Hello all, I'm Scrustle. I've had a strong love for games for most of my life. I was first exposed to them a little later in my life than most other gamers, but I am by no means a newcomer. The original Pokemon games and Zelda: Majora's Mask are what first got me in to gaming, but I didn't get thoroughly in to gaming until the generation after.
The Zelda series and games like it, racing games, and RPGs have grown to become my favourite genres, but I appreciate many others too.
I mostly enjoy games as my primary hobby, but I like to do some serious thinking about them too. I also have an interest in car culture, music of the metallic variety, anime, philosophy, and psychology, among other sciences.
I also have a Youtube channel, where I have a bunch of videos I made of Forza 3. I haven't done anything with that in ages though.
There have been a lot of games recently that have been getting a lot of attention for their unique and untraditional approach, often focusing around narrative or atmosphere instead of action or a test of skill. Games like Proteus, The Walking Dead, and Dear Esther for example. Because of their unusual methods some people have been protesting at calling these “games”. You see people saying things like they shouldn't be winning “game of the year” awards, or that they shouldn't be sold as games, or that they shouldn't even be covered by the gaming press. These comments are usually said with a scornful tone, as if because these things aren't games, they are somehow lesser and undeserving of our attention.
Because of this people often try to skirt around the issue. Saying that it's irrelevant and a waste of time to talk about, and we should just try to appreciate these games on their own merit, rather than worrying about whether we should be paying attention to them.
But the way I see it, both sides of this issue are right and wrong.
As videogames as a medium has evolved it has become apparent that the way designate genres has become maladaptive. The term “RPG” has little to do with the actual appeal of the genre, for example, and it could be argued that the idea that it is even a genre of its own has become obsolete, with almost every type of game including “RPG elements” now. We designate genres by their camera angles and country of origin instead of their mechanics and themes, we group games together simply because their game worlds have a superficially similar structure, and the terms “action” and “adventure” have become so widely used that they have become almost meaningless. We don't know how to categorise our medium any more, and I think it's time we cleaned things up.
I also think that this muddying of the waters has lead us to categorise things as games when we shouldn't do. Figuring out what game should fit in to what genre is one problem, but first we need to work out exactly what a videogame is. That means some things that we currently call “games” may have to be thrown out, but this isn't a bad thing at all.
From here on out, I'll be referring to these things that I don't think are games as “not-games”, since I currently don't have a good name to call them as this point. Perhaps they may even fall in to several different categories, but for the purposes of this editorial, I'm focusing on whether or not they count as games.
So what is a game? Games have been defined as being unnecessary tasks we set ourselves simply for entertainment, or merely a set of interesting choices, but I like to be more specific than that. There are several things I find that are common to all games, video or otherwise. Firstly, their purpose is to give you an objective to achieve, and achieving that objective counts as a win state, such as defeating an enemy or winning a race. It may even be something more arbitrary, like finishing all tasks required on the “critical path” towards finishing a story. Secondly, there are mechanics. These are the tools you are given that allow you to interact with the game world for the purpose of achieving the objective, like your weaponry or move set. Lastly, you have the rules. These tell you what things that you are restricted from doing in a game, but in a videogame they are incorporated in to the mechanics, because the game is not able to allow you to commit an action which it has not specifically laid out for you. You can't make an illegal move, because that move simply does not exist. Failing to correctly utilise your mechanics or pay attention to the rules will result in you finding yourself in a lose state, from which the win state is impossible. These restrictions are what give the game challenge, and are in theory what makes games as a concept entertaining.
Now if we look at some of these not-games, we can see that they don't fit this definition. On the surface they may appear to show similar traits to games, like a similar perspective and control input, which is why I think people erroneously think of these as games, but on closer examination we can see that they're not.
In Proteus there is no objective, no win or lose state, and no mechanics that are designed to be used as tools to achieve an objective. You simply have the ability to walk. Movement can sometimes be a mechanic in a game, such as in platformers, but in Proteus it is not used as a tool that requires skill to be used towards any goal.
Dear Esther shows similar traits. There are no mechanics allowing you to interact with anything, and movement is even more restricted than in Proteus. You simply walk down a path and at certain points a piece of narration is triggered. Sometimes the path diverges slightly, but it has no baring on anything that would resemble success or failure.
The Walking Dead is a much less clear cut case. Personally, with this one I'm not sure I would go so far as to say it's not a game, but it certainly shares a lot of features with these not-games. It's kind of halfway between the two, and perhaps shows how this topic is more nuanced than the simple dichotomy of “is it a game or is it not”.
