Why is the term which has been used to define the entire medium since its creation becoming a problem?
Last month a previous article explored some of the problems associated with the identifying term of “gamer”. In this the important distinction was made that in its current use the term was restrictive and did not make much sense outside of the context of the video game community. That in order for the industry to continue to develop it needed to step away from the term and more crucially the sub-terms that had germinated and the damaging effects this was having on the wider community. Once people begin to set aside such terms there will be a more fertile environment for more experimental and also potentially inclusive games allowing the possibility of there being something for everyone in one form or another.
So why then is the term which has been used to define the entire medium since its creation also becoming a problem? The short answer being that the medium is substantially different to what it was at the start of its existence. There are titles that exist today that would be unimaginable back in the early days of home consoles and the rebirth of the industry in the 1980s. Technology has played a significant role in the evolution of the medium and what is now possible, but recently it has been the creative freedoms afforded by the technical evolutions that culminated in some of the more revolutionary titles
A large part of this has been down to the rise in digital distribution which has enabled new types of titles that previously would have been too financially risky for a full retail release. This has allowed for different means of experimentation; not just from the Indie community but also from the major publishers as well. One key change is the existence of shorter titles that would have struggled to justify a full retail price, and the accompanying costs that accompany packaging and distribution. Shorter titles have provided developers with the opportunity of creating a tighter narrative experience, one that does not need to be drawn out in order to meet the traditional expectation of gameplay and content amount, and can subsequently focus more on telling the story they want to tell but via this medium. The other allowance shorter titles facilitate is the exploration of a singular or small set of mechanics that would not be enough to carry a title longer than six hours.
However, often these shorter titles have still largely remained close to following what are considered the traditional characteristics of video games, be it structure or content. Recently there have been experiments which go beyond this; the so called “non-games”. Accompanying this trend (although not as a direct result of) is the call by some to start using terms like “interactive entertainment” or “interactive media” when referring to video games. Whilst this may be considered blasphemy to some, the new terms would help to alter the contextual allowances that can contribute to the medium. This allows future titles to no longer be constrained by the presence of winning, competition, and achieving high scores; instead they can solely be about exploration.
For the medium to have the possibility of removing itself from these traditional aspects could have notable benefits for developers who wish to experiment with different interpretations of interactivity. As there are currently titles which have felt constrained by their “gameness” and would greatly benefit if they were freed from traditional game attributes. The Bioshock series has increasingly been a victim of this. Many criticised Bioshock Infinite for what they perceived as “ludonarrative dissonance”, in which the gameplay was inconsistent with the tone of the wider narrative. Ken Levine, the director of the title, defended this supposed inconsistency by comparing it to musicals in which throughout people would spontaneously break out into song. Except in the case of Infinite the story was broken up by gun battles.
It is a good comparison to be made by Levine and on some levels does make sense. Although it can also be argued that to a certain extent Infinite on the whole does manage to contextualise most of the violence, especially when one of the main underlying themes of the Bioshock series is about bringing an end to the cycle of violence faced in these locations, which unfortunately can only be achieved through violence.
Despite this there are many memorable moments in Infinite and its accompanying Downloadable Content (DLC) Burial at Sea during which the player does not make a single kill and instead explores the wonderfully created environments available. It was the importance and impact of these moments which possibly explains why some were frustrated by the large shootouts that occasionally occurred in the game, claiming that these events of intense violence felt out of place.
Infinite and Burial at Sea provided wonderful visual and auditory experiences, particularly of note were the scenes which did not feature shooting gameplay. Episode 2 of Burial at Sea did a brilliant job at tying together the entire Bioshock universe, but there were times where the “game” felt like it was getting in the way of the story that was being told. The story and the experience might have benefitted without it. Maybe it is because of these restrictions brought about by the traditional game elements, which influenced the decision made by Ken Levine to downsize Irrational Games in its current capacity, to instead focus on digitally distributed narrative driven titles. Levine is an excellent storyteller and still believes that the best way to tell his stories are via an interactive medium, but no longer via the vehicle of another shooting range that happens to have an excellent story.
During the past couple of years there have been a number of notable titles which have been considered experimental, primarily because they did not restrict themselves to the traditional elements of video games and instead focused on the experience they wanted to provide. The main examples of this being; Gone Home, Proteus, and The Stanley Parable. These three titles all provided different experiences to one another because they utilised the strengths of the medium, but carefully choosing particular elements and more crucially ignoring superfluous ones. This has generated some criticism from the video game community who refer to these titles as “non-games”. Initially this seemed to be an ignorant response, because of course they belonged to the medium. But on further reflection the claim has some merit. These titles are not games in the traditional sense, which is why the term video games is not as accurate as it once was, hence the existence of this article.
In addition there are an increasing number of titles which share the experimental nature of those previously mentioned, but utilise traditional video game elements as a narrative device rather than purely for their gameplay merits. A particular example of this being Jazzpunk which used parodies of various video games to supplement its absurdist narrative. Then there are other titles such as Paper’s Please which has a unique gameplay style which is imaginatively used to tell a distinctive story which is enhanced by the activity and the decisions of the player.
Overall this does not mean that traditional video games are becoming redundant, far from it. There will always be a place for the stereotypical video game we all know and love. But there are increasing opportunities to expand beyond this and experiment with the medium, to facilitate new experiences, be it narrative or gameplay. The medium is moving in a new and exciting direction, except the banner under which it is doing so no longer seems to be appropriate, more of an anachronism. This is why it might be time for a more suitable term to reflect the evolving medium.