Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The difference between games and non-games

Right around the time game of the year announcements started appearing, a small discussion took place about the validity of the awards. This isn’t anything new; debates about whether a game is worthy of the title game of the year happen every year, and most of it is subjective. But this time it wasn’t a debate about whether the titles should be called game of the year, it was whether they should be called a game.

The argument centered mostly around The Walking Dead and Journey, claiming that while their interactive elements drew the player in, their moment-to-moment mechanics were hollow. The question of whether The Walking Dead is a game at all boggles my mind, as it follows nearly the same mechanics and idiosyncrasies as most adventure games including Day of the Tentacle and the Monkey Island series. The player is still clicking on various items in their inventory, talking to other characters, and solving puzzles to progress. Adding player choice doesn’t make The Walking Dead less of a game, it becomes a more compelling and interesting game.

Journey, while more abstract than The Walking Dead, still follows suit in its ability to challenge the player in both platforming and puzzles. There technically isn’t any fail-state or game over screen, but that doesn’t devalue the experience of playing through the title alone, or the excitement when encountering another player over a sand dune.

The same argument popped up when Dear Esther released last February. Many reviews considered using the term game when describing it, and even I questioned its reach as a game. But the further I am from playing Dear Esther, the more I appreciate what it was doing.

Proteus, an independent game from developer Ed Key, releases this week and already disputed if it is a game. In Proteus, players explore an island made up of pixels, discovering its wildlife, land, and reach. Like Dear Esther, there is no goal or objective, leaving players to create their own narrative through their own ambition. When an article about Proteus appeared on Rock, Paper Shotgun, the first comment read, “not a game.”

The debate comes up repeatedly because titles like these are starting to outgrow the term game. Despite their vast differences, and whether considered games or non-games, they share a similar characteristic that appears in all games: Pacing. The highs and lows of a game give it its pacing, and the player’s drive to keep playing. Whether through gameplay, narrative, or puzzles, these elements either give players a break in action or exposition, or ratchet up the intensity and excitement.

Like games, music adheres to pacing to create a sense of excitement or relaxation. Often there are times in a piece of music where silence is just as important as the musical notes played. No piece of music exemplifies this more than 4:33. It takes the idea of the pauses and breaks in a song and extends them to the entire piece, creating a unique sound no matter where or when performed. Chris Plante of makes a great point: These games, The Walking Dead, Journey, Dear Esther, and Proteus, aren’t about what is happening on the screen or what the player is doing with the controller or mouse, it’s about what’s happening inside the player’s mind.

We’re at a point where we shouldn’t be asking if something is a game or non-game. Instead we should be asking, what should we call them next?

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