The main feature of the “game” is the story and conversation system. Your main focus of interactivity is around how you choose to treat other characters, and certain choices that alter the story somewhat. These choices result in characters treating you differently, or minor alterations of events in the story, which are usually relatively inconsequential in the overall plot. But almost none of these choices ultimately end in a “win” or “lose” state. It's hard to see the ability to choose dialogue as a mechanic either, at least in the sense of it being a “game”. Your only level of interactivity is choosing from a list of responses, but they often aren't consistent. They're not like the “Paragon” or “Renegade” dialogue choices in Mass Effect, for example. They are a lot less clear cut and less binary than that. This is part of the reason why the game has such great writing, but what it definitely doesn't represent a solid and consistent tool set or rule set. But as I mentioned before, sometimes simply reaching the end of the sequence of events that conclude the story can be considered a win state, although in The Walking Dead you can't really “fail” at the “mechanic” of conversations that lead you towards that.
There are also other aspects of the “game” which are much more game-like; the puzzle segments. These are much more like the mechanics of a traditional adventure game, which are focused around having a set number of actions you can perform, and you have to work out what actions you use with what item/character/object to progress. In The Walking Dead the mechanic is so simplified that it's barely a mechanic at all. For the most part, you don't have to figure anything out. You usually don't have many options for what you can do in any given puzzle scenario, you basically just have to pick up the right item before using it on the thing it's meant for. Sometimes it's more complicated than that, like in the stealth sequence when you first reach the motel, or in one of the various shooting sequences, but are these really enough for them to be called a “mechanic” rather than simply being QTEs or busywork used to progress the plot? I'm unsure on this myself, which is why I'm not confident putting it in the same category as Proteus or Dear Esther, but it's not quite a game either.
“So what if these aren't games?”, I hear you cry. “That doesn't mean they're not fun or I shouldn't be allowed to enjoy them.”, and you would be right. But if we want to get the most out of whatever medium they are, then we should be clear on exactly what medium they are not. They should be free of the shackled of the definition of games, and all the misplaces expectations that brings. Calling these things games would be like grouping graphic novels in with Charles Dickens' works, or calling a quad bike a car. They may have some similarities, but if we judge the merit of one by the standards of other, then we will be doing it a disservice. To be sloppy and too loose with the definition just devalues it and adds confusion. To be stricter with definition improves the vision of what a medium is and what it is trying to achieve, allowing for a clearer progression towards greater heights in each field. Distinguishing one from the other doesn't make it worse, it just allows us to understand better what we are describing. Just because Watchmen is a graphic novel doesn't mean it's any worse than David Copperfield, and a quad bike isn't worse than an Audi A6 because it's not a car, they're just for a different purpose, and their definitions reflect that.
Nor does this mean that experimentation is bad and that we must only ever stick to things that we know we can define. If that was the case I wouldn't have anything to write this piece about. I think it's fantastic that we're starting to see these new and utterly unique experiences that make us question what a “game” really is. But since they're posing the question, surely we should be attempting to deliver an answer. We should be taking this as a chance to acknowledge the birth of an entire new medium of computerised interactive entertainment, not looking down our noses at it as pretentious and worthless, or ignoring the issue because we are afraid or unsure of what this discussion may entail. Even though videogames are still a relatively young medium, they are already branching out thanks to the exponential advancement of technology, and we should be embracing that and all the mind-expanding experiences it can bring.
[Preface: So this is my first contribution to the c-blogs. This isn't what I was expecting my first submission to be, but I thought it was worth sharing. In the future I may do more reviews, but it's more likely I'll be doing something more in the style of an editorial or analysis.]
I personally was unaware of this series until shortly before this HD collection was announced. I had never seen anything quite like it before, but after first seeing it my interest was piqued. When I got my hands on the games myself I was not disappointed.
These games are unlike most other mecha based games, and probably have more in common with something like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden. They're incredibly hectic and fast paced action games. Gameplay mostly consists of you piloting a very cool and stylised looking mech (called an "Orbital Frame"), as you fight your way through levels against other mechs. Most of them are un-piloted and relatively weak compared the player, but their numbers and speed can make for challenging fights. There are also plenty of boss fights where you go up against what are usually piloted mechs which are of much more comparable power to the player's. Your basic weapons consist of close range melee attacks with a laser sword, and long ranged laser guns. You can also charge your attacks to do special moves with these weapons, but in general they are relatively simple to use. There is also a myriad of sub-weapons which have special effects which add a decent amount of variation, some of which are required to beat certain enemies.
