Unlike my previous post, wherein I discussed what essentially amounts to a subgenre, the question presented here seeks to define an entire medium. Gaming has become a dominant force in entertainment and media as a whole, but it is still emerging as an art form. As it emerges, developers have created works that don’t lend themselves to traditional understandings of the medium. This has caused strife in the gaming community, raising the question of what we consider “games” to be.
Some say that games require certain characteristics, generally defined by games of the past. Criteria like objectives, fail states, agency, and choices tend to be the factors that separate a “game” from “something else entirely.” Some even say that games have to be “fun,” or at least trying to be fun, which is problematically subjective. This rigid formula allows the gaming community to clearly separate works that fit their tastes to works that sit outside it. It eliminates several important works, but since they’re not “games,” they’re irrelevant.
Others take a much broader approach, wherein nearly everything is a “game.” Many pundits use the term “interactive experience,” which is intentionally broad. Their opinion is that trying to rigidly define a “game” is meaningless, since what matters is the content, and not how we define it. In their sense, even life can be considered a “game,” which in certain philosophical contexts, makes a lot of sense. Here, “interactive experiences” are merely a part of other media, leaving the term open to include several items not traditionally considered “games.”
I find both of these approaches problematic. Rigid formulation excludes several important works merely because they don’t check off certain criteria, while the loose “interactive experience” terminology is too broad to be practically useful. It’s hard to come up with a concrete definition since there are many ways games engage us, and thus many things to consider when trying to figure out whether a work is a “game.” All I’m looking for right now is a definition that will cover most of what is out there and to try to find the most important elements, if only to serve as a starting point as to whether something is a game.
It’s easy to look at traditional games and see what separates them from other media. Mario, Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, and Angry Birds are all interactive, have somewhat clear goals, have fail states, and follow an engagement arc, of sorts. So where does something like Gone Home fit in, which strips away several of these elements? Gone Home has goals, but no real fail state, but is interactive. However, it doesn’t have traditional mechanics to speak of, other than those of a point-and-click adventure (which are considered games). It’s a compelling story, but other media tell stories too. There’s no one element that makes Gone Home a “game” in my mind, but you can tell that the developers intended it to be a game, playing with certain game tropes (mainly survival horror and mystery) and providing agency in certain parts. I have no problem calling Gone Home a game.
But what about titles that strip away even more? Dear Esther is basically a walking simulator, putting you in a first-person perspective in a world where you walk around while a narrator tells you a cryptic story. Unlike Gone Home, your only interaction is where you go, and the story unfolds as you go to different areas. In a sense, it has the similar engagement as a book–you choose when to turn the page, just as you choose when to walk somewhere else. I have a harder time considering Dear Esther a game, mainly because it lacks meaningful agency. It’s also unclear what the developers intended here, whether to merely tell a story or to try to provide some semblance of agency. In a sense, it reminds me of a subgenre that also has its difficulties with definitions: visual novels.
Visual novels are titles that tell a story using a graphical interface, similar to traditional video games. You read text, sometimes voiced, and follow a story. Often, the story branches, giving you perspectives from multiple characters or giving you a crucial choice that can change how the story unfolds. Some visual novels even include traditional gameplay, such as a JRPG battle system or adventure-like puzzles. Notable examples include Katawa Shoujo, Phoenix Wright, Clannad, 999, and Virtue’s Last Reward.
Visual novels are more comfortable shedding the definition of “game,” willing to define their own medium because of their clear differences. The term “visual novel” is defined enough that the additional term of “game” is not necessary, though it may be appropriate at times. I personally consider visual novels to be games, mainly because they often include branching storylines or some level of player agency.
There are, however, some visual novels that offer you no choices and no meaningful interaction. These are called “kinetic novels,” and play basically like movies, except you have to progress the text. Narcissu and Juniper’s Knot are two excellent examples. By taking away agency, they manage to create excellent stories and are worthwhile works. However, this is a subgenre that I don’t feel are games, especially since “visual novel” or “kinetic novel” fit them more appropriately.
Given the number of above-mentioned titles that defy conventional definition, it is easy to see how difficult defining the term “game” can be. To me, it comes down to two main criteria: agency and presentation. Agency is crucial for games, as the primary difference between games and other media. But agency isn’t enough, as most computer programs have agency. This is where the presentation comes in. Developers create works with certain intentions in mind of how their audience will experience those works. Works that present themselves more as “games” as opposed to other media are more likely to be “games” under my definition. This of course requires a prior definition of games, but I think we can look to more traditional titles for guidance here. Clearly, Final Fantasy is a game, so a work that takes elements from Final Fantasy (such as mechanics) will tip the scale toward being a game. What makes Phoenix Wright a game and Juniper’s Knot a visual novel has as much to do with how Phoenix Wright holds itself out as a puzzle-adventure work and Juniper’s Knot holds itself out more as a short story.
It’s very much an “I’ll know it when I see it” definition, and while it’s not the most rigid of definitions, it doesn’t have to be that rigid. The point here is not to make lists of things that we do or do not allow into our little “game” club, but more to have an idea of what to expect when we pick up a work. If I pick up Gone Home hearing it’s a game, I have an idea that there is some level of agency. When I see Narcissu as a visual novel, there are certain expectations as well. When a new work comes up, whether it is a “game” or not has little to do with the quality of the work or whether you should consume it, but more to give a general idea of what to expect.
So we’ve looked at different media, but I still wonder why people are so vehement about the definition of their preferred media. At some point, I’m going to look into how we identify with our media, and how changing definitions can be considered an attack on our identity. But that may take a while, so for the next post, a new topic.