I wanted to discuss what it really means to call something a game, as many people call into question whether the likes of Gone Home, and games of a similar nature are actually video games or merely walking simulators.
It has become almost common amongst gamers to discuss whether experiences like Journey are worthy of the title of video game. Due to their lack of gameplay, run time and mechanical complexity many have dubbed these titles as interactive experiences, non-games or walking simulators. Each of these labels stigmatizing amazing experiences and leaving gamer’s reluctant to buy. But I challenge those who say that the likes of Journey and Gone Home are not deserving of the title ‘video game.’ And ask why AAA lackluster experiences like Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst are.
Games were not always the convoluted, open world marvels we now take for granted. For decades they were a rather simple medium. Many experiences forced gamer’s to rely on just a few buttons to navigate their world. Some games sole mechanic was allowing a character to jump up and down along a 2D surface. Others were merely choose your own adventure stories, where reading text was the main gameplay mechanic. Gaming was a niche market. Where a select few chose to invest in interactive computerised experiences, instead of going outside.
However times have changed, and within the western world, a niche hobby has become a global pastime. Over the past two decades game developers have evolved this medium to a state many would have struggled to comprehend. We are now able to take control of our own Pixar movie. Build universe’s limited only by the scope of our imagination. And explore dense open worlds, where every character, line of dialogue and rock is crafted with a careful layer of polish. As video games have grown more impressive, so has the size of their player base. Tens of millions of individuals either own a gaming console, PC or handheld device. Some crave to explore the diverse and rich tapestry of experiences that video games can provide. While others isolate themselves to a single franchise, such as Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty or Fifa.
Due to the growing size of its audience, the feverishly hard working nature of developers and ever expanding technological horizons, we ask more from video games than any other medium. We hope that when reading a book or viewing a film, we have a satisfying experience. That the product is of a high quality. But we don’t ask them to do something new. We don’t expect a book to have features that we hadn’t experienced upon reading all previous books. Yet we ask games to do just that. It can’t just be a great game. It’s has to play different, look prettier, and grow in scope and accessibility exponentially. And so now we have reached a point where for many, the term video game, is associated with a gargantuan world where you can do almost anything. However experiences such as these cost 100’s of millions of dollars to hand craft. Risks are averted and the same tried and true formula is spoon fed to us year by year.
Therefore many of the artists who coded, wrote and designed these worlds have broken away from traditional, corporate game development. With the goal of creating smaller, unique experiences we may not have been exposed to prior. These are the individuals who continue to look towards the potential of what gaming could be. These are the individuals who continue the pioneering work of companies in the 80’s and 90’s who discovered new genres, new perspectives and new ways to play. Often a lack of resources and funds stop independent developers from incorporating everything we expect from modern gaming. And so they pick a certain avenue to explore. Whether it be narrative, nostalgic rebirths of forgotten genres, or challenging gameplay mechanics. And this movement has provided us titles such as Journey, Super Meat Boy and The Witness. However despite not ticking off all the boxes that AAA games do, Indie titles continue to personify what I look for in gaming. New and exciting, interactive experiences.
However for some of the more narrative based experiences that independent development has produced, certain gamers have concluded that they aren’t worth the title of ‘video game.’ That due to a lack of enemies and mechanical complexity these experiences should not be associated with the term video game. And so I challenge you to consider two titles. Journey and Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. One a simple independent title where the main mechanic is to walk forward. The other a AAA title with all the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect.
Whether it is acknowledged or not, Journey will always be a milestone in gaming history. Proving definitively that gaming is an art form and a thing of beauty. Upon the games release, many argued that Journey was the most graphically impressive game available. Smooth framerates, breath-taking vistas, every grain of sand mesmerising and exquisite. The aim of the game? To tell a moving tale of a traveller reaching his destination. The games mechanics were simple. You could walk through the world, collect and glide towards enchanted pieces of fabric, and speak to other players through a simple singing mechanic. Yes they could have added guns and an abundance of enemies to the mix. But that wasn’t the type of experience they wanted to provide. And through Journey, Developer That Game Company, created a simple yet exceptional product. Pushing the visual limitations of the PS3, inventing a unique and oddly personal multiplayer experience and telling a truly moving tale within a compact two hour package.
Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst on the other hand was an underwhelming endeavour. Despite its sizeable budget, it failed to impress on any front. The story was mediocre and predictable, pop in textures were common and the overall art design of the world left a lot to be inspired. If someone had told me, that the game was unfinished and that there was still a sizeable amount of work to go, I would have believed them. As they stood, I found myself staring at a horizon of blandly grey rectangles somehow meant to represent the city of glass. In regards to gameplay, Mirror’s Edge felt like it was lacking in depth. Not because I have an intrinsic need to have every game feel as plentiful as The Witcher 3, but because what was provided didn’t feel substantial enough for this particular experience. In an era where Dying Light incorporates clever parkour mechanics into an open world game, brimming with aesthetic, deep crafting systems, and unique combat, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst feels like an Alpha demonstrating a single mechanic in a much grander, but unfinished game. And because Mirror’s Edge relies on a single gimmick to bring to life an entire open world, the main missions and consequentially all of the side content soon feel familiar and identical.
But for many despite the polarising quality difference in these two products, some would claim Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst to be more of a game than Journey. Why? Because it checks more boxes? Because it’s open world? Because it has traditional online systems? Because it is a 10-20 hour experience? Because it cost more money to make? What makes it more worthy of the title video game, than Journey? However, if like many who fight this argument, we say that the likes of Journey or Gone Home aren’t games because of their simplistic gameplay systems, then do we condemn games of the past? Many games in the 80’s and 90’s relied on simple mechanics that utilised only a small handful of buttons. Consider the comparison of mechanical complexity between Journey and a traditional Nintendo platformer. Both has main characters whose sole purpose is to move towards the next stage in their quest. They both heavily favour a jumping mechanic which is used to traverse platforms and collect items. The only major differences are the lack of an antagonist in Journey and relative difficulty differences. But if you shun it for those two facets of the experience then you are judging how much of a game something is by how hard it is to beat, and saying a game isn’t a game unless you are fighting or killing something. Both of which, are rather short-sighted comments to make. Therefore I argue that if you call Journey any less of a game than Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst because of its simple gameplay mechanics, then you might as well say the same about all games that 80’s kids grew up on.
Many people challenge the likes of Journey and Gone Home because they aren’t what we now view as mainstream gaming experiences. They aren’t the multiplayer shooting phenomenon that is Call of Duty or the cut and paste open world Assassin’s Creed template. But so what? Let them be different. They may not allow players to do everything we’ve come to expect in a video game. But what they do aim to achieve, they achieve masterfully. Why confine gaming to a rudimentary box. What if we’d said 20 years earlier that for a game to be a game it had to be a 2D platformer with certain fundamental mechanics? Then we may never have experienced a first person shooter. Or explored the possibilities of an open world. Or even known what it was like to play a game in 3D. Would anyone claim to have experienced Doom and regarded it as a non-game because it wasn’t a 2D sidescroller. No. As gamer’s we shouldn’t shun new experiences. As players we shouldn’t act with undeserved finality, stating that Journey and Gone Home are obviously not games. We should embrace these new opportunities. Opportunities to experience something different. The opportunity to see the first step in a new or unique direction in gaming. The same opportunities that have sporadically sprouted up for decades, as new genre’s and new ways to play have emerged.
The official definition of the term video game is as follows.
“A game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a monitor or other display.”
It says nothing about whether the game is 100 hours long, or whether it was made by a few talented artists or a corporate machine. Nor does it disparage a game for having its sole mechanic being to walk slowly through a house.
I personally urge players to be more open minded. A video game is any form of computerised, interactive experience meant for entertainment and leisure. Don’t get so caught up in justifying what is and isn’t a game. Rather than arguing over why a AAA experience like Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is more of a game than Journey, we should be questioning why a ‘non-game’ provided a more polished and enjoyable experience than a AAA title. Experience as broad a pallet of games as possible. Have fun. Enjoy yourself. And continue being a gamer.
By Chris Bowring