What Defines a Video Game?
By Frank Hartnett on October 15th, 2013 (7 comments)
This is a phenomenon that really became more vocal with Telltale's The Walking Dead. With the release and critical reception of Gone Home, however, these voices have become louder and more numerous. These games have been called “walking simulators”, “interactive movies”, and something that “isn't actually a game”. All of this does raise a very interesting question: what exactly is a video game? If Dear Esther, Gone Home, and The Wolf Among Us aren't games, then what exactly are these sudden, new guidelines that people like referencing?
First, I'd like to dispel the “interactive movie” argument that gets flung around quite a bit. Apparently, these people seem to forget that most video games follow a linear path. The same events will always occur to the same characters no matter how many times a game gets replayed. Sure, there might be slight changes like some dude falling in a different spot or a bit of blood splatter being on a different surface, but is that shallow detail really the defining point between game and movie? If everything always happens in a linear fashion to the same characters in the same locations with no player influence over the outcome, is that not an “interactive movie”? This argument doesn't work because most video games would easily fit into this definition.
Let's be honest, a game that has a major focus on narrative does not change the fact it is a video game. Yes, even Dear Esther, a game where all you do is walk around while someone narrates, is a video game. If you can interact with the characters or environments in some way through your controller/mouse and keyboard, then it is a video game. Sure, the degree of interactivity will vary wildly, but games don't have some strict guideline for how much player input is required. There isn't some grand overlord carefully monitoring each and every project to ensure the player has a high degree of control. Some games give the player large amounts of freedom, others will not. This does not change the definition of what is and is not a game.
(Minor spoilers to Gone Home in this paragraph) So now we come to the real heart of the issue. The simple truth is that people will look at games like Gone Home or The Walking Dead, see the huge critical acclaim, and then wonder “What's the big deal?” They play these games and all the hype comes crashing down on them. They were expecting more and, perhaps, this leads to a feeling of disappointment. Some people can appreciate these styles of games for what they are, whether or not they enjoyed them, while others will feel cheated. They'll spend $20 on Gone Home and feel frustrated that “all they do” is walk around a house and read notes. They wanted something “gamey” to happen. They wanted to find a ghost or a monster of some kind. They wanted that sense of excitement or fear of being chased by a lurking monstrosity, but all they got was an empty house.
Gamers have become so focused on the supernatural, the surreal, and the ability to shoot some fools in Calladooty that they'll dismiss anything else. They seem to forget that some of the more memorable movies, shows, or books are actually about normal human beings dealing with very human issues. That's really the motivation behind this argument. Some people may genuinely feel as if something like Gone Home isn't a game, but most others taking up that call will only do so simply because they didn't like it. In the age of snarky internet critics, this is the only way some people can express their dislike of a product. Rather than shrug their shoulders and move on or bring genuine criticism, they'll fly to the keyboard and type up some sarcastic quip about walking sims and sit there with a smug grin. That's the kind of culture this has become and, frankly, it needs to stop.
Frank (Seisan) is a blog contributor and chat moderator over at 4Player. He specializes in analyzing the story telling, immersion, and consistency aspects of video games and also enjoys writing Fiction in his spare time. His favorite genres are RPGs, MMOs, and RTS'. Frank also specializes in having a chat name no one can pronounce correctly; nicknamed Seesaw as a result.
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