By now most people who play games regularly or keep a fairly decent check on games related news will be aware of the existence of some titles such as, Dear Esther, Gone Home and Stanley Parable. Now I used title instead of games, because well, you can guess the reason and where I'm going with this article.
Now just as a little note, before I go on, I'd like to stress that this is purely my opinion and I do not think that those that disagree with me are 'wrong' per say or are silly for believing otherwise. This is purely how I feel about the question "what makes a game, a game" or in this instance "what makes a game, not a game". I have pondered over this, changing my mind a few times until I came to a self conclusion that hasn't budged since. So hopefully no one is offended (there shouldn't be any reason to take offense, as this is about video games, not something vital to our lives (like the existence of red pandas because omgsofrickincute). Here we go!
I'm going to stick primarily to Dear Esther, Stanleys Parable and Gone Home because they are quite well known and the former is the centre of the question of whether a title is a game or not. Just to dive straight into the fray, I'm going to confess that I do not consider Dear Esther to be a game, not really. I didn't think this prior to playing the game and did not come to this self conclusion based on the opinions of others. I have been thinking about this quite a lot and I am at peace with denying Dear Esther to be what I would consider a video game.
On a forum I frequent a lot (where's that?) there is a thread for people to keep tabs on their current completed games of the past year. I at one point added Dear Esther to that list as you can see here:
Now I am taking it off:
To explain why, I bring into the fold Stanley Parable and Gone Home (and Bastion at some point), the first 3 all similar games, where the strongest traits are first person, narrated, story unravelling walkathons, to show some counterpoints, that are quite subtle but in the context of "gaming" can prove to be quite definitive.
Dear Esther does not have any game mechanics other than 'move forward' and it serves the purpose of story unlocking (which is a term to be used try loosely). I could just leave things there, but I won't. Because you don't have enough rotten e-fruit to throw my way in the event that I did.
Stanley Does the Do
Stanley's Parable tells the story as you play and even then it's not exactly a story so much a humorous lunatic musings accompanying the actions you take by you own choice. When you read a book the story is there before you, all you must do is press on and follow the worded path. It is a linear experience where choice comes from your interpretations in imagination. But books are not games. Audio-books are not games. If you fuse the elements of a diary formatted story with the narration of an audio book, simply adding a visual world does not make that a game unless you add elements that are. Interaction is key.
Old Atari games would use the exact same function for say many of the sport themed games, utilising a derivative of pong with a plastic sheet you splayed on your tv screen. But as bare as that was (even for the time) an element of game play still existed, controlled by the player.
If moving around is all it takes for Esther to be a game then well our lives are one big HD video game, minus the shiny Collector Edition add ons. No I'm only joking with that analogy but it's not far off it.
Even if we leave aside the debate of "is this a game" - which will never have a clear cut winning side, praising Dear Esther for being an example of game storytelling and design for the future is, personally, a dreadful piece of advice and would make the activity pretty damn boring to be honest. If you want to look at how narration could be tweaked somewhat, in an entertaining manner then look at Stanley's Parable, heck even Saints Row. There are different examples out there, more coming especially with indie game development and Steams Green spotlighting.
Go on Home!
Gone Home got a lot of mixed reviews, but in the early honeymoon period much of that was praise, a little bit like Bastion from my own eyeballing of related comments.
The game had a simple premise - go back to your home and explore clues about the people closest to you and yourself, whilst figuring out the general plot arc. It can be said that it has many similarities to Dear Esther, but it does have something Dear Esther does not and once again it boils down to that little, yet important aspect of gaming (at least pivotal to me) and that is interaction.
You can open furniture, pick up notes, turn them around, play cassettes. It's little, but Esther could of had little implements as well. You're not waiting on cue for the story do reveal and progress via scripting alone, the game is asking you to be part of that minuscule trek.
I'm not sure how many people I remember actually talking about how they felt in the aftermath of Dear Esther, even from the story point of view. Just because I didn't hear or read anything doesn't mean there wasn't a plethora of positive conversations, but I'm not entirely sure how riveted anyone was. I know a few people on Twitter who adore it and I know some that claim it to be a template by which games should rethink their design and story telling process and I find that to be incredibly bad advice, when the game fails in both areas. If you want to produce games that bore your audience, then go ahead.
Bastion - Story and Play
I had heard fleeting titbits about Bastion, that it was a visually appealing, professionally crafted game of the indie variety. But apart from knowing it was highly recommended and the lead character was a bulky impish looking fella with silver hair, I was in the dark. Upon actually playing the game I have to admit that narratively I was in the dark as well for most of it.
The narrator weaves a story in with his Deadwood invoking voice that in terms of its actually context is not always easy to follow. He assumes we know who such and such is and that we are up to speed in the rapidly progressing tale. In that regard, which may not apply to other gamers, Bastion was a strafe experience interns of immersive story and yet that doesn't mean I did not enjoy the story, execution and general feel that was being created with the wonderful soundtrack.
Bastion is quite a short game to get through, especially if you enabled a 'no-die' feature and so the story might suffer in effect for that. But that doesn't deter from the fact that a story exists and we the player are indeed playing it out whilst subsequently being big brothered by a mild mannered Al Swearegen.
In Dear Esther a story exists and your only real purpose is to hear it, not play it. In that manner is once again cements itself (in my opinion) in the category of 'visual audiobook' before it ever graces the gaming labeling. You could say that the story remains locked away until you begin to play, but are we really accepting simply holding W as a worthy method game play? Personally I do not.
Bastion is a game that offers classic elements of game, meshed with a fairly fresh method of storytelling with a wonderful art unadopted style.
Also I didn't feel like I was getting pneumonia like I did whilst roaming Esther Island (see what I did there...never mind).
So am I saying that had Dear Esther let you pick up a rock and throw it at a bird, turn over a desk, interact with a piece of paper with some etchings on it and let you do rudimentary, barely puzzle breaking functions - that I would consider it a game?
Well yes, yes I am.
Again don't get your knickers in a twist over my thoughts on this but I would welcome all opinions and thoughts be it for, against or neutral. If there's lubricated opinions i.e words draped in lube (that's a thing don't ya know), those too are allowed entry.