SIONR: What Constitutes a “Not Game?”

Alright, guys and gals, here’s a post where I need your input.  I need it because I am getting more than a little annoyed at the endless barrage of statements about what is and isn’t a game.  The bulk of this is focused on a game (that I do believe is a game) called Gone Home.  This game seems to be the focal point of a lot of this kind of criticism.  This is the go-to thing for the criticism – that’s not even a real game!  This bugs me, because of just how nebulous this is.  I mean, how do we define a game?  By its mechanics?  Does it have to have shooting?  Does it have to have things to kill?  What makes a game?  That’s not rhetorical.  I want you all’s input.  I want each and every one of you to tell me, from where you sit – what does and does not make a game?

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am hooked on an episodic game series called Life is Strange.  The characters all seem rich and interesting.  The mystery is compelling.  The time powers are fun, and just keep getting more fun.  For a story-seeker like me, a rich narrative that I can help craft is just the thing.  It makes the game that much better.  But is this a game?  You don’t shoot anyone.  Well, you have the choice to try and shoot someone, but the gun is out of bullets, so you don’t hurt the guy you’re shooting.  You don’t kill anyone.  In reality, aside from the choice elements, and the bits where you move and explore, it’s very much like an interactive movie.  So was Telltale’s The Walking Dead and a game that is very much in the same vein as Gone Home, Dear Esther.  Are these non-games?  I’m having a hard time seeing the line between what does and doesn’t separate these things.  For real, I don’t mod comments.  If you want to come on and tell me that I’m a dumbass and that the only real games are Call of Duty and Battlefield, you have the space to do that.  But this is getting annoying.

Let’s look at another game I love, Journey, and its predecessor, Flower.  Both games tell abstract narratives, and neither one has the ability to fail.  Much like Heavy Rain and another game I love Beyond: Two Souls.  All of these games are about the art of the game and the stories they are telling.  The former are more about the expression, but the latter are still invested in making the most of their medium.  Especially in Beyond, where I am watching the gorgeous Ellen Page (who, I admit, does WAY too much crying in that game.  For real, the scenes get old.  If you read my reviews, I said that that game has flaws.  As does its predecessor) and her phantom pal do stuff.  The bummer, for me, is that I didn’t get to do more with the soldier aspect.  If only Quantic Dreams had done some DLC with that.  It would have been awesome.  Oh well.

This is getting a little annoying.  I love video games.  I love them because they tell me stories.  I am a story-seeker, in whatever form it can come in.  Perhaps that’s why I gravitate towards some of these abstract games, that are unconventional.  What is the line?  I think people’s problem is that Gone Home got a flawless rating, from virtually every major gaming outlet.  I agree that that is a problem.  It wasn’t a perfect game.  The mechanics were a little simplistic, and it did feel a little short.  But it wasn’t terrible.  It wasn’t as emotionally engaging as Dear Esther.  That game was able to supplement the short length and lack of stuff to do with compelling visuals and a rich story, being told as letters before the protagonist’s death.

Part of me thinks that the problem with modern gaming is that games are pushing boundaries.  We are long since the days of the 2D platformer.  What place do games have to really experiment with narrative?  If the expectation is that all games will fall into a mold, then what place do games like Life is Strange have?

You know what another part of the problem is, from where I’m sitting – games like Depression Quest.  If someone where to say that that isn’t a game, I would actually entertain the argument.  It’s really not.  It’s basically a choose-your-adventure story.  Does it deserve to be on Steam?  Probably not.  See, there’s the place where the argument means something, to me.  But when you have a fully digitally rendered world, that the main character can interact with, then how does that not make it a game?  I need some answers, because the more I read on sites like Tech Raptor about how something is a non-game, then it makes me realize that there needs to be some real discussion here.

As I said, I don’t mod comments.  I have to approve new people commenting, but I will.  Don’t believe me? Check back not long after you post your comment, and you’ll see it there.  Once I approve you, you are approved forever.  I want there to be a discussion about this, because the argument about what does or doesn’t make a game is so nebulous.  Somebody give me an idea.

Until next time, a quote,

“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”  -Nelson Mandela

Peace out,



5 thoughts on “SIONR: What Constitutes a “Not Game?”

