Media Definitions and Identity, Part III: What is a game?

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.

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Media Definitions and Identity, Part II: What is an anime?

Anime sits in a particularly odd situation. It’s one of the few media that is itself a subset of a greater medium (animation) but is broad enough to have its own fanbase. Like the JRPG, it is also one of the few media that emerged simultaneously with similar media around the world. As such, anime has unique tropes, settings, conventions, and styles that define it as “anime.”

But recently, as media goes global, the term “anime” is not as clear as it once was. This is causing consternation among fans, who are finding themselves either strapped with works they don’t consider part of their culture or having works they like not quite fit everyone’s definition. Glass Reflection covered this topic, and while I generally agree with him, I think there is a bit more nuance to the issue. Let’s look at some of the major arguments by anime fans and see what definition emerges.

One warning: I realize that in Japan, all animation is called “anime” (or “animeshon”). This is strictly considering the North American English definition of the term and the cultural issues inherent therein.

First, we have what I call the “Origin” definition. The Origin definition states that an anime is simply an animation made in Japan. Some add on other qualifiers, such as being intended for Japanese audiences, but the general idea is that what we call “anime” must have some connection to the Land of the Rising Sun. This was a great definition 20 years ago, before North American animation studios started to take influence from anime, and, indeed, anime was not nearly as popular. However, now that anime is global, this Origin definition has some problems. An American studio could easily buy out a Japanese studio and move them to Texas; if they make a show in Texas with Funimation voice actors, is it still an anime? Conversely, if Disney opens a studio in Tokyo, are the animations coming out of there “anime”?

Arkada in the video supra likes this definition, stating at least that however we define “anime”, there needs to be some word that defines Japanese-origin animation. I find this compelling, but not convincing. There’s no question of Japan’s influence on the medium, but in today’s global media world, while recognizing the origin, tropes, and cultural significance of media is important, limiting other works that may more closely match these Japanese works but are made elsewhere seems to miss the point.

The other major definition is what I call the “Style” definition. Here, an “anime” is defined by the stylistic elements from which earlier anime were defined. Ignoring the circular argument therein, the point is that if a work looks like what we previously called “anime,” then it’s an anime. There’s an implication here that the genre has already existed, and that we are merely adding to it wherever works are made.

Despite its inherent circularity, I find this compelling because it reflects reality. Anime did start in Japan, and certain tropes, art styles, and conventions arose from it. There is a group of works that, up until the 1980s, we can call “anime” regardless of Style or Origin definition. As such, when other, later works take elements from these earlier works, we can call them “anime” based on the styles that are used in those works.

There are three shows that come to mind that reinvigorated this debate: RWBY, Teen Titans, and Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt. RWBY is an American show made with clearly Japanese art style–if you didn’t know better, you would think it was made in Japan. It clearly fails the Origin definition but passes the Style definition. Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt is a Japanese show that is made with a style somewhere between Powerpuff Girls and South Park, two American shows. It eschews several typical Japanese cultural tropes. It passes the Origin definition but fails the Style definition. Teen Titans is an American superhero show that take elements from anime, but not as many as RWBY. It has an American animation style, but uses certain Japanese tropes to be just a bit different than other American shows. It fails the Origin definition, but the Style definition is unclear here, leaving Teen Titans in sort of a murky space.

Given that the Origin and Style definitions cannot clearly encompass all modern works, I propose a third definition: the “Authorial Intent” definition. The idea here is that whether something should be considered an anime should encompass origin, style, and how much the creators of the show intended the show to be “anime.” It’s an admittedly murky, subjective test, but I feel it can encompass most of what fans would consider “anime” to be while remaining flexible enough to deal with works not considered by the other two definitions.

For example, it’s clear that RWBY is intended to be an anime. Everything about its style screams “anime,” and the only mark against it is where it was created. Origin be damned, it’s an anime. Similarly, Teen Titans is not an anime. It’s a superhero show that pays homage to anime, but it remains rooted enough in traditional American animation to leave it out. The creators clearly did not want to create an anime, just an American animation with anime influence.

Then we have Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt. I think this is an anime under the “Authorial Intent” definition. Similar to Teen Titans, it’s a Japanese show with American influences. However, the show still maintains a level of anime qualities, and while there’s not much that distinctly screams “this is Japanese!”, it maintains enough Japanese tropes and themes to lean toward anime. In a sense, it’s the least “anime” anime I’ve seen, and I can easily understand why this show would not, under my definition, be an anime.

While going through the hard cases and ever-changing definitions, the question still remains: why do we care so much about how we define “anime”? I think it’s because anime is so uniquely different than North American animation, and we want to identify with those differences. Anime does things that American animation cannot, and we want to easily find shows that will line up with our understanding of “anime.” This is why I like the Authorial Intent definition: it’s a recursively circular definition, allowing us to use the past as a flexible definition for future works. It recognizes the Japanese nature of the past while allowing other countries to use those influences to create similar works. These unique features are what attract us to anime, and it is why we are so concerned about a proper definition.

