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The Year Of Not Doing
by Tadhg Kelly on 01/01/14 12:09:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


(The following post originally appeared at What Games Are. You can follow its author here.)

As everyone does on New Year's Eve, I look back on the year that was and try to find a theme. With so many things having happened all in a short space of time (new consoles for all, new jobs for me, new realities in mobile, etc) it's hard to find just one theme among the multitude. However the one that strikes me was seeing several games that toyed with the lack of agency. For a medium largely centered around doing, 2013 was often a year about not-doing.

I'm talking about works like Gone Home, the full version of The Stanley Parable, numerous Twine adventures and Proteus. Games (let's not worry too much about are-they/aren't-they today) where you walk around and see, flip pre-ordained choices and read, input less and receive output more. I'm also talking about a year of non-gameplay, or even anti-gameplay, sentiments in the critical sphere.

A lot of very interesting writing from people like Leigh Alexander and Mattie Brice has urged new thinking, new ideas and a protective attitude toward games not meant to be played in the classic sense. It's been less a year of appreciation of mechanics and dynamics in otherwords, and more about aesthetics and sensation, about impression and storysense. The critical world can't move but for enthusiastic receptions of the implied story of Gone Home and pannings of Grand Theft Auto V. It advocates the need for change.

So what does it all mean? Well, a couple of things to remember.

One is that not-doing games are more fringe than they might appear. I don't say that as a bad thing (interesting things tend to happen on the fringes) but just to convey scale. There may be many personal games constructed in Twine out there, for example, but the number of players is very small compared to more mainstream hits like The Last of Us. Gone Home may be a critical darling but it's wee when stacked up against Candy Crush Saga

But also this: What happens at the fringes tends to move the mainstream over time. Never as far as the fringe wants it to go, but certainly some. As the innovative camera and editing techniques of the Dogme 95 movement had far reaching effects for mainstream movies, I think the year-of-not-doing has opened the book on many techniques for games that are already filtering into the more commercially minded industry. Perhaps that means less cut scenes and more trust in the player, or a willingness to toy with the player-play relationship in a more conventional setting. I doubt that there will ever be a large market for a Proteus or the works of Porpentine, but creators of more mainstream games play their stuff and it influences their thinking.

Yet not-doing doesn't imply the end of fun. Arhythmic music doesn't fundamentally change what music is, but it does act as a creative source. Modernist fiction never managed to do away with plot, but as a technical exploration it inspired generations. In 20 years' time video games will still mostly revolve around playing, doing, hitting, killing, solving, sorting and all the other dynamics that we see today. There will still be arguments about why games can't get their act together to tell good stories and bemoaning why they must always be fun. But the works of the not-doers will certainly influence how games present themselves, say what they want to say and find confidence to be the medium they already are.

Happy New Year.

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Wendelin Reich
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With all respect, I think you misunderstand games such as Gone Home, The Stanley Parable or Proteus. They are not about 'not doing', but about exploration. To explore is one of the most basic verbs of the human condition, certainly not less basic as 'to fight' (FPS/TPS), 'to solve puzzles' (Candy Crush) or 'to manage scare resources' (RTS). Evolutionary psychologists such as David Geary argue that to understand one's environment, to comb through it for resources, to control access to it by others and to ensure one's safety in it is a basic human drive. With Proteus, this connection is obvious, but I would argue that games such as TSP or GH feed on it as well (note the basic sense of insecurity/doom and the haunted-house trope that's so important in GH).

However, I agree that 2013 was a big year for exploration-based games, especially if we count the many horror/survival-games. What interests me is: why now? Many games, such as Proteus, TSP or Amnesia AMFP, were made with custom or fringe engines, so these games are not just riding on the UDK/Unity wave or 'the indie movement'.

My theory is that many game developers are getting more and more fed up by combat-mechanics or arbitrary-puzzle-mechanics, but haven't yet found all that many alternatives to exploration and scarce-resource-management. And that's where innovation will need to happen if games without mainstream verbs (especially combat) are to escape the 'fringe'.