  1. What counts as a game? – Something with Gameplay elements. QTEs (TellTale), Time Travel (Life is Strange) and so-on and so forth. The puzzle solving for Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophesy.

    Non-Games like “Dear Esther” is pressing W and walking through a museum, at least, that was the impression I’ve got. It’s an interesting visual experience, but not a “Game”.

    Essentially, there needs to be interactivity of some kind, apart from basic movement keys and picking “paths”.

    Visual Novels, in my opinion, are their own type of software completely different and detached from “gaming”. I think “Depression Quest” falls under the category of Visual Novel and even as a visual novel, it’s a tad bit shit compared to, say, the Fate – Stay Night V/N.

    That’s my piece on the matter.

  2. I’ve wondered about the definition of a game for some time now. It does get very tiresome hearing people claim that this or that is not a “real game” because it doesn’t have x or y mechanic. I love Journey as much as I love GTA V. To call one more of a game than the other is nonsensical to me. They’re just different types of games. One is an abstract representation of the “journey of life” and the other is a larcenous free for all.

    To me, a broad definition of a game is any digital media that you directly interact with in order to change it in some way. I love the experimentation that we’ve seen lately with games like To the Moon, Journey, Flower, etc., and I would love to see it continue. To eliminate those type of games from consideration stifles the industry, in my opinion.

    Apologies if any part of this is rambling or doesn’t make sense. I’m tired 🙂

  3. A response from the Video Editor of Tech Raptor in a TwitLonger –

    Hey Lucien, TechRaptor Video Editor here (not just a video contributor anymore =P). That discussion has come up before in TechRaptor, and I think there’s always a question regarding it as it’s different for different people. I can’t speak for different people, but I can answer where my stance on the question is.

    The following criteria are what I constitute a game to be:

    1) The game must have a success and failure state of any sort. In other words, even if it’s implied failure, that the choices made in game result you in going to a different state or progress in some way.

    Now there are simple ways of going about this in terms of description. As Mario, if I jump over a pit, there’s a true failure state if I jump into it, losing a life. My success state in the original Mario Bros is to get to the end of the stage. Simple enough.

    Where it becomes more complicated is when it’s not a direct failure state, but implied. I use the visual novel as a prime example of this, and the best example that illustrates this is Long Live the Queen. If you don’t pass a certain check in that game on one of your stats, let’s say Refinement for example, you won’t be able to unlock that section of dialogue. The game still continues: but you did fail implicitly in that section. Your decision to change up stats or go after a different stat changed what the outcome was.

    Now where things get interesting is a situation like Gone Home. Technically, you may try a bunch of things to get to a success state: go into rooms, interact with objects, etc. So those are failure states in of itself. Similar to the old Lucas Arts Point and Click adventure games. In fact, when you think about it, there’s a lot of similarities with Gone Home and those old games in their state machines regarding the “gameplay” portion of it.

    2) Your actions have meaningful consequences in game that you can react to in time.

    Interactivity is where the biggest element of games has always been for me: what changes it from a novel, a movie, or just a new experience is the fact that the game responds to you. That when you move the controller, your character moves. When you decide to jump over a pit, your character attempts to jump over it.

    Why I specifically call out this element is the interactivity portion in particular, and that it doesn’t just become an “experience”. Why do I call this out specifically? Well, let’s look at a case like this:

    You initially do something by drawing and seeding the game’s reactions. However, what can you do after that? nothing. The original state of drawing the portion? Yeah, there’s an implied failure state there, and you can’t continue until you do it.

    But once the game “starts”, you can’t control pretty much anything. You can move your camera sure, but you can’t interact with anything. You have no influence over the world. One may say that “well you may miss an element on the mountain!” But that’s the thing: it autorotates. You don’t have to.

    That’s why the second clause is in my book. In Gone Home, you can interact with things still, and work with them, even with the lack of true “strict” failure states. In my mind, it’s a game: but it’s a different path then most games in which we consider. It’s use of implied failure states is where I think people may be having trouble with the idea.

    Hope that brings a perspective that you may not have considered.

    • I disagree that the need of a fail-state is required. Games like Beyond: Two Souls, Heavy Rain, and even Life is Strange don’t have them, but yeah, it is an interesting argument that you post.

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