I read user reviews of Gone Home at Metacritic today.
OK, I'll be honest. I didn't read them. I CTRL-F'd through them for a specific phrase. "Not a game."
Of the 94 negative reviews, 26 contained that phrase, with a few more using "barely a game." Statistically this is a significant number that expresses a clear criticism. So let's address it.
I think Gone Home is a remarkable achievement, a cunning entry into emotional space that our electronic entertainments have traditionally ignored. But I also think that these user reviewers might be right, and it might not be a "game" as we define the term.
Or as we define it for now.
Let's start out with Webster's as a baseline. They have a number of definitions but this one is the most applicable.
"A physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other."
Single-player computer games don't involve "participants in direct opposition to each other" on the surface, but a little closer examination will reveal that, of course, they do. The player is in direct opposition to the game designer, who works to (among other things) impede the player's consumption of the game.
But this is a little too facile, as anybody who's spent any time in game design knows. Because a game designer isn't just an opponent. They're also a referee. A cinematographer. And the manufuacturer of the equipment necessary to play. At the bottom of everything, they're an artist, creating a cultural product (often in collaboration with other people).
I think it's instructive to compare Gone Home (and similar creations like Dear Esther) to contemporary art. These pieces of software are essentially installation art pieces transplanted into virtual spaces. The agency of the player is limited to exploration and observation, much as it would be in a real-world gallery space.
The closest art analogy I can find to more traditional single-player games are the "instruction paintings" of Yoko Ono. In these pieces, the artwork is a printed instruction that the audience has agency to interact with. In 1964's "Cut Piece," the audience is invited to cut a small scrap out of her clothing. In "Painting To Hammer A Nail," they are asked to hammer a single nail into a block that eventually bristles with them. It is through their actions that the art takes shape.
That element of audience agency, the feeling that only through the actions of the user can the product be understood, is integral to what we consider games, and in many ways missing from titles like Gone Home. A common criticism that watching a Let's Play is fundamentally identical to playing the game is, in that aspect, correct. The position of opponent is removed from the designer's playbook.
But what's interesting is that traditional AAA games are also moving away from many of these elements of player agency. Sure, you can't "lose" Gone Home, but with quicksaves and vita-chambers and variable difficulty and infinite continues, can you really "lose" most modern games? Even Dark Souls just pops you right back at a bonfire every time you get a blade through your guts. If the designers of these games are acting in opposition to the player, they're not trying all that hard.
It gives us a funny inversion of the famous War Games quote - "A strange game. The only losing move is not to play."
This brings us to the big question: is "game" even an appropriate word for single-player games? The medium has advanced to such a staggering place that it almost no longer seems appropriate. Just because we can encompass Goat Simulator and Bioshock Infinite under the umbrella of a single word doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. We call all things games, from physics sandboxes to epic narratives, from arena FPS games to socialization-based MMORPGs.
Are we stretching the word "game" past its natural elasticity, simply because we have no other term for these products? And, in doing so, are we damaging the essential meaning of the term?
One of the earliest enthusiast magazines was Video Games & Computer Entertainment, which predictively split the products into two distinct halves. It could be time to revisit that split in our new age of innovative and expressive digital products. Right now we use "game" simply because that is the closest point of reference we have. It might be time to stake out a new one.
Would it be wrong to call Gone Home a "computer entertainment?" Or would even that be too reductive and limiting, implying that Fullbright's goal was simply to "entertain?"
We use "games" now because it's a useful shorthand to describe a concept that is changing almost too quickly to be grasped. But using the word brings with it not only cultural baggage (which has been exhaustively discussed) but also semantic associations. It's either time to stop using it altogether or start using it as a subset of something larger.
Can we come up with a term for single-player interactive experiences that moves beyond "games?" Will we start using "games" to refer to MOBAs and fighting games and other directly competitive experiences, moving it back into its traditional definition? Or will we keep stumbling over our own language as users and readers bring expectations of agency that won't be satisfied?