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What are games about, really?

The other day it occurred to me what we mean when we speak of what a game is "about," and how it differs from the explanations of other media. I think that part of the reason that the discussion of games as art is so contentious is that games can't really be examined in quite the same way as other works. When we look at a comic book, a book or a film, what we see on the page or the screen is the work of art, plain and simple. With games, it's not quite so straightforward - what we see on the screen is only part of the game. The real heart of the medium lies in a curious limbo - it cannot be seen. The real center of a game is the player's interaction with it, making the whole thing a collaborative experience. The game isn't really a game until you start playing it. When we discuss what a game is about, then, we ought to be discussing what it is that you do.

Sure, games have traditional stories, and they're important to the experience. However, they're crafted of the materials of other media - pictures, animation, words. The story created by actually playing the game is a different thing, although in many of the best examples of video game storytelling the two are carefully interwoven, like in Braid or Dragon Quest V, to give a couple of examples. You can attach any background story you like to a falling shapes game - it's still fundamentally a game about stacking and clearing away, just like Tetris. It's fun to distill your favorite games down to this simple essence, often describable in a single sentence of the form "X is a game about Y." Ecco the Dolphin, whose story involves aliens and time travel, is fundamentally a game about being a dolphin. That's why people are drawn to it: the sheer experience of darting through the blue ocean, flipping high into the air, nosing through tunnels in search of air pockets. This is what really makes that game memorable.

In some cases, the two stories of a game can differ greatly, and the dissonance can actually create an captivating effect. Let's talk about the 1982 arcade game Sinistar, famous for its titular villain, a face-shaped spaceship that talks to you in a digitized voice, taunting you, "Beware, I live" and "Run, Coward!" Its ominous voice, combined with the spaceship coming after you at high speed and then eating you alive with a mighty roar, is genuinely frightening. The object of the game is to destroy Sinistar, but what is the game about?

Sinistar is a game about mining.

Seriously, this is what you spend most of your time doing. To me it's one of the biggest cognitive disconnects in gaming. To get the Sinibombs you need to defeat Sinistar, you fly around shooting rocks to release "crystals" you collect to construct the bombs. Sinistar isn't in the game at all for a couple of minutes, so it's just you, the rocks, and some annoying little enemies that get in your way. It's tricky, but almost Zen-like really - you just keep hammering away at those rocks. Honestly, I think it heightens Sinistar's impact to look at the game this way - when it does show up, the game you've become familiar with is torn apart by a violent and terrifying force of nature. It's quite an impact.

I think in any discussion of the premise or story of a game, it's worth stepping back to examine what exactly you, the player, do. It's an angle that can be amusing and revelatory.
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About tim333one of us since 5:53 PM on 12.11.2007

Regarding my 1001games project: There's only one deadline. I haven't hit it yet!

I'm a 90s gamer and Sega kid for life. I like platformers, adventure games and JRPGs. I'm not that into first-person shooters or sports games.

I spend more of my time playing older games than new ones. I do have a PS3 now, though, and I like buying games on PSN. I like the Wii and have a ton of games for it. I'm encouraged by some of the stuff out on Wiiware - to me, games like Bit.Trip Beat are more appealing than the "triple-A" titles coming out on the HD consoles.

Some of my all-time favorite games are Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Dragon Quest III, Heroes of Might and Magic III, The Curse of Monkey Island, and Dance Dance Revolution.

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