The challenge and fun of the gameplay comes from figuring out how to use these properly, while also paying attention to the frantic and incredibly fast paced action happening around you. Bosses also tend to require some thought in terms of strategy. They can sometimes seem impossible until you work out exactly what the method is. While it lacks a focus on complicated combos like DMC of Ninja Gaiden, there is more of an emphasis on keeping mobile and being aware of movement and position. But the pace of combat and the satisfaction it brings is similar. Skilfully and stylishly despatching your enemies is incredibly exciting and rewarding.
There are a few points though that take the focus of the gameplay away from the combat towards other things that seem rather baffling. It left me confused as to how the designers decided that these sections were even fun, let alone good enough to be put in the game. There is also a very limited local multiplayer mode. It basically just puts two players up against each other in various mechs featured throughout the games, and that's pretty much it.
Graphically, these games look brilliant considering they were built for the PS2. It can sometimes be easy to forget that it's an HD port. The graphical style is very clean and futuristic, with a lot of shiny metal and glowing neon lights, and with fantastic aesthetic design. The second game in particular looks very nice. It has a pseudo-cel shaded look to it, fit to compliment the anime style cutscenes, which also look brilliant. There are some flaws though. Levels are generally pretty small in size, and in the first game low draw distance can be an issue. In the second game there is a mission where you are put in the midst of a battle, with a ridiculous number of enemies and allies on the screen at one time. The frame rate does noticeably drop, but not to a level at which it becomes unplayable. It's still one of the most exciting missions in the game. But in general the brilliant aesthetic and the top-notch animation elevate it above the flaws.
The music of the games is also very good. It mostly consists of futuristic sounding techno, with lots of synthesizers and a thumping beat. It fits the mood of the game very nicely, and keeps the blood pumping. There are also a few tracks which feature Japanese vocals with instrumental aspects to them as well. They are very different from the rest of the music, but they somehow fit. They retain a kind of futuristic and alien feel to them.
The stories however, are pretty poor. These games are set in a future where human kind has spread out across the Solar System, and the extra terrestrial colonies are rebelling against oppressive Earth rule. Although through both games you find yourself fighting against one of these rebel groups that come from Mars, you are not necessarily aligned with Earth either. The reason for this is because the group you are fighting has some kind of evil plot which involves the use of a powerful energy source, called Metatron, which is being mined from the moons of Jupiter. Metatron is also key to the power of the mechs that feature throughout the series, and has some apparently magical properties, which are very poorly defined. Despite the badly explained exposition and obvious plot device of Metatron, I found the setting to be kind of interesting. There's a lot of potential for depth and commentary in there, it's just mostly squandered.
Although the setting for the series is pretty confusing, the narratives of the actual games are comparatively simple. They basically boil down to "defeat the bad guys because they're bad". In the first game you are defending a space colony from the aforementioned rebel group, for no other reason than they are attacking civilian areas. There is an attempt at some kind of pseudo-pacifist message about the morality of violence, and questioning whether ends can justify means, but it's delivered by a protagonist who is insufferably petulant and annoying.
The second game doesn't seem to try to have a message behind it, and focuses more on character development and fleshing out their backstories. Although it's less irritating, and more competent at what it tries than the first game because of its narrower focus, it's still far from good. You get a better idea of who characters are and what their relationships are, but that's about it. Attempts at developing characters fall flat on their face, and hearing about the past of characters does next to nothing to help this.
It's not helped by the fact in both games the voice acting is pretty terrible. If the tone isn't completely flat, it's completely wrong, and translation is awful in places. Although, in some cases that can lead to a chuckle, but that's probably not a good thing. At least the cutscenes that deliver the story in the second game look great. They're done in a very clean and nicely animated anime style, although most of the in-game video calls have little more animation than a mouth opening and closing. It's still far better than the first game though. There are no video calls at all, just audio, and the cutscenes are done using really badly dated CG.
Both games are also pretty short, lasting between 6 and 8 hours. But for the excitement they offer they don't feel like they are too short, or don't deliver on their promise. The second game is also built around replayability, with a new game plus mode which allows you to keep all your weapons, and adds secret bonus boss fights through the story, which unlock extra characters for multiplayer.
For the asking price these games are pretty great. In the current state of the industry, they're incredibly refreshing and bring back memories of a time when games were designed differently. In a lot of cases that's for the better. They're very focused around creating an exciting and unique experience, and nothing else. Sometimes that can be for the worse. Stories are ham-fisted and presentation is lacking in some places. But in the places that matter, these games do a lot right.