So, I’ve been doing some thinking about this, as it is something that has been very prominent in recent years with regards to PC gaming specifically, and I think its still a very subjective topic. The question is: how do you define what is and isn’t a game?
There are a few factors that I feel affect this, and it is something that I think can still be further discussed and refined. It is also a discussion that needs to be had, as there is still a negative connotation surrounding things that are regarded as not games, but as “interactive experiences(IE’s)”, and honestly, there’s nothing negative about this at all. An interactive experience can be a good medium for someone to tell a story in a more visual way, but the interactivity still has to enhance the experience in some way.
To give some examples, Dear Esther is one that people often refer to as an interactive experience, and in a very negative way. I personally found Dear Esther to be a really good looking IE, and I think a lot of people did actually, but the story was pretty lackluster, and often it was very easy to miss some parts of the story because you didn’t explore a certain path. This is a very good IE to have this discussion about, because it raises the point of giving an element of exploration to these. If the player just wants to go through looking at the pretty landscapes and listening to a story, should it be fair that they miss out on some explanations or story elements because of that? Honestly I’m not completely sure. The argument could be made that if the exploration is taken out of the IE, and the player is then forced down a single linear path listening to the story, is there any point in it not being a short film? However, the argument could also be made that in fact, having certain aspects missed can be a good thing, as you then go back into the world to figure out what else is going on.
However, in the example of Dear Esther, this was poorly implemented. The world was pretty yes, the Caves and the Moonlit Beach being two absolutely gorgeous looking areas, however it was not a world worth revisiting. This is partially due to the lackluster story, as well as the complete lack of, well, anything in the environment to interact with.
That’s not to say it can’t be done though, for example in the case of To The Moon. This is something that I think straddles the line, as there is explicit interaction in regards to collecting memories to time-hop, however there is no failure state, as the memories are very easy to locate, and there is no punishment for not getting them all, as you have infinite time to do so. To The Moon was very well received however, as it still felt like the player interactivity actually meant something. The story was excellent, and it was backed by a fantastic soundtrack, and this helped, but I’d still call it an Interactive Experience, and I don’t think many would argue otherwise. To The Moon was a fantastic showing of how a story can be told in such a format without making the player feel redundant. This is surprisingly difficult to achieve, as shown by the next game from Freebird Games, A Bird’s Story, which was criticised for having almost no interaction whatsoever, and while still having a great story, lacked what To The Moon had.
In this case, A Bird’s Story was only drawing a line between To The Moon and its true sequel, Finding Paradise, however, it still had the same standards imposed upon it, and it didn’t hold up. This shows how thin the line is, as there wasn’t much difference between To The Moon and A Bird’s Story besides the story, and yet the lack of interactivity was an issue for many.
I propose that we set out some sort of standard that we can all agree on, in order to try and truly define these interactive experiences, and show that they can be good in their own right, and maybe remove some of the stigma surrounding them. So here’s what I think the criteria something should need to meet in order to be classified as a game.
- There must be a failure state, either explicit or implied. For example, an explicit failure state would be death in a shooter, while an implied failure state would be failing to “woo” a love interest in a dating simulator.
- There must be a certain level of interactivity, such that replaying, whilst maybe having the same story, can have completely different game experiences. For example, doing a stealth run of Dishonored and then replaying by murdering everyone.
I think these two rules can definitely be expanded on, and there could be more additions to make the line clearer, but I feel this is the right step to showing that interactive experiences are not just failed games, but in fact are their own medium, and can be just as engaging as a game.