Suddenly, a wild Evergreen Sage Mage appears!
Imagine you are watching a film, and at a climactic point of the film, it stops and makes you to play a little game, let’s say a version of Breakout, before you can return to watching. Wouldn’t it be a bit jarring? But, perhaps it’s for the better of the world, where the game you are playing is one that is crowd-sourcing solutions to a genetic puzzle that will ultimately lead to some discovery about a previously uncontainable disease. Yes, you are helping humanity, but you will most likely still find the situation a bit uncomfortable. You came to watch a movie, not break bricks, or fiddle with genetic puzzles. But is it such a bad thing, to subvert expectations? Well, I had just such an experience where my expectations were clearly being messed with, but it was not while watching a movie. It was in playing a game, only to be jarringly interrupted by what felt like a different game…
Floaty joy simulator
When I first played Journey, I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into. I heard it was “cool” and lots of people “liked it”, or whatever. I wanted to experience it for myself though before making any judgments. To my surprise it was an incredibly chill experience. I was jumping, floating, and gliding and sliding in the sunset, without a care in the world. I remember thinking this game is just something else. I didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t what I expected. I started to really get into it. I was playing around with an online companion, making odd noises in the game, trying to see how far I could glide on the wind, and it felt like, well, more like a vacation, a vacation from the stresses of playing a difficult game.
That is until the shark monster things entered around the ¾ mark of the game. Suddenly, I was hiding and trying not to die. While skulking in the shadows, avoiding the death-shark’s spotlight, I felt mildly outraged. “How can these game designers do this to me!?” I pleaded with my dog Scrappy. They were giving me this amazing new experience only to yank it away. “This is – this is like a game game now!” The shark part only ended up being a brief moment to remind you that they could have made it a more “hardcore” game. The little scare jolted me into appreciating Journey’s uniqueness even more. How this game played with my expectations was masterfully done, but had they chosen to limit themselves to a specific game design theory I doubt that this amazing experience would have been created.
Were you mashing buttons trying to skip this, or madly taking notes for your upcoming fan-fic that was gonna blow everybody’s minds?
Let’s take a look at another example of managing expectations, but from the design perspective. This example concerns an element popularized by JRPG’s of the 90’s, one to do with little videos inserted into games to bolster the stories and reward play. Yes, the famous (or infamous) cut-scene! I’ve heard a few times from the design scene that the addition of cut-scenes, those short bits of fictiony non-interactivity, to video games is something that violates what a game is. The argument might read something like this: “Games as a medium are unique because of their interactivity, and the more a game’s design leans on its strength, the better it is. Therefore, games with cut-scenes are worse than games without them.” Some video games don’t even have any dialogue, relying on the game’s setting to cue the player as to what’s going on. That is, they use what is called “environmental storytelling”, like Hyper Light Drifter.
Wait, what was I supposed to do?
Of course, there are other sides to the argument. Others argue that trying to determine what is allowed or not allowed in a game, based on a rather conservative theory, constricts the medium. In a landmark piece on Gamasutra, game designer and director of NYU’s Game Center, Frank Lantz, strongly voices his opinion on game design theory, writing, “I love thinking about games, analyzing them, arguing about them, theorizing about them, but for me theory is always second to practice.” He continues, “Theories can’t tell you what games are good. The world tells you what games are good. Your heart tells you what games are good. Then theories come to help us appreciate the things we love even more deeply…” His view is that theories shouldn’t be used to limit a game’s design, but to retrospectively gain a deeper understanding and appreciation about why we enjoyed a game so much.
The cut-scene example parallels a point I hope to make for those of us who love to play games: we are limiting our appreciation for many video games by creating arbitrary expectations of what video games ought to be, all the while not knowing what they really are. Much like how limiting the design toolkit to only pre-approved tools limits creativity, by limiting ourselves to enjoying only “real games”, or seeing games in only one way, it’s us who ultimately lose out. Not only do we limit what kinds of interactive experiences we let into our lives, many of us don’t realize that what we love about video games isn’t that they are games in a classic sense, but that they, in many ways, aren’t.
Yeah, but is it, half-priced?
Eons ago, in internet time, there was a debate in the gamer-verse bemoaning certain games as not even being games, and are basically a waste of money. Two of the most disparaged games were Proteus and Dear Esther. The loudest and most obnoxious gamers labeled them “walking simulators”, to debase them as something below the highly-prized title of ‘capital G’, Game. However, as much as you or I might want to punch them in the face, there is something true to their argument, at least from from the academic realm of games studies. Another game designer/academic/super cool dude, Jesper Juul, while explaining in his book half-real (2005) what video games are, also sets out to define what a classic game is.
