Here’s your weekly dose of video game design theory for you, best consumed with buttered toast and a glass of cold milk. Have you obtained them? Good! Let’s get started.
So, one of the greatest influences on me as a game developer would have to be the duo that makes up Tale of Tales, creators of The Path and Bientôt l’été. Although I’m not necessarily a huge fan of their work and I think that much of their philosophy about games and the world is bizarre and illogical*, they captivated me with a single idea: the idea that the interactive medium can consist of more than “games” and playthings. They coined the term “notgame,” which refers to an interactive audio-visual work that is not a game. The idea that you can tell an interactive story without necessarily having to challenge the player has fascinated me for a long time, and it’s something that I’ve often strived to incorporate into my own work. However, I’ve recently come to doubt whether true “notgames” are even possible and consider the implications of that statement.
Although I usually refer to all interactive audio-visual software media as “video games,” for most of this essay I will refer to them as the “interactive medium” and split interactive media into two theoretical categories: games, and notgames. What distinguishes the former from the latter is that, in a game, players must overcome challenges using skill, strategy, and/or luck in order to accomplish goals or obtain rewards. Notgames, it would follow, do not confront players with challenges that must absolutely be overcome based on skill or strategy. Both forms of interactive media, games and notgames, have their interactivity governed by rules (by necessity) and are also usually consumed for their own sake and not as means to another end, distinguishing interactive media from other forms of software. I should also mention here that these definitions are by no means official – although inspired by traditional definitions of “game,” they are merely how I personally think of the terms for the sake of the following discussion.
Why do I find the concept of the notgame so exciting? Firstly, the medium of notgames is an uncharted and unexplored territory. Almost all interactive media we’ve consumed until recently have been games – who knows what sort of new experiences we can express through them, and what kind of stories we can tell? Games, because of their challenge-and-reward based mechanics, have proven to be effective for telling stories about space marines and wizards and saving the world and defeating armies and all of the like. Notgames, having different mechanics, might be more effective for telling different sorts of stories, stories about the experiences of “common” families or factory workers or the mentally ill or teenage girls or potentially anything else – who knows! Notgames may be better at expressing certain aspects of the human experience than games are, and I think that the possibility of that is really, really cool.
The second reason is that, because notgames are (in theory) unchallenging, they are more accessible to, and more likely to be enjoyed by, a broad audience than games are. In order to be enjoyed, games require some degree of “ludo-literacy” (game literacy). Not only do games usually assume that you know the basic workings of its genre, but they also assume that you have basic general gaming skills which gamers take for granted, such as the abilities to move your character and to determine which elements of the game world are important and interactable. And it really is the lack of fundamental, general skills that are often what intimidate and frustrate non-gamers. I’ve heard stories about non-gamers who, for example, try a hand at Mass Effect and struggle to move their character in a straight line (let alone save the universe). I’ve also had plenty of personal experiences with other people having similar difficulties – more on that in a second. As to my knowledge, there has never before been a medium which by nature excludes so many potential audience members from enjoying it. For that matter, even seasoned gamers occasionally find themselves stumped by a challenge, utterly unable to progress in a game and enjoy the entire work (I’m looking at you, Blood Stained Sanctuary level in Cave Story).
So, last summer I started working on what I originally thought of as a notgame that I’m currently calling Waker. It mostly consists of exploring the game world and choosing dialogue options through branching dialogue trees in order to advance the story. For the most part, the “notgame” doesn’t require fast reflexes or strategic thinking to complete – it’s a pure interactive story. Because of this, I thought that the game would be accessible to non-gamers. I was wrong.
A family member had asked to play what I had made of the “notgame” so far. He had played a few first person shooters, but as far as I know, he had little or no exposure to RPGs, adventure games, visual novels, or general top-down 2D games, all of which Waker borrows from. For no fault of his own, he struggled to navigate the game world: he continually ran into walls, had trouble following certain cues, and displayed ignorance of common game conventions that I had taken for granted. We had a conversation that went something like this (I took creative liberties with it to illustrate what was on screen):
“Hey,” I said.
“You weren’t supposed to turn around yet. You need to continue walking north.”
“But there was nothing up there.”
“But there was. There was a path leading in that direction. Also the person you were supposed to be following and a giant black monster.”
“Okay. Now I’m trying to move that way, but I’m not going anywhere.”
“That’s because there’s a cliff in the way.”
As accessible as I’ve been trying to make Waker, it still isn’t accessible enough! Neither of the other two people with whom I’ve shared the game have reported this sort of difficulty – the problem (hopefully) seems not to be with the game itself, but with the expectations and abilities of the family member in question.
This was when I realized that the challenge-reward mechanics that define games don’t just apply to games: they apply to interactivity in general. Every action in a piece of interactive media requires some degree of mechanical skill or intuition, no matter how small it may seem, and they also require the ability to correctly process the information from the interactive world – a skill which is distinct from processing information from the real world and must be learned. Therefore, all interactive media, to some extent or another, are games: the notgame is just an ideal which can be approached but never obtained. The reason that I previously referred to interactive media, games, and notgames as theoretical terms is because, in reality, there seem to be only games.
That being said, I still think that the medium of games can develop and grow a lot by reaching for the notgame ideal. Although much of the entertainment value from games comes from the satisfaction of developing skill and overcoming challenges, it is becoming increasingly common for that value to come from the enhanced emotional attachment to the game world and its characters that results from player agency (of which I wrote about here). By understanding that there is value not just in overcoming challenge, but in the act of interaction itself, I think that we can tell some really remarkable stories through games. This is what excites me most about the medium – while many people consider new hardware and augmented reality and 3D monitors and motion capture technology and what-have-you as being the “future of games,” I see these things as nothing more than shallow gimmicks. The real exciting change in the medium is in the content and quality of the stories themselves. Although games will always fundamentally be playthings, they can be so much more beyond that – and there’s no reason for them not to be.
*Tale of Tales once said that “art is dead” and also that science is merely a replacement for religion and is otherwise indistinguishable. I’m a little embarrassed that they’ve influenced me so much, frankly.
Alex Higgins should probably stop thinking about video game theory and instead think about political theory so that he can save the world with his mind. He writes more about Waker and games in general here.