In my blog, I’ve spent a lot of time on the subject of game theory. I’ve discussed the process of game design, what games mean to us as individuals and as a society, and some of the qualities that mark a great game. Most recently, however, I took a look at the larger question of just what games are, especially in a time when we see video games further and further blurring the lines of exactly what a game can be. As I’ve thought about exactly how games can be defined, I’ve reduced the question down to a terrible argument of semantics – defining the “game” as opposed to what I call the “game experience”.
What is the Game Experience?
The concept of the game experience encompasses not just gameplay, but the total package of what the game is and what it affects. It’s the game itself, its presentation, its style, the interactions within the community, the nature of the community itself, and the way a game impacts your interpretations of other games, other media, and the rest of the world. The quality of the game experience isn’t something that can be determined and broadcast on release day like a game’s review scores. The experiences of games from 30 and 40 years ago are still being written today.
This all factors in with another point I recently raised about the evolving definition of games. We see a lot of video games out there that can’t really be called “games”, but we don’t have any other good way to describe them. Perhaps this is another way to look at such games – not as “games” per se, but as game experiences. If nothing else, we can use this expression in the same way we refer to Velveeta as an “American cheese food product”.
In seriousness, though, an “experience” may be the most reliable term for these non-game games. They possess some level of interactive player control, so they play something like video games, but that may be as far as the connection goes. The rest is simply a world built around that interactive nature. It’s an interactive way to experience a story, an interactive way to view art, or an interactive way to sit and mindlessly roam around, forgetting your troubles. There’s some element of a game in there somewhere, but what you’re really engaged in, more than anything, is a game experience.
Examples – Game vs. Experience
Of course, “game experience” isn’t an entirely fair definition for quasi-games. Every game system has its own game experience. I think the key is in placing emphasis on exactly what it is we’re engaged with.
In this case, what would be the definition of a game? Think of something like Tetris. The game is part of a larger game experience, sure, but when you sit down to play Tetris, what keeps you engaged is the game itself. The process of rotating pieces, carefully placing them, and dropping them down is a gameplay process. That’s what pushes you forward, and that’s what keeps you coming back. When you play Tetris, you’re engaging, primarily, in a game.
Then there are the games we might describe more as game experiences. Something like Heavy Rain qualifies more in this sense. You play through game events and participate actively in the process, but the primary driving force behind Heavy Rain is its story. More than likely, you don’t play it primarily to complete tasks or move through the game world. You play it to see where narrative events are leading. The story is a big part of the game and is directly connected to the gameplay, but the primary engagement of the player is not with the gameplay itself. The player is engaging in a game experience, rather than a game. Proteus, as I’ve discussed previously, only deals with walking from place to place. Goals are whatever you make of them. Now, unless you’re immensely intrigued by the process of walking, Proteus isn’t engaged with as a game. As you walk and create your own motivations, or even if you engage in the process and simply wonder “What in the world is this and why would I waste my time playing it?”, you’re participating in a game experience.
When we look at the concept of “game” and “game experience” in this way, we begin to run into a high degree of subjectivity. Whether you engage in a game or a game experience depends greatly on how you approach the game. Look at Metal Gear Solid. Many people play it as a game. They have key motivations to improve their skills, master the mechanics, and be the best damn Solid Snake they can be. I’m the type who plays it when I feel like watching a movie. The story drives me forward, and that’s the main reason I engage in the interactive portions. I approach the game as a game experience. Something similar could be said of Braid. Many people seem to view Braid as a work of art – an elegant experience that is a combination of gameplay, narrative, visual art, and music. In this case, Braid is enjoyed as a game experience. I’m the type that plays it purely to beat those pesky puzzles.
In one of my very first posts, I discussed (at great length) narrative design in video games, but specifically, how it tied into the controversy surrounding Metroid: Other M. Not to beat a dead horse, but there’s another point I’d like to bring up. You see, leading up to the game’s release, Nintendo touted Other M as “the ultimate Metroid experience”. Now, did it prove to be the ultimate Metroid game? Absolutely not. By no means. But the ultimate Metroid experience? There’s actually room for argument. (The answer is still no, but it’s at least a much more accurate assessment.) Looking beyond the gameplay to the sheer spectacle of the presentation offers a new view on the title. Looking beyond the title itself to the insanely overblown controversy surrounding it which drew a great schism through a devoted fan base – that provides another layer to the mix, for better or for worse. Simply put, if you were a Metroid fan, it was quite the thing to live through.
By my definition, the game experience is always larger than the game; the game is always contained within the game experience. But you may have noticed a key term popping up – motivation. Motivation is the driving force (the motivating force, I suppose) behind progression through a game. Motivation to progress from one event to another is a key element of gameplay. Thus, we’re left with an interesting question…if you’re motivated by the game experience more than the game itself, isn’t that game experience now a part of the gameplay? But then doesn’t that mean you’re more motivated by the game than the experience? But then doesn’t that just mean the game experience is larger? But then are you more motivated by the game or this new game experience? But if you’re more motivated by the new game experience, then y—oh no, I’ve gone cross-eyed.
In this sense, the relationship between the game and the game experience is somewhat cyclical. If you’re drawn to play a game for the sake of nostalgia, that’s the game experience drawing you along towards the game’s goal. If you play a popular game in front of people to make yourself look cool, that’s the game experience propelling you along. It’s also terribly sad. I’ve never done this, of course.
Experience as Product
So how, then, does this help us define games and quasi-games? While it’s true that a certain part of the game experience takes place outside the software, some of it can be created as an integral piece of the gameplay and included as a part of the package. When you first begin a playthrough of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a block of text prompts you not to play the game to win, but to get involved in the story and environment. Fans will instruct you to play the game not because it’s challenging or fun, but because it’s scary, visceral, and just generally engaging. In this sense, Amnesia is marketing itself directly (and indirectly) as a game experience, not a game.
Some games are crafted for the gameplay. Others are crafted to look beyond it. Neither is necessarily better than the other, and they both contain shared elements. They share the same heritage and the same developer motivations to engage and entertain the audience. However, placing these titles in the same category is proving to be a bit inaccurate. The way I see it, there’s nothing wrong with marketing a fringe game as a game experience, because that’s what it is. If the “game” aspect of a game isn’t what’s being sold, it probably shouldn’t be called a game.
But really, you can call it what you want. I’m not in charge here.