Today I watched a video where a YouTuber claimed that a video game was not a video game. Of course, that statement doesn’t actually make sense. What he meant to say was that he had encountered a video game that did not neatly fit his definition of what a game was supposed to be. That statement got me to thinking. How do we decide what fits into certain categories, and what doesn’t?
Studying literature has created a greater sense in me of discussions like this one. Every couple of years someone new claims that the novel is dead. What they really mean by this statement is, much like the YouTuber, the novel has changed form into something that they can no longer recognize. In a way, it’s unimaginative, not to mention lazy.
I talked a little while ago about Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a book of fiction that in many ways defies definition and category. There have been works of art, films, television shows, and video games that have done the same exact thing. The difference in many instances is that some critics have the breadth of imagination to envision a possibility of something belonging to a category rather than closing off the category to other alternatives.
The best example I can think of in regards to this phenomenon is Journey, the game that the YouTuber I previously mentioned said was not a video game. He called it an experience, and there’s nothing wrong about that statement. Journey is an experience. It is also a video game. How do I match that definition? In the case of Journey, I am using the definition of the developers of the game, I am using the definition of the industry where it was called game of the year, and I am using my own definition of how I experience interactivity. Yes, the last part is personal, but the first two are understandable ways to establish definitions. Still, if someone crafts a spoon, hands it to you, and calls it a fork, you’re probably going to have questions. How does Journey stack up to what a game should offer?
First, it has mechanics and interactivity. The button inputs are minimalistic, but they are there. The player interacts with the game. That’s key. It’s not just pushing a button for a cut scene. Next, it has a story. Some games are loose on this regard, but most games have a story to tell. Finally, the player uses the mechanics to achieve a goal. In the case of Journey, that goal is to reach the top of a mountain.Why might people not think of it as a game? Well, it’s not possible to die, there are very few enemies, and it’s a linear experience. Each of these problems has an easy response. To the death possibility, consider the fact that death was originally used as a means to snatch quarters from children. Many developers have gone away from using death as a punishing mechanic. In regards to enemies, there’s no necessity for there to be negative forces in a video game. Guitar Hero, Pokemon Snap, and Flower (another game from thatgamecompany’s canon) have no enemies. They have obstacles to overcome. The difficulty with Journey is that it is a linear experience, but linearity has only recently fallen out of favor in the gaming community. Many of the greatest games of all time (Super Mario Bros, Donkey Kong Country, and Sonic the Hedgehog, etc.) could be faulted with this curse of linearity. The real heart of this situation is that it is easier to declare that something does not fall into a category than to expand our definitions. Novels, video games, or any other creative categories exist in a state of constant flux. Accepting that they may change is the way to bring about new experiences. Closing off to the possibilities can lead to more intolerant outcomes on other matters. It’s probably better to stay on the side of reasonable and open-minded. Then again, that’s probably good life advice in general.