“Not A Real Game”

Visit the steam reviews of Gone Home, Dear Esther, or Kentucky Route Zero and you’re bound to see a barrage of reviews telling you that any of these three aren’t real games.

The passive-aggressive reviews put quotation marks around “game” instead of stating it outright.

I’ll admit I’m very quick to defend this trio because I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing all three of them and because I’m someone who enjoys watching games push the boundaries of what videogames can be. I understand that these three games aren’t everyone’s cup of tea – everyone has their own taste in things, and that’s perfectly acceptable. However, the criticism that something isn’t a “real” game is where I draw the line.

Before I go on, let’s establish a simple working definition of “videogames”:

  1. Videogames are interactive; they have gameplay.
  2. Videogames take place on a screen.
  3. Videogames may or may not have a story, but regardless they give the player an experience of some sort.

By my standards, if it has all three of these things, it’s a game. Whether or not it’s a good one is still up to the player.

One of the phrases most commonly used in tandem with the “not a game” argument is that the game has “no gameplay.” Usually after making this claim, the person writing the review will go on to actually list the game mechanics that the game uses, thereby contradicting their “no gameplay” statement.

Googling images of “gameplay” gets you a lot of first person shooters… and fire!

Gameplay is made up of game mechanics, which can be anything from just walking around, clicking on things, sneaking, using magic, solving puzzles, making choices, aiming and shooting guns… the list goes on and on. The mechanics are how the user interacts with the game, and the way these mechanics interact determines what the game’s gameplay is like and how complex it is. As technology has grown more advanced, gameplay has also become increasingly more complex, so a lot of people who play games now have expectations for that sort of complexity.

Maybe it’s possible that gamers don’t actually understand what gameplay is. But usually when people say a game has no gameplay, what they mean is that they’re used to games with more complex gameplay, or that they don’t enjoy the type of gameplay utilized within the game.

But just because you dislike its gameplay doesn’t mean it’s “not a real game.”

krz-1 copy
There are no puzzles and no exploration… so therefore there’s no gameplay! Bummer.

Above is a review for Kentucky Route Zero in which the author claims the game has no gameplay. They then go on to literally list the game mechanics: the game asks you to click in order to move your character (though you can also use the gamepad), and it offers you dialogue choices.

Without getting too nitpicky, Kentucky Route Zero’s main gameplay mechanic, other than how you move around, is letting you select dialogue that changes the way you perceive the characters and the world they’re in. This is different from other point-and-click games with dialogue choices because, as this user pointed out, the choices don’t actually affect the story. Characters aren’t going to die or hate you if you choose one thing over the other, but your understanding of the characters will change.

the stars drop away
There’s also something beautiful about “writing” poetry within a game, even if it’s just via dialogue choices.

Any writer will tell you that there’s a big difference between “I’m okay” and “My leg is stuck” and that there are a lot of ways you could read into each option. At face value, these options could mean the difference between an optimistic or pessimistic character. It could demonstrate the character’s values – he’s either glad he’s alive, or he’s primarily concerned about his leg. Within the narrative of Kentucky Route Zero, you also receive different responses from characters based on what you choose, which shapes how you view the people you interact with, too.

This is how the player interacts with the game. These are the mechanics that shape the player’s experience. This is Kentucky Route Zero’s gameplay. It’s relatively simple, it’s subtle, but it definitely exists.

interactive story

interactive story krz
It isn’t a shovel, it’s a dirt excavation tool!

In an attempt to prove that they aren’t games, critics often label these games as “interactive stories” or “interactive movies.” This one is a label that gamers even slap onto some cinematic AAA games, like Uncharted or The Order: 1886.

Even though the reviewer in the above review of Gone Home qualifies their statement by saying it “isn’t a bad thing,” they’re clearly making an attempt to invalidate the game by saying it isn’t one.

But when it comes down to it, “interactive story” is just a way of rephrasing “this is a videogame where the most important part is the story.” “Interactive movie” is a way of saying “this is a videogame with cutscenes.” And “not a game” just means “I don’t like that this is the case.”

Ahh, okay, NOW it’s a game!

If games that revolve around some type of story aren’t your thing, that’s okay. I can’t say I personally understand that, but it’s okay. But by definition its interactivity means that Gone Home is a game. Any criticisms filed against the game don’t make it “not a game” – they just mean you think it’s not a good game.

Lastly, I want to take a look at a common thought found in both positive and negative reviews. These are the reviews that claim that “This isn’t a game. It’s art.”

krz-3-art project2
They don’t want their games to be art…
…and they don’t want their art to be called a “game.”

It isn’t posed as such, but it’s an either-or statement: it can either be a game, or it can be art. This implies that a game can’t be art, and that art can’t take the form of a game. And clearly this isn’t true. The two intermingle; they go hand in hand.

Art isn’t some lofty thing that can only be reached by games like Kentucky Route Zero or Dear Esther; games like Call of Duty or Half-Life are art too. Almost everything that goes into creating these games is an art – heck, we even use the term “game design” to describe a very important component of game creation – so it follows that the game itself is art. Whether it’s good art is another question entirely, but games are as much an art form as movies or books. To pretend that a videogame isn’t art is obtuse; to pretend that something you find artistic isn’t a game is just pretentious.

You think their game isn’t a game because it’s artistic? They’ve got a bone to pick with you.

The medium of videogames is still very young, and as it grows, it also expands. As the medium expands, the medium’s definition will also change and broaden to encompass new things. I think a lot of gamers need to broaden their own definitions of what videogames can be because they’re missing out on a lot by dismissing these types of games.

Why do you think so many people are uptight about calling these games “games”? What is it about these games that causes so many gamers to immediately become defensive? Is it because they don’t like having their definition of “videogame” broken? Is it because they’re used to action games, and they can’t deal with the lack of explosions and enemies to fight in these games? Is it a desire to redefine these games as something “better” than games?

Comment with your thoughts below!

Written by Liz Walcher

Liz is a junior majoring in digital art & animation, focusing her attention on game development! She is very passionate about videogames and their potential as a powerful storytelling medium. Her dream for the future is to make cool games with cool people!

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