in. They were programmed and tested. They look like the games we play, but they aren’t… because there’s no “game”.
This lack of distinction never really bothered me until titles like “Gone Home” and “The Walking Dead” started bubbling up and garnering praise as “games”. Loved for their storytelling abilities, seldom criticized for their lack of actual gameplay. Nominated and award-winning in a field where they don’t really belong.
Not that I have anything against these types of experiences. When they’re well done, I think they can be a great alternative to other forms of entertainment. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking they’re pushing the boundaries of what people perceive video games to be, because they’re something else entirely.
Let me plop down some examples to explain myself a little better.
First, there is Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” game, which actually IS a video game… but SHOULDN’T be.
One question: Did anyone actually enjoy the rudimentary shooting sections or QTE events in the game?
No, because they were terrible.
Instead of just sticking to what “The Walking Dead” does best – decision making and storytelling – Telltale decided it would be a good idea to add gameplay elements. Awesome. But they weren’t committed to actually making the game. They were committed to telling the story and threw in random interactive bits because they thought it would make people happy, for whatever reason.
Instead, those sections did nothing but cause pointless frustration for the player. They came out of nowhere; most people probably lost the first time they were encountered, then they were repeated. Because repeating something stupid and clunky is always a fun design element.
“Hey, I know you’ve been doing nothing but meandering around and listening to dialogue, but here is a shooting segment. Surprise! I know it’s what you’ve been waiting for this whole time!”
…no. It did nothing but bog down the experience.
Interactive fiction like “The Walking Dead” shouldn’t feel obligated to include bits of actual gameplay. They should just embrace what they are: interactive stories. A digital medium where you have a chance to be a little more immersed, a little more involved with what’s going on. Trying to force it to be a game just ruins that.
I guess now is the time to talk about everyone’s favorite Master of the QTE, David Cage. I’m not going to bad mouth him, though I don’t really jive with his view of how video games should be. But I do think that his games would actually be better received, and that people would cut him a lot more slack, if he just took out the QTEs. Focus on the story, not on a design element no one cares for.
People looking to play a game don’t like QTEs and people looking to enjoy a story would also prefer they weren’t getting in the way. So, I have to ask, why have them there to begin with? What is their purpose, other than being able to call anything they’re in a “game” in the very loosest sense?