Amir Barak
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I think you're confusing the verb "To Explore" with the verbs "To Walk" and "To Click".

scott anderson
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This is reductionist. You could easily say the same thing about first person shooters, MMORPGs, MOBAs, Minecraft, etc. Just replace "To Explore" with "To Shoot", "To Fight" or "To Build". Nearly all single character based PC games involve walking and clicking...

Amir Barak
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Let's take the reductionist view to FPS :D

To Walk, To Run, To Strafe, To Aim, To Shoot, To Reload, To Listen, To Scope, To Change Weapons, To Charge, To Duck, To Jump, To Hide, To Rest, To Pickup, To Drop, To Throw, To Stab, To Issue Commands, To Follow Commands, To Track, To Die.

Those verbs by the way have no bearing on whether the game is going to be good or not.

Wendelin Reich
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Using your approach, exploration may involve: to walk/run/strafe, to listen, to peek, to hide, to open/close, to find, to read, to pickup/drop, to track, and more.

Amir, you do realize that you're mixing levels of abstraction, right? What do you do in your favorite FPS to 'pickup'? You click! Q.E.D.

But you're missing the point. I wasn't saying how great exploration-based games are and that all we need are FPS:s without the 'S' part. Instead, I was saying that many developers are bored of the 'S' part but haven't yet figured many interesting alternatives. Of course things like Gone Home, Proteus etc. cannot be repeated forever. People will quickly get tired if you cannot do anything but explore, me included.

Sam Stephens
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The difference between the verbs you and Amir mention are very different in nature. The "verbs" of FPSs facilitate gameplay and the challenges inherent to it. The actions in Gone Home facilitate exploration, the means by which the story is conveyed. In this sense, Gone Home is not an "alternative" to FPSs. One privileges gameplay and the other privileges storytelling and atmosphere. They are not even in the same ballpark.

Jonathan Martinez
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The Stanley Parable is not something I would quickly call a typical "game".
I considered it more an experience that shakes up your perception of what choice in games even means. Honestly, this game will ruin you for other games that improperly use "the illusion of choice".

Anti-gameplay? Maybe. To walk around and click and later have a moment of crisis where the game really messes with your head as both you the character Stanley and you the player. It was certainly something.
Discovery was interesting for a few seconds, but it was, to me at least, a "game" that forces you to re-think everything you've ever thought about choice, agency, and narrative in games.

I still don't call it a game as there's no real gameplay. There's no rules to master, no skill to acquire, nothing that really depends on you, the player, that wasn't already explicitly laid out for you to experience as one experiences a movie, just one you walk around in a little bit.

I still think it's fantastic though. :)

Maria Jayne
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I've been playing the Stanley Parable since Christmas on and off. It's both cool and strangely unrewarding. Eventually I looked to see how many endings there were and it turns out I've finished most of them and been everywhere. Unyet it's sitting in my install folder with me wondering like I haven't finished it yet.

It's a great concept but the fact it has no real satisfying conclusion makes me wonder if I would ever bother to re-install it. It's the kind of game that would need new endings or new paths added to keep it engaging.

Ian Uniacke
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I'm not sure whether I read this or where from, but I seem to recall that's the exact experience the author wanted. You are supposed to feel a sense of ennui from the lack of any satisfying conclusion.

Robert Crouch
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These examples remind us of the limited agency that a game gives us. The whole purpose of a game is often to allow the player to get swept into the notion of the character, and these games remind us that we're not the character, we have limited control over what the character can do in a limited space.

We always have limited agency, but reward systems are built to make you want to do the things that you can and forget about the things that we can't. This breaks down a bit intentionally like something like the Stanley Parable, or unintentionally like having an invisible wall cutting off a side street.

I think that this era spawns these kinds of games because we're reaching that uncanny valley. You don't really get into character with Mario. You don't wonder why he can't climb a certain way or bypass a blocked area. You don't even really question why he can't go left. He's not a character so much as an image and a game piece. But we try to make our characters believable now, more human, and when we do the limitations we need to put on them to tell the right story or make the game possible remind us that no, they're not in fact human, they're just data structures.