No, wait… Come back…. I haven’t totally lost the plot. Whilst I’d be the first to admit that I’m currently exhausted, befuddled and just generally massively fucking discombobulated thanks to my new status as a Puppy(/limitless ball of destructive energy) owner – the answer to that question isn’t necessarily as obvious as it might appear. Or, more accurately, perhaps the answer’s slightly more subtle than a simple ‘something you play, you big, daft bastard!’ or whatever it was you responded to my question with!
I mean, on its most basic level, that’s correct, obviously, but even then, what constitutes “playing”; is there a minimum requirement of “play” or interactivity needed, is just pressing a button now and then enough, or does a proper game require something else too? Does there have to be a challenge, choices, a risk of death, a narrative progression, a narrative conclusion, even – or is simply pressing a button occasionally sufficient to gain inclusion in the ‘Game’ category? Indeed, has the definition changed recently, thanks to casual games, mobile games, Indie Games, so-called walking simulators, or are there certain immutable, immovable core elements that will always determine what is a “game” and what isn’t?
It’s an interesting question, and I certainly think we have seen some lines become a bit more blurry recently. Traditionally, games were considered ‘active’ media, and this was something that set it apart from films, TV and books, which were considered ‘passive’. So far, that’s simple enough, right!? A film requires little-to-no involvement on our part, and if we’re at the cinema, that film’s going to reach a conclusion regardless of whether we actually do anything or not! A game’s likely to require some degree of input from us – and if we fall asleep whilst playing it, it’s highly unlikely we’ll wake up to find the end credits scrolling on-screen (and if that does happen, BTW, I’d recommend you get the fuck out of there asap). Again, that seems pretty clear cut: if you press buttons, it’s a game! So far, so good.
But let’s forget film, and focus instead on books, and immediately some of those distinctions disappear – most obviously, you do actually need to move the story on with books, and in the age of kindles and such, that might actually involve pressing a button. ‘Ah’, I hear you cry ‘but we don’t have any involvement or impact on the narrative in books – it’s already written, numbnuts!’. Fair enough, young padawan, but consider the following comparison: Telltale Games games and Choose Your Own Adventure Books.
Back when I was a nipper, CYO Adventure books were quite popular, but for the benefit of you young ‘uns, they were stories where you could choose one of several courses of action, and, given the highly advanced tech of the time, would then turn to a particular page depending on what that was. You would then effectively be involved in, and have an impact upon, the narrative (within reason, obviously), and your choices would have (at least the appearance of) a cascading effect as you continued the story, choosing yet more courses of action. Now, take The Walking Dead games and, in a very real sense, it’s the same mechanic, and it plays out in a similar (albeit hugely advanced) way. Basically, you makez your choices, you livez with the consequences – and you move the story on not by choosing a page, but by choosing the button corresponding to your choice. There might be considerably more options – and variations of options – but a few free-play ‘action scenes’ apart – you’re basically working within a large, but finite set of parameters – i.e. there’s little you could do that the game doesn’t let you do.
Are CYO Adventure Books games therefore, and are The Walking Dead Games books? Of course not, but they’re examples of where the lines get closer together – and it is, I think, a part of the reason why Telltale titles are an example of games that get pooh-poohed as “not proper games”. They’re dismissed – even though they’re definitely interactive, and they’re definitely not passive – because they lack a serious element of Risk or Challenge. The LEGO titles are another example of games that are sometimes subjected to ‘not proper games’ type scorn (even though there’s definitely a lot of button pressing involved – a full-on fuckload of it in fact) and again, such criticism mainly arises because they’re relatively easy. In the case of LEGO Jurassic Park, for example, it’s basically impossible to die, and when you do, there’s almost zero consequence from it. I mean, granted, you’d have to be a really, really shit Gamer not to be capable of completing a Lego title, I’ll admit that – but does that mean they’re not proper games?
For the record, I absolutely think the Lego and The Walking Dead games are proper games, but let’s consider the challenge/risk aspects anyway, because it’s the kind of thing that’s frequently cited by people looking to exclude all manner of games from the “proper game” category. On the face of it, it’s a fairly coherent point; afterall, if you basically can’t fail to reach the end of a game (Lego), and particularly if your involvement is a button press/decision here or there (TWD) – you’re not a million miles away from a passive experience like watching a film, right, and it’s certainly closer to an Adventure Book than, say, Battlefield is!? Afterall, if there’s no skill involved moving the narrative on, no real consequences to not figuring a particular boss or section out, then you’re essentially just turning virtual pages, much like you’d turn actual pages in a book, no!?