What classic games, or “real games” are, is within what sorta looks like a cross-section of an orange (or mangosteen? 😉 Yum! ). In each slice of the mangosteen are the elements required to make a game a game. Then, within the ghost cantaloupe that isn’t quite a cantaloupe, are what he calls “borderline cases”, games that aren’t quite games. Finally, just outside the apparitional melon are other non-game things. Whereas the annoyingly entitled minority of gamers were making a value judgement, this isn’t Juul’s goal. He is trying to come up with a way to appreciate games more deeply, a la Lantz. He actually has an excellent talk about this very subject, if you want more. If you don’t want to watch this talk, suffice it to say that he explains why it’s fruitful (ha, get it?) to try to define what a game is, and isn’t, while also acknowledging that certain “games”, not fitting into his definition of classic game, should be treated as games nonetheless. That is, by treating them as such, he is saying they are valuable and definitely worthwhile.
Case in point, I recently played the “game” Islands: Non-places, by Carl Burton. This is easily one of the most surreal and ontologically ticklish experiences I’ve played on my computer. It doesn’t have any win states, or timers, nor does it require any skill. You just click on lights for the most part and see what happens. It’s an abstract experience that ceremoniously (and gently) flipped my expectations on their head… over and over again. The sound design was particularly outstanding as well in its creation of that reflective mood within me. Somehow it felt classy, creative and cool, all at the same time. Like a good drink, …but with less alliteration. Because alliteration isn’t very classy, now is it?
Truth be told, I had this game in my Steam library, unplayed, for longer than I care to admit. It was only at a time in the late afternoon intersecting when I was procrastinating from doing my work at home, the same day I was really trying to manage my time away from using my cell phone, and at a rare moment when my wife decided to take a nap, that I was moved to boot it up for the first time. As you now know, I loved it, and… I totally don’t think it’s a game (in the classic sense). Built upon an albeit short history of video games, designers like Carl Burton and many others are experimenting with leaving behind or only sparingly using game mechanics to craft new, engaging and beautiful experiences.
As much as I love classic games, they are not the only future of video games, they appear to be merely the beginning of something else. This “something else”, whatever it is that’s not a game, but valuable, is something you already know and love. It’s not just the so-called “experimental”, or “art games”. Many of the games we play aren’t games by Juul’s (and others’) definition, they are either borderline cases, or beyond. The revolution has already happened, right under our noses. That’s akin to the apocalypse having already happened and you not knowing it.
A walk in the park, except with guns and mutants and stuff
Take Fallout 3, for another example. Not a game, or not exactly a game. It has gaming elements, yes, but it –or most of it – is in fact a “walking simulator” (I actually love Fallout 3 and am now using “walking simulator” a bit more endearingly here). The place you are walking in is more of a hostile environment than say the pretty, colorful delights that a Proteus player might be engaging with. Fallout 3 is more of an open-ended simulation with added-on game elements (such as dying and respawning) than the opposite. Every so often you are pitted in a mini-game of ‘choose the right dialogue’, or are subjected to just plain old story (non-interactive stuff), but then, thankfully, you are again left to do whatever your radiated heart desires in a simulated post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Fallout 3 & 4, and even Skyrim feel more like virtual worlds than they do actual classic games, as they lack at any given moment clear goals and some other slices of mangosteen from the classic game model. From this vantage, Skyrim is more closely associated with going to a theme park than playing more sporty video games like Tekken 7, League of Legends, or Destiny 2’s multi-player mode.
Aside from making us confused about pretty much everything, all of this begs the question, “If it’s not a game in the classical sense, then what is it?” There are theories out there, but I think before we dig into those, it’s important first to honestly grapple with the issue of what games are, or aren’t. Juul’s book is a great start for designers and players alike. It’s title, half-real, comes from the approach that video games are half made of real rules and half made of fictional worlds. For many video games this definition fits well, but I want you to at least consider that many other of these experiences we have been perhaps referring to as our favorite “games” aren’t even half real, not even half games; they are somehow more.
Mangosteen, half mango, half – umm- steen?
The Evergreen Sage Mage is whispered among the forested glades by his other name, Wakalapi, and he’s a veritable cheesypuff of ludology, a teacher, instructor, and all-around excellent and personable fellow. If he can get his time-machine to function properly, his caffeinated work will stand the test of time at wakalapi.wordpress.com.
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