Few questions in the discussion of videogames are more slippery than, ‘What is a game?’ Many have attempted to nail down a definition that’s specific enough to be useful, while also being broad enough to be able accommodate the many forms that exist. but eventually, inevitably, every definition is met with a ‘game’ that tests its boundaries.
Until recently, there were a few attributes that seemed so fundamental to what a game is that they appeared unquestionable: choice, interaction, challenge, and an emphasis on systems. essentially, something to do.
But what if a game had no challenges? What if it prioritised audiovisual aesthetics over deep or complex mechanics? What if there was nothing to do but move across a map? Is that still a videogame?
Many traditional definitions would imply that it isn’t. Even an inclusive one such as Sid Meier’s “a series of interesting choices” would seem hard pressed to count such software as a videogame. Yet several developers have recently begun to challenge these most fundamental of assumptions about what a game requires to be effective. They have crafted beautiful titles that, when played, undoubtedly feel like games, even as they struggle to fit within any preexisting definition. These games – some by intention and some by happenstance – push at the boundaries of not only what videogames are, but what they can be.
Thatgamecompany’s Journey, Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus, thechineseroom’s Dear Esther: all these titles challenge the most basic assumptions of what a game is by doing away with any kind of challenge or conflict, and instead focusing almost exclusively on the player’s movement through a world. Each differs greatly in tone, atmosphere and style, but the task for the player in all of them is, ultimately, to walk from a starting point to a finishing point. None pose any kind of real hindrance to progression, and of the three only Journey has even the simplest of puzzles.
Each game is entirely minimalist in its interactive design, and at first glance, all lack many of the elements we have come to believe a game ‘needs’. Yet after playing them, you would struggle to argue they aren’t games. So how do they still manage to feel like games? And what does that mean for the future of the medium?
The fictional world in which a game takes place is often seen as merely a backdrop for the player’s actions. But in Dear Esther, Journey and Proteus, the world is brought to the fore.Tthe pleasure they offer comes primarily, in some cases exclusively, from exploring and moving through virtual worlds.
“When we started developing Journey, we knew the intent of the experience was to make you feel small in relation to the world around you,” says thatgamecompany’s co-founder and president, Kellee Santiago. “The desert environment was a really great place to evoke that feeling, because it’s such a vast and violent environment.”
But more than the environment itself, how the player can and can’t navigate it is paramount to their experience. “There are times in Journey when you walk very, very slowly through it, and then sometimes you can run super fast. We wanted to tune all of that to find a balance between these two states, where the player just takes it all in through a more contemplative mindset.”
While Journey does also allow for a few more traditional game movements, such as jumping, both Dear Esther and Proteus lock the player into a slow walk for the duration of the game, almost requiring you to take in the world around you. For thechineseroom’s creative director and Dear Esther’s writer Dan Pinchbeck, this type of game is less about enforced walking and more about emphasising what he calls ‘downtime’.
“When all the stimulus [of combat and puzzles] drops away,” he says, “something fills that space and it’s usually the player thinking about stuff, reflecting on stuff. these quiet patches can give a massive boost to the type of emotional complexity that a game can [create].”
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