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?
The different nuances and endings could all be experienced without QTEs. If you want to build an entertainment device that lets players experience a narrative and have their choices matter, you can do that without QTEs. If you don’t, then you need to make an actual game. QTEs are a lazy and throwaway approach to game design and all games would be better without them.
Really, it isn’t like these types of non-game games haven’t been floating around for some time. Simulators are often debated as to whether or not they’re games, and we also have point n’ click adventures and visual novels. Where do these all fit in?
Not to dig too deep into this mess, but simulators and point n’ clicks are variable. Honestly, it just depends on how they’re designed. Some are far more gamey than others. I don’t want to dwell on these too much, because these do really play jump rope with the line between game and non-game.
I do want to talk about visual novels, though, because they share a lot of similarities with the things I’ve already discussed in this article. They’re almost entirely about the story being told and put a heavy emphasis on choice making. They’re about experiencing a story and having it turn out YOUR way.
Some people may say, “Well, THAT’S the game. How you react to situations and achieving different outcomes is your goal.”
I don’t think that’s right.
Making simple choices to alter the story or to get different endings isn’t a game. If you finished a story, that’s it, you’ve finished. It’s over. There is no winning or losing, which is the most important part of the definition of a game.
“But discovering all of the different endings is the point of those games.”
The point of story driven experiences is to tell a story using YOUR influence. To have you lead the story down a path and give you a semi-unique conclusion. One that will differ from many people. The point isn’t to collect all of the endings like some deranged sociopath that keeps teeth in a jar. That’s forcing the visual novel to BECOME a game. Something it really isn’t.
That would be like me saying a bag of Skittles is a game. “Well, if the last five Skittles in the bag don’t consist of one of each flavor, then I’ve lost Skittles.” Just because you’ve turned eating Skittles into a game, doesn’t mean it is one. It’s just a bag of Skittles, meant to be enjoyed by your tastebuds. You’re putting arbitrary, and weird, stipulations on your time with them.
Visual novels are, essentially, “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, and no one thinks these kinds of books are games, so why are visual novels said to be them?
Let’s take this in another direction.
Say you had a board that accompanied a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. Everywhere you could go in the book was illustrated by this board and you moved pieces around to illustrate everything and to make things a little more colorful. Would you call that a board game, then?
If you would, you’re wrong. It’s not a board game. It’s just a book with a board. There is no game. That’s the same thing that’s going on in the digital realm. We’re given all of this art and color and code, but it’s not a game. Just because you can interact with something in a digital format doesn’t mean that you’re playing a game.
“The Walking Dead” and “Heavy Rain” ARE video games, yes; but at their core, they’re visual novels with bits of game design tacked on, which weakens them.
Finally, let’s talk about “Gone Home”.
This 2013 critical darling was showered with all sorts of kind words and unconditional love. It’s an interesting experience and can feel extremely personal at times. It has just one glaring issue… it’s not a game.
“Gone Home” is an experience about uncovering a story. You walk around a house, look at stuff, and… that’s about it. You can’t lose, there are no enemies, and there is nothing to challenge you. How much you get out of it depends on how curious you are; how much you like poking around.
Take away the setting, take away the story, and all you’re left with is a piece of programming where you can interact with objects. No one would ever call that a game, so why is it suddenly billed as one? I mean, that’s on the same level of simplicity as the “games” on the Magnavox Odyssey, and that was a console where you had to put plastic overlays on your TV to act as the graphics.
I’m not trying to discredit what “Gone Home” accomplishes or what it represents. I think it’s a fascinating work of art, but it’s not a game. We shouldn’t be giving it praise as one.
With a recent video parody of “Gone Home” mocking people who want it to be more gamey, it seems like I’m jumping on the bandwagon here. But I’ve always felt this way about it. The difference is that I think it’s good that “Gone Home” isn’t a game.
See, the use of the phrase “Video Games” is already outdated. It represents an era of our hobby that was a lot more juvenile and primitive. Yes, these are games played on a video screen, but people still associate that term with things that kids play or things that are time-wasters. The don’t associate it with art. I don’t want to get into the whole discussion about games being art, they are, but there are certainly different levels of art that an interactive medium can achieve.
Any sort of interactive art that you’re trying to create is ruined by the player. Artists have a vision in mind of what emotions they want people to experience, but playing a game and having fun tends to mask that. Letting the player do whatever they want and do it at their own leisure can destroy the pace of a story being told or can sour a mood by the player engaging in silly spurts of malarkey.
The art is still there, it just might not be what the creators wanted you to experience.
“Gone Home”, and software like it, doesn’t run into that issue. It comes in under the length of a movie, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and uses interactivity to immerse you into the world and story. Yes, you can screw around a bit, but every piece of that house tells a part of the story. This is your family home, so picking up objects is like reminiscing about them and reliving memories.
Because there is no game; because there is no ghoulish figure chasing you or abilities to learn or a game over screen, you can relax and enjoy the narrative that you’re being presented.
“Gone Home” would be worse as a video game, and I’m glad that it isn’t. But, I’m not happy that people still refer to it as one. Yes, it was born out of the video game medium, but it’s beyond what games are.
Well, maybe “beyond” is too strong a word. It’s… evolved into something different. It looks like a video game and you interact with it like a video game, but there is no game to play. It’s interactive entertainment and it wants to tell you a story, but there is nothing to win or lose.
Interactive Fiction like “Gone Home” or games like “The Walking Dead”, sans the poor gaming elements, can show people that interactive entertainment is a worthy artform to pursue and partake in.
Yes, I know I’m being incredibly pedantic here. It sounds like I’m being overly picky and snobby, with just a touch of elitism, but I promise that isn’t my intention.
It’s not like calling these things video games is causing any problems, right? At least, none that are obvious.
See, as time marches on and this medium continues to expand, different experiences are naturally going to emerge. Video games are just one form of digital interactivity. At first, they were the ONLY thing, but people changing what it means to interact with something and not everything they’re making is a video game. Their roots are in games, but the actual content they’re creating is something else.
I’m sure in the Way Back When, people just thought of movies like they were theater performances without the live performance. They both involve actors and actresses putting on a show, but they’re two entirely different things. Evidenced by the fact that we have separate awards for both. We have the Tony Awards for musicals and stage shows and we have the Academy Awards for film.
So, why do we include things like “Gone Home” with video games? When are we going to let these things be different and not confined by the, frankly, limiting label of “Video Games”. There may not be enough of Interactive Fiction to create an entire awards show, but we should start putting them in their own category. Why can’t we have our Game of the Year and our Interactive Fiction of the Year?
I think these things are different enough that the separation is starting to become necessary.
I want people to love video games, yes, but there’s still a stigma. I don’t find video games childish, but there are lots of people who still view it as a waste of time. Interactive Fiction like “Gone Home” or games like “The Walking Dead”, sans the poor gaming elements, can show people that interactive entertainment is a worthy artform to pursue and partake in. It may even be a gateway to more game-like experiences. A way to introduce people to the world of gaming, through something that consumes far less time and is far less demanding.
I don’t think that calling “Gone Home”, and other non-games, “games” is doing them any favors. Because this is our hobby, we’re all in the know. We anticipate these titles and hear about them through our favorite sites. But, in order for this medium to continue to grow, it needs to reach more people. It needs to show that it can be more than what people already perceive it to be. Labeling this software something closer to what it actually is may just spur up interest from people not normally inclined use it.
Let these things break free from the shackles of the “Video Game” label, and let them forge their own path as something different. Inspired by games, but striving to make a divergent product that has a totally different appeal.
We need to start treating these things like they deserve to be treated. Not as games, but as something different. Not better or worse, just different.