Part III will consider “What is a Game?”, a topic that is a bit harder to grasp seems to be much more heated.

Media Definitions and Identity, Part I: Why It Matters

In the past few months, a question has arisen among gamers: what is a game? In particular, the popularity of Gone Home, a first-person adventure title, has given gamers a kind of identity crisis. Gone Home tells a story, but has little to no traditional game mechanics. Many major game journalists have praised Gone Home, calling it one of the greatest games of 2013. However, people have questioned whether Gone Home is a game at all, usually leading to snarky comments in reviews along the line of “LOL this is not a game, why r u reveiwing it” or similar attitudes.

Gone Home is clearly the catalyst of this, but the question of “what is a game” has been brought up before. Extra Credits takes a very broad approach, noting that even life is a game, in a sense. Game/Show is less convinced, describing two arguments on whether the definition of “game” truly matters. In a similar vein, Glass Reflection considers the question of “what is an anime?” For the record, you should watch all three of their channels, as they are all excellent commentators and have great insight into their respective media.

I plan to discuss what I consider to be a “game” or an “anime” in later posts, but there’s a bigger question here: why does it matter? Or rather, does it matter at all? Is there a point in using certain words to define a medium that naturally changes over time, and at what point do we have to decide as fans to redefine words that define what we love? As someone who is both an engineer (who favors pragmatism) and a lawyer (who understands the power of words and how we define them), I truly believe that this is not a pointless exercise; the words we use to define the media we love have value, and what those words encompass is a legitimate concern.

Defining our media serves several purposes. First, it provides a common understanding among fans. If I say that I am a fan of “games,” does that mean I should be familiar with Gone Home? Or Katawa Shoujo? Depending on the definition, the answers to those questions may be very different. A common definition provides the scope of the conversation, and can eliminate confusion among fans.

Also, it builds an identity among fans. At some point, I’ll address this in more detail in another post, but to put it simply, I believe that “identity” serves as one of the most important motivators for our actions. This extends outside of media (see My Big Fat Greek Wedding), but fans of media in particular require great stability in what their favored media are. Identity is powerful, and recognizing the power of identity explains much of the motivation of why gamers are so concerned about whether Gone Home is a “game.”

There is, however, one major flaw in trying to pin down a singular definition for media: language changes over time. Words take on new meanings; this is how languages evolve. What we call a “game” or an “anime” will naturally change based on location, culture, time, and other linguistic quirks. As technology changes, language changes as well: e.g., the word “application” (or “app”) has a significantly different meaning now than it did in 2005. As such, we can’t get too attached to a singular meaning to a term, and we have to allow the term to adapt. Furthermore, when the term does adapt, we have to recognize that adaptation and spread that common adaptation accordingly. There is no point in a conversation where the participants speak past one another because they start from two completely different understandings of the situation (read: whether Michigan should have a pro-style or spread offense). The difficulty is, of course, in how widespread the term adapts, and the difficulty of changing our understanding of terms is, in many ways, the crux of this debate.

So yes, defining our media matters, and how the definitions change is important as well. It provides insight into why we love our media and how those media define our self-worth and identity. This is not a conversation to dismiss, and this is not a discussion that has one clear solution. However, this is not a navel-gazing moment that ends up without an answer. We can’t just say “it is whatever you want it to be,” because that’s a cheap copout that denies the reality of the situation. Words matter, definitions matter, and there are real world consequences to how we define what it is we love. But we can’t deny that the world changes around us, and as something arises to challenge our predetermined definitions, we have to reconsider what our definitions encompass. Our definitions can be flexible enough to encompass new additions while still remaining clear enough to provide a meaningful idea of what we like. Stay tuned for my specific definitions of certain media (spoilers: Gone Home is a game, and RWBY is an anime).

Parallel Story Lines

I’ve always liked a good villain. Characters like Kuja from FFIX, Seymour from FFX, and Maxie/Archie from Pokemon Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire add depth to their respective games and make overcoming those villains much more satisfying. Playing through Omega Ruby has gotten me thinking about some of my favorite villains, and one in particular comes to mind. Not so much in the villain himself (who is kinda bland) but in how the game incorporated the villain into the main story.

The game is Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits. While not a particularly good game (though its battle system is a better version of grid-based SRPGs), it takes an interesting approach for its story. Every few hours, you switch between the heroes, lead by a plucky knight named Kharg and trying to do hero-like stuff, and the set of primary antagonists, demons lead by a pseudo-revolutionary named Darc. Each party gets several characters to join them, and while they eventually form a single party, most of the game is spent seeing the protagonists and the antagonists rally to beat the other.