Again, superficially, that seems reasonably fair, but right away I’d argue that the ideas of “Risk” and “Skill” are tricky ones to pin down anyway. Sure, completing a CoD game (for example) requires a lot more skill than completing a Lego one, given that you can die, and death usually has a cost, but – crucially – that cost’s only really ever a step back to your last saved checkpoint. And in most modern games, you’ve essentially got an infinite number of respawns anyway, so yes, you have to pass that particular section – by skill, or judgement, or blind luck – but the risk of not doing so, the consequences of failure, is only ever that you have to try it again. As somebody who grew up in the time before memory cards/hard drives, and when losing your last life meant starting all over a-fucking-gain, I have to admit I find some of the No skill involved/No Real Consequence stuff hilarious. Like, ‘Dude, until you’ve lost 6 hours of progress and are back at a Title Screen, you can take your ‘Risk/Challenge’ stuff and shove it up your arse!’.
Indeed, nowadays, there are only a handful of titles I’ve failed to complete because they’re too hard (walking away because they’re a load of old shite is a different matter) although some have taken me a long (long) time, admittedly. I am, by my own admission, pretty fucking shit, but the only game I’ve ‘failed’ in the recent past is Ori and The Blind Forest, so really, this idea of skill/risk seems flimsy at best, right!? Even in the toughest, fastest, most frenetic FPS, you’re given endless opportunity to pass a particular bit, and crucially, you’re given the luxury of figuring it out incrementally until you’ve cracked the sequence of bad guys, or buttons you need to press, or whatever. In fact, following the Challenge/Risk argument to its logical conclusion, shouldn’t only games that feature permanent death be considered “proper games” using that criteria? And almost nobody would argue that! So, if most games have limited “Risk”, and if the “Skill” needed to complete it can be a result of just figuring it out over a bajillion attempts, isn’t the Risk/Skill thing distinctly less of a big deal – all things considered!?
That’s all as clear as mud, eh!? Anyway, let’s say you’re with me so far, and that we can dismiss the Risk/Challenge thing, and let’s just decide that the core element of a “game” is interactivity – i.e. that you have to proactively do stuff. That seems fair enough, right? I mean, on the most basic level, that’s what all games have in common – and whether you have to interact a lot or a little to progress, you do have to interact! Sure, in some games that interactivity is minimal, but as a general rule, interaction works as a core definition for games, right! That’d bring both The Walking Dead and Lego games back into the fold, so let’s go with it and call it a win. There’s no judgement here – anything you have to proactively join in with is a game. Boom! Job done. Thankyouverymuch. *Drops Mic*, etc, etc.
But…… Hang on a minute! Is Google Earth/Street View a game? When you plan a journey on Street View, when you look to see how you get from the train station to your hotel – when your interactions very literally move you along a virtual path – are you playing a very realistic walking simulator? When VR becomes more common and there’ll be virtual tours of galleries, stadia etc, and when we have to interact within them to move ourselves forwards, will those be games too? By our definition, they have to be, right!? Guys??
If you just answered no to that, there’s a chance it might be because – either consciously or subconsciously – the lack of a narrative tipped you in that direction. Again, that seems conclusive – if there’s no narrative, no impetus to get from a to b, it’s just an interactive tool, surely!? In the absence of a narrative, interactivity in and of itself doesn’t automatically equal game, and any fool knows that, James, ya big fucking eejit! Again, that’s compelling, but consider multiplayer: when you’re playing multiplayer maps, when you’re just shooting the shit out of people, free of narrative constraints, aren’t you still playing a game!? And then there’s Fifa – there’s no narrative there, but nearly everybody would say that you were playing a Video Game when asked to describe your actions. They’re interactive, there’s no narrative, but they’re still games, so why the hell isn’t Google Earth?
Those of you who are still reading at this point (well done, seriously, and many thanks!) might now be starting to see where I’m coming from with the whole ‘what makes a Game a Game’ thing – and why I suggested it might not be a simple answer. Essentially, I’m always banging on about how great games are, but it occurred to me that I don’t even really know how to define what is a game, and what isn’t! It also occurred to me that I’ve done exactly the kind of dismissive, “they’re not proper games” thing myself – even as I’ve been berating others for doing it. I even wrote a piece about The Order: 1886 being more of an interactive movie than a game, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve responded to invitations to play Facebook games with an “I’m busy playing a proper game, thank you very much”.
And that’s the other thing; it just gets more and more complicated as more and more ‘games’ flood the market, and on a plethora of platforms. Mobile games are interactive, sure, but the Saga/Narrative bit of your Candy Crush Sagas is laughable, but yet there are better handheld games that are less interactive, but with a considerably better narrative. Are they all games, is one a mobile game and the other an interactive story? Do we need to start affixing prefixes such as ‘mobile’, just to keep things clear?
As you can see, I’ve chuntered on at some length about this, but failed to reach a satisfactory answer. As you can also see, I’m genuinely quite confused by it all too (I’d like to blame the puppy for that, but confused is basically my default state). Do you have a strict definition of what a proper game is – do you make distinctions based on difficulty, length, level of interactivity? Let me know what you think in the comments because – to be perfectly fucking honest – I think I could probably use some help……