While writing Annoying Game Mechanics I always wonder about the nature of gameplay, what makes a Game what it is? What must it have to be a game? As interactive media, interaction is the most important. It’s what separates the genre from the others.
Having said so, perhaps the question is meaningful interaction, as in how much you affect the game’s outcome. Is that why some people don’t see certain games as being games, or call them barely-games?
I used to be one, I admit it, but then I realised how shortsighted that was, how the familiarity of complex mechanics was making me shun simpler ones, and how disrespectful that was to previous generations of games and developers. After all, the first video games had simple mechanics. Take Pong, it was just two paddles. Then came Zork and other text adventures, the only thing you did was type in choices, the same way you now select them in the current trend of choice-based gameplay.
As games evolve we should judge their worth based on the entire experience, and not its component parts. To the Moon and A Bird Story are the extreme of simplicity but they offer heartwarming or heartrending experiences and when a game makes you feel so much with so little, how can we call it unworthy? Homesick had a few puzzles, one of which I mentioned this week, but the core of it was exploration, just finding your way through the stories left in the building. This is a game that made me cry, the feeling of loneliness and loss got to me and made me remember so much and feel even more. Gone Home, recently reviewed by 1001Up, had even fewer mechanics and it’s purely exploration based, and still it offers an experience that is incomparable.
Yet it’s quite common for gamers to complain about these titles and not call them games. They say the exploration focus makes it feel like a film, as it can be seen on a YouTube channel with the “same effect,” as playing it on their own. And again that is shortsighted. Exploration might be one of the simplest mechanics out there but it’s also one of richest. We complain about exploration-heavy games yet we demand open world titles, where we can roam and explore at our leisure. Why is that exploration different from Gone Home’s, because it doesn’t have combat or other elements aside from it? Exploration lets us find our place in the game worlds, find something that belongs to us or calls to us. It can be a hidden secret in some remote cave or a simple memento from the development team to someone they lost, or even a hidden path in the mountain leading to a panoramic and gorgeous view of a valley. Or it can be an understanding of the lives of others, of their struggles, hopes and dreams. Exploration is wonderful mechanic and one we should embrace and enjoy no matter what.
It’s the same case with conversation or choice based games. We complain of few conversation options and the lack of meaningful choices but when a game gives us only that, we don’t see it as a proper game. Once again, conversations are a wonderful mechanic, one that lets us know about game worlds from their inhabitants’ perspectives. They tell us their stories and we choose how we respond to them, how we interpret their ideals and passions.
Even if there is no choice and we can only see and hear what’s happening, with a limited control over the events, only able to move from one point to the other, it’s still a game as long there is a modicum of interaction, and most importantly, as long as it’s fun and engaging. Who can say that To The Moon wasn’t a gorgeous game? Who can say it wasn’t a game? It was simple in its gameplay but complex in its storytelling and exploration, in how it presented someone’s life to us, and how our characters had to do their duties despite knowing they might be erasing someone’s wonderful memories.
It’s even the same case with the David Cage games. True, they teeter on the line between games and film, by making them highly cinematic often at the expense of gameplay and user control, but there is still control, and your choices will always determine the end you get. I’m not a fan of them, but they are games and while their mechanics might be simple at times, the overall experience is quite strong apparently. I have friends who’ve played through them and they liked them, enjoyed the entire package.
We want games to be seen as art, we want them to be recognised for their achievements in the same way we expect books or film. But for that to happen we have to stop judging the games’ worth solely on their gameplay—or their visuals, music or plot—but as a whole, the entire experience. Take my recent review of Bravely Default. As a commenter mentioned, I bashed on the game for a good bit but still gave it a good score. It puzzled him but the truth is that with its faults, it’s still an enjoyable game and I don’t regret playing it. The problems irritated me but the fun I had playing it, discovering this fantastic world and its wide array of characters more than made up for it. The story was inspired if not clumsily told.
If we can interact with it, it’s a game. If we have fun with it, it’s good game. And a good game is more than just the “sum of its parts.” It’s the entire package and what it does to us as players.