O Videogame, What Art Thou?

This article is about why I don’t play much videogames nowadays (and haven’t do so in the past five years), despite being a videogame designer myself. It took me a while to figure out why even well-made videogames didn’t seem to light my fire any more, but I think it has to do with what I see videogames as being and as not being – if you’ll permit me to explain…

Tennis for Two is considered to be one of the first ever videogames. The striking thing about watching the video of it being played below is how it’s not actually a game. It doesn’t keep track of a score and so this videogame has no concept of winning or losing; calling it a game would be like calling a tennis racket a game. You can certainly play a game with it (tennis… anyone?), but the tennis racket, as an artifact, isn’t a game. Tennis for Two, I would call a toy myself.

It’s interesting to think about one of the first ever videogames not actually being a game, particularly in light of the criticism videogames such as Dear Esther receive that imply that a videogame not being a game somehow makes it a bad videogame – or not even a videogame at all! Videogames are NOT games – not exclusively anyway. We already have videogames like Tennis for Two that are toys and not games, and there are other examples like The Sims and Electroplankton.

I’ve talked about two categories of videogames so far: games and toys, but there are also videogames that are hybrids of the two. In GTA, you can do the missions – the game part – or you can play in the world – the toy part. The player can of course choose to just play around during the missions, but their clearly about winning or losing the designer’s little game. Okay, that’s fairly straightforward, but then what the heck is this?!

Well… I guess we’d call La La Land 3 an art game, but which of the two categories does it go in? Is it a game that is about winning or losing? Or is it a toy that is about playing around with and potentially making your own games with? Well it’s neither, and I think that’s why I so enjoyed the La La Land games (of which there are five) when I played them about eight years ago. I would describe La La Land 3 as a “directed” videogame. The author intends a very particular experience for the player, it isn’t about the player’s cloud of choices as in a game videogame or a toy videogame – you’re going down the designer’s road here.

There are hybrids of directed and game videogames too. Examples of game videogames with directed bits would be Metal Gear Solid 3’s the ladder “boss” and the very… many… scripted sequences in big budget videogames.

The final apparent category of videogame that I’d like to talk about is “narrative” videogames. I don’t think of the videogame as a form of storytelling. They can certainly have stories IN them, as in The Darkness where you can watch an entire movie on a TV inside the world, although story “bits” is usually what you get, in the form of cut-scenes or text, as in Super Mario Galaxy’s Storybook. The evolution of this is supposed to be “interactive storytelling”, which is famously espoused by the legendary designer Chris Crawford. I think that even if we had really smart A.I. and drama managers, the experience of playing an interactive storytelling videogame still wouldn’t be storytelling. Having a dramatically rich conversation with a videogame character isn’t any more like storytelling than shooting a videogame character in the head is. Interactive storytelling is an oxymoron: once something is interactive, you’re not being told a story, otherwise you’d have to call having a heated argument with someone in real-life “interactive storytelling”. And if the idea of the game is to generate stories for others (a la The Movies), then it’s just a toy videogame to be used for storytelling, and interactive storytelling is as redundant a term here as “interactive game”, which people use when they seem to mean “digital” game.

I think the reason I’m not much interested in playing videogames these days is that I’m tired of game videogames, which make up most of the quality videogames being produced. It would be cool to have more toy and directed videogames, but what would be really interesting to me are videogames that don’t simply have these game-toy-directed knobs set to either zero or eleven at any one time. Something like Little Inferno is an example of this, which does a reasonable job of subtly straddling between the three categories (except at the end). It’s harder to make good videogames like these, and I’m not sure how much of an appetite there is among players for them. But there are a whole lot of people out there who aren’t interested, or who have lost interest, in games or toys, who we might be able to appeal to with these more nebulous videogames – they would certainly get me back into videogames!

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