This is interesting because Darc and Kharg are clearly set up for a confrontation, and the mechanics reinforce this through the parallel story line. The entire game is about two divergent peoples (humans and demons) and their struggle for dominance. Seeing how the respective champions for these two people arise is compelling, and the game is stronger for it. Simply telling us how Darc arose to be the hero of the demons is typical, but having us play as Darc throws the hero/villain distinction for a loop. As cheesy as it sounds, when the hero and villain come together to take on the true villain, it feels natural and unforced.

While not unique (seeĀ Suikoden III and Chrono Cross), the idea of parallel story lines is remarkable enough to notice. Even villains that get a lot of characterization, such as Vayne from FFXII, are still relegated to passive viewing by the player. Given that we spend so much time with the protagonists, having a villain be in your control, even for a short while, can make for a very compelling video game story. My biggest problem with villains has been that they tend to be one-dimensionally evil or evil-because-we-say-so, so having a moment to help the villain do villain-type stuff adds a lot of depth.

I would really like to play Seymour’s story in Final Fantasy X. His story is tragic, but somewhat mirrors that of Tidus and Yuna, at least in the fact that they both take pilgrimages. The gameplay would be relatively similar, but you’d be able to see the evolution of his ideals, which ultimately form how he became the awesome villain that he is. His motivations, while present in the main story, are often hidden in extra cutscenes not required to progress. Also, the scenes showing his motivations are often out of context, and it takes some piecing together to see why Seymour wants to do his villainy. For such an excellent character that is well developed, it seems perfect for some sort of actual gameplay.

Never Alone – Do Flaws Matter?

Never Alone, an indie puzzle-platformer by Upper One Games, presents an interesting dilemma to me. On one hand, its clunky mechanics and interrupting side commentary take me out of the engagement, and its difficulty spike is a little unforgiving. Furthermore, it’s very direct about its message and intent, with the subtlety of an anvil. On the other hand, it’s a compelling story and an insight into a culture relatively unknown to most audiences. The interruptions make sense in context, and as an entire work, it overshadows the flaws in the game. My question: can I overlook clear mechanical and game design failures when the cultural insights are so interesting?

Let me back up a bit. Never Alone tell the tale of a girl (Nuna) and her Arctic fox. Nuna is a member of the Inyupiaq tribe in Northern Alaska. The game is essentially a classic folk tale of the Inyupiaq mixed in with short documentary-style interviews explaining how Inyupiaq culture influenced certain parts of the game. The game acts almost as a short documentary of the Inyupiaq tribe, and while other games have taken influences from other cultures, Never Alone clearly intends to show this tribe to the world.

What irks me, though, is how they weave in the cultural elements into the game. Every so often, you will unlock a short, 1-2 minute video generally relating to the Inyupiaq tribe, often relating to whatever game mission or mechanic you are dealing with. For example, in one part, you have to retrieve a drum, and a clip unlocks explaining the importance of the traditional drum in various Alaskan tribes.

The thing is, the clip unlocks immediately, and instead of going to another menu or waiting until you leave the game, you can press a button and open the clip and watch it during gameplay. The game pauses, and you watch the video. It’s quite jarring to break out of the rhythm of the game to watch a video clip, and getting a rhythm back in the game is not always easy.

While it is optional to watch these clips, the fact that they give you the option to watch them immediately indicates to me that they want you to take a moment and watch them. That they really want you stop and see that “hey, this stuff actually exists and has existed for thousands of years.” It’s an interesting move, one that flies in the face of game design, but one that works. In the sense that Never Alone is a mini documentary on the Inyupiaq tribe, as played out by the player, it does a fantastic job.

However, the gameplay is pretty terrible. It’s a platformer, and the jumping mechanics are quite sluggish. You get a lot of leeway to catch the sides of platforms, but the minute you have to do several actions quickly or have to avoid obstacles, this sluggishness turns into several deaths. Fortunately, it checkpoints every few seconds or so, so you don’t have to do much over, but it’s still frustrating. Add in the fact that you have to control two characters, either through co-op or by switching one at a time, and it just falls apart as a standalone game.

Now, several games have terrible gameplay and awesome stories, but I still can’t figure out whether I like or hate the interrupting video clips. I generally don’t like immersion-breaking elements, but the cultural insights here really add to the overall message of the game. I hated having to break every few minutes, but I liked the content of each video. I even want to go back and find some of the videos I missed.

It’s frustrating because this would be the new Braid or Journey if it cleaned up its gameplay. I have to wonder if the goal to inform the world about the Inyupiaq meant that less time was spent on the gameplay itself. I’m really struggling with whether I can forgive the flaws in the gameplay given that the story and cultural insights are so fantastic.

All I can say is this: this game is worth playing. Not at $15, but during the next Steam or PSN sale, pick it up for $10 or less. It’s worth learning about this interesting tribe, and I really hope similar projects like this arise in the future. Hopefully, they’ll learn from the gameplay mistakes of Never Alone and we can have a truly amazing game.