Editorial: What Game?

This is Blendo Games during their cubist period. Scoff scoff guffaw.
Great way of opening a game or GREATEST way of opening a game?

Meets and greets, Lusipurreaders!

The most recent Humble Weekly Sale featured a veritable treasure trove of awesome, largely because the one-man indie studio Blendo Games specializes in the visceral and surreal. Whether players save math, grammar, and geography from the boxing octopus Jazz Hans in Air Forte or discover the sordid past of elite policymakers (one of whom is a gun-wielding dictator in an iron lung) while fighting off a Zombie invasion in Atom Zombie Smasher, I would dare them to forget the experience. One of the most unique experiences in the bundle is found in Thirty Flights of Loving, a dreamlike visual journey into the story of a heist gone wrong which lasts approximately twenty minutes. The other interesting element of Thirty Flights is that, by certain measures, there is no literal game to speak of.

In this realm it has good company. “Games” like Dear Esther and To the Moon made similar splashes in the gaming press and even helped inspire awesome awesomeness. They generally get placed under the subheading of “Art Games,” which are games “designed to emphasize art or whose structure is intended to produce some kind of reaction in its audience.” This is a definition which suits them particularly well; Thirty Flights has a structure (its narrative is nonlinear to the point of almost being stream-of-consciousness) intended to produce a reaction, in that case curiosity or confusion. Yet even within the field of Art Games, which tends to include platforming games such as Braid, Thirty Flights and Dear Esther are spartan in their content of actual game mechanics. This begs us to ask whether or not we can even speak of them as “games” if there is no literal “game” to speak of.

If Dear Esther is a puzzle, it's one of those puzzles that makes you want to give up on life and tend gardens in France.
In Dear Esther, Cave-Moon eye looks at you!

Thirty Flights of Loving, Dear Esther, and To the Moon have no losing conditions. The one gunfight in Thirty Flights descends into a cacophonous dance of music with, I shit not, birds and spy cameras. Birds and freaking spy cameras! To the Moon includes some puzzles, but never a chance to lose. The player simply retries the puzzle or waddles about the stages looking for the right context point until they manage to progress. I am reminded of a definition I heard floating about the internet regarding the differences between toys, puzzles, and games. Toys end when I stop playing with them and walk away. Puzzles end when I either complete them or walk away. Games end when I either win, lose, or walk away. According to this definition, Thirty Flights and Dear Esther are more accurately referred to as “puzzles,” a description I find somewhat apt, yet somewhat unsatisfactory as well.

Certainly they are puzzles in the sense that they are problems with solutions that immediately escape us. Time and attention needs to be invested into them before we can feel as though we scratch the surface. At the same time, however, puzzles are things that are solved; to paraphrase the aforementioned definition, I either walk away or I solve the puzzle. Thirty Flights and its ilk are not objects that ever feel solved or completed. They are objects that feel experienced. They often use gameplay mechanics -dialogue boxes, first person perspective, level design- to pass along an experience or story without allowing that experience to become diluted by a strict adherence to the “Win/Lose” or “High Score” requirements of most video games. For those of us who view computer games as an interactive medium, Art Games like Thirty Flights and To the Moon are the purest form of an interactive narrative because they lack the trappings we usually associate with games.

First note: return to early Playstation 1 era/late SNES graphical sensibility.
School is in session!

Despite their lack of gameplay, it is important to consider Art Games like Thirty Flights as important contributions to the larger gaming community. These Art Games often push against the boundaries of what we might consider as acceptable stories for games, a boundary which should not even be in existence. Or, as is the case in Thirty Flights, they encourage us to look at a typical game storyline (Heist!) from a different point of interest (Sure, there is a heist, but what is going on with the relationship between these bad guys?). They also show developers methods of developing narrative tricks for their own AAA titles. Brendon Chung, the developer behind Thirty Flights, made a point of using the game to develop techniques for telling stories without relying on text or voiceover. His success can be measured by PC Gamer hailing Thirty Flights as a game which “tells a better story in 13 minutes than most games do in 13 hours.” As a reminder, this was accomplished without a single word of legible dialogue. Bioware, Square-Enix: take notes.

So what about you, dear readers? Have you ever played a game which made you shudder every time you called it a game? Or has my thinly-veiled attempt to out-pretentious Ethan fallen flat on its face? If you have any friends who enjoy talking about games in which there is very little player development or virtually no real exploration beyond the high-minded pompous plot being given, encourage them to join the discussion! That is right- we even accept Final Fantasy XIII fans. If you manage to recruit the most readers to our fold, and they cite you as the reason for their joining, you can win a game of your choice. Whether or not you decide to share that game with the aforementioned friends is your decision.

5 comments

  1. Weird lines of distinction begin to be drawn when we say what is or isn’t a game. I’d say something like a crossword puzzle is a kind of game, which is to say that puzzles are a kind of game. It’s very broad and brings to mind the odd arguments of what is or isn’t a “sport”.

    What I feel is a more interesting discussion, if you will, is the use of “art” in the term “Art Game”. Are all games (and all types of games) art? Surely things can only be or not be art, and nothing can be “more art” than something else. It is my position that indeed all games are art. I view it as an art to create a game, and that games can be appreciated as such by the player.

  2. @Mel – Sorry for the wait on a response, I’ve been a bit under the weather lately.

    I agree it’s a weird distinction to be thrown around. I’m still not entirely comfortable with the (generally) accepted definition that labels games like The Sims as toys, or at the very least not games. The same logic (that The Sims isn’t a game because it fails to have an end objective or winning condition) could be applied to early versions of Minecraft, and I would personally duel anyone who tries to take the “game” label from that crack dungeon of addictive awesomeness. That all being said, I find it to be a fascinating discussion nonetheless, because it generally reveals so much about the assumptions of the developers or academics who debate it.

    On the whole I’d agree with your definition of Art- game design is certainly an art form, though there are always distinctions to be drawn between meaningful artistic decisions and superficial ones. I suppose that’s why I enjoy the clarification of “Art Games;” typically speaking, they tend to be games that are far more experimental and novel than most (key word there) mainstream games, in the same way that while all films are artistic, Arthouse films tend to be just a bit moreso. In my mind, you are far more likely to find meaningful design decisions in Art Games than you are in Mainstream AAA titles.

  3. I’m responding to you while I have Minecraft open, so that should tell you something. lol

    there are always distinctions to be drawn between meaningful artistic decisions and superficial ones
    I can agree to that. But I’m also wary to discredit certain things with words like “superficial”. But I’m ALSO kinda of the mind that it doesn’t matter what I dismiss, because it’s only my opinion. And, much to the Internet’s chagrin, opinions don’t validate or invalidate other opinions.

  4. “And, much to the Internet’s chagrin, opinions don’t validate or invalidate other opinions.”

    You know who also believed that? Hitler.

  5. I didn’t know Hitler knew about the internet. lol

    But in seriousness, I was speaking to the topic of artistic appreciation where no right or wrong answers exist.

Comments are closed.