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Guest Post: What Is A Game?

A miserable little pile of secrets.

Ask yourself, if you will; what is a game?

I suppose you could see the question from any number of angles, any number of interpretations.  You could view it mechanically – a typical game involves an actor, maybe several, multiple mechanics, parameters.  You could take each individual aspect of a game and put a magnifying glass to it.  Or you could take it at its most literal definition; something to be played.

Just to set the record straight here, I’m talking about video games.  And that, if nothing else, is entirely the point.

I-is this a game? It never asked for this...

Certain modern video games focus heavily on turning games into somewhat “cinematic” experiences.  This is by no means a bad thing, as such; but it can certainly embolden the “video” whilst taking away from the “game”.  Take the opening hours of Final Fantasy XIII, for example – the gameplay mainly entails watching cut scenes, running down similar, corridor-pathed zones and hammering the action button in order to complete the battles.  The sequence is repeated with little deviation.  The JRPG genre has steadily grown to become known for this particular push of cinematics over gameplay.  The common tropes of the genre seemingly evolved to such an extent that they became the genre itself, in a kind of stereotypical evil-final-JRPG-boss kind of way.  This has diminished the value of the genre in many peoples’ eyes; whereas the focus was often placed heavily on the story, the story has taken centre-stage and supplanted the actual game itself through a never-ending array of non-interactive cut scenes.  Compare FFXIII with the beginning of Final Fantasy VI, for contrast, and you find that there is more variety in the combat, and…well, little that could be considered a cinematic.

It’s all about “flash”.  Schmaltz.  You start to hear of games with “Triple A Blockbuster Production”.  Videogames are becoming burdened with the tropes of Hollywood.


For instance: more and more games these days are attracting an orchestral soundtrack, the sort you’d find in your typical movie.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with this; many games are worthy of such a soundtrack, in many cases it fits.  But in a particular few games of late, there have been heavy orchestral soundtracks and overblown OSTs where there really shouldn’t have been – where it doesn’t quite fit the situation.  Fallout 3 is a good example – often times, the largely epic soundtrack sounds out-of-place, not quite providing the kind of ambience that should have been provided.  Compared with the original two Fallout games’ soundtracks, the Zimmer-esque OST of FO3 gets blown out of the water.  This is all fairly amusing, considering Bethesda’s sheer dedication on attempting to “immerse the player”.

However, it’s more than just visual and auditory influences.  Even the way the player is treated in games could be considered an attempt to ‘Hollywoodize’ the product.  In many of the more recent Call of Duty games, for example, the experience is heavily scripted; you are instructed to follow your AI companions, you are supposed to stay back until you are told, you are sometimes even penalised for firing upon an enemy before you are explicitly commanded to, or for entering an area before you are allowed; you are essentially a pawn being played in a fairly complex, but inorganic, repeating, chess set.  Compare this again with the original Fallout games, where you could literally head anywhere as soon as the game began – and you’ll begin to see how backwards things are heading compared to many influential games released 12 years ago and prior.

Yes, if you hadn't guessed by now, I like Fallout.

One viable argument that can be made is that the heavy push on visuals over all else has limited what can be done in the games we play.  This is certainly true in many respects – graphics for mainstream games are far more complex than they were 10 or 20 years ago.  The limits are certainly apparent when you view modern independent games.  Look at Minecraft, with its simplistic blocky voxels; you can restructure the landscape, build magnificent fortresses, destroy everything you see.  It could be argued that it isn’t truly a game however, that it’s simply a glorified sandbox, virtual lego – a toy.  There’s also Terraria, which whilst being similar to the aforementioned Minecraft, is on a two-dimensional plane and focuses more on an actual game-like structure of progression, with aims to improve your equipment, face gradually harder enemies, meet NPCs that serve various purposes and so on.  I also want to mention Dwarf Fortress, with its chaotically complex game mechanics and the mad, sprawling worlds and tales that result from them; these are all games with a big focus on random generation of content; from the world, to the quests, to the names and attitudes of NPCs.  Very few big budget games would be willing to gamble on such a title, from either a graphics perspective or one of gameplay mechanics.

Of course, there’s the obvious parallel – many games are physically attempting to become little more than “interactive movies”.  Games such as Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire can hardly be considered ‘games’, in many respects.  It brings to mind the recent release of the visual novel, Katawa Shoujo, and the vehement arguments of its faithful that it is most definitely a game.  Visual novels are similar to “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, where you’re given a selection of choices on how to progress and you flip to the page that corresponds to the choice you have made.  The Heavy Rains and L.A. Noires are very much film’s equivalent – you’re given a movie with various different paths, choices to make, and the consequences that are made of them.  But do you truly ‘play’ these titles?  They’re something to be watched, or read, with your own personal input and guidance (within the limits given to you).  Do you ‘play’ a movie if you choose to watch an alternate ending, instead of the original one?

Never does a day go by where I do not ask myself the same question.

In the end, it is both a difficult and a simple question to answer.  Modern games are continually getting mired in an effort to Hollywoodize them, often tied to stereotypes and convention, whether it’s that of film or the sub-genre itself.  This in turn is transforming many would-be games into interactive slide shows – pretty to look at, but not very involving, or utterly homogenized.  But having recently immersed myself in the sheer wonder that is Xenoblade Chronicles, I’ve noticed quite the opposite case than that of the previously mentioned Final Fantasy XIII – the focus is quite heavy on the gameplay indeed.  This is not to say that there is a lack of cut scenes; far from it, for there are several hours worth of cinematics.  But the story, the gameplay, the music, the voice acting – everything is absolutely spot on.  Monolith Soft, the developers, had pledged to put less of an impetus upon the cut scenes after seeing how Xenosaga had turned out in the end, aiming to provide a much more involving experience – and they achieved this.  And with new games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dark Souls being released, we’ve surely not seen the end of innovation and daring in AAA products that are brought out.

So, all is not lost.  It just seems as if many developers are in need of being reminded what a game actually is.

Matt is an oft' confused fellow, splitting his time between two drastically different lives - that of playing games all day for money and playing games all night for sheer entertainment. Being a fan of virtual entertainment ever since the moment he could first grasp a joystick, he has enjoyed a broad spectrum of games, from Battletoads to Grandia, from Soul Calibur to Zool.

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