Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"That's Not a Game!"

A couple nights ago around 2 a.m., I finally finished season 1 of The Walking Dead by Telltale Games. When I credits stopped rolling and the epilogue tag showing little Clementine alone in the countryside faded out, I stumbled in daze back to my bed. Before I could roll over to sleep, I couldn't resist the impulse to put my arm around my sleeping wife and hold her tight for a moment. Perhaps more than any other media I've ever encountered, The Walking Dead opened my eyes to my relationships with other people, especially my wife and family. I was intensely grateful for the love I've been so lucky to feel throughout my life, and the forces of order that have made the path of my life relatively smooth and easy. As I felt all this, I concluded that The Walking Dead is really one of the greatest games I've ever played.

Except there's one problem. The Walking Dead isn't a game.

A couple months ago, I went to an information for the University of Utah's nationally ranked game design program, where I met the program director, a woman named Corrinne R. Lewis. We had a lively discussion about some recent games I'd been playing and I started to feel really good about applying to the program. As I got more comfortable and confident, I said, "I'm really interested in telling interactive stories." Suddenly, Lewis's tone changed and she said, "Now, that's not a game." After some more discussion she said, "Yeah, you'll love the game design classes," and explained that in your first year in the program, all students take game design classes to learn what really makes something a game.

Uncharted is one of the most popular game series ever made, but are they really games?
Lots of popular "games" didn't make Lewis's cut in our discussion. Specifically, we mentioned Naughty Dog's Uncharted series and that studio's most recent title The Last of Us, as well as Journey, thatgamecompany's smash hit from last year, and the ever infamous Heavy Rain from David Cage and his team at Quantic Dream. To be fair, Lewis did say that Naughty Dog had sort of "cracked the code" with The Last of Us, but generally these games weren't up to her definition of "game."

Since that interview, I've learned a lot about the "It's not a game" debate. Basically, the increasingly complex nature of videogames allows them to bleed into other mediums (usually film and literature) like never before, but sometimes this medium blending comes at the expensive of the actual game part of the game. To a lot of critics and designers eyes, this is a serious problem for the games industry, and, in their view, this trend threatens to ruin games and their true potential as a medium.

For example, check out Chris Franklin's review of The Last of Us, where he sums up the basic problems of this debate quite nicely. (I guess I should warn you, there's spoilers, though I tend to think the internet's obsessive spoiler control is weird and pointless.)

Franklin makes some good points with his oil and water metaphor. It's true that The Last of Us deals very intelligently and maturely with some important themes, but it's also true that it rarely deals with these themes during the actual gameplay portions of the game, leaving such things mostly to cutscenes and scripted dialog. That said, the game systems are very intelligently designed, and in a few key ways also explore the themes presented in the cutscenes and therefore enhance the effects of those cutscenes considerably. For example, killing someone in The Last of Us is difficult, takes time, and the enemies often struggle against your strangling or plead with you before you shoot them when they're down. These aspects of the game actively invite the player to reflect on the cost of survival in a post-pandemic world and enrich the game's thematic depth, presenting violence as actually violent and disturbing, rather than just fun and exciting. Also, I would argue that the ending of the game, though it may be presented in a cutscene, would not work in a movie, and only makes sense if you have actually played through the 15 to 20 hours of the game and created a real relationship with both Joel and Ellie. In that way, the game enhances the cutscenes, but the argument still stands that game and story remain starkly divided.

Perhaps the greatest controversy in this debate has been caused by a man named David Cage and his development team at Quantic Dream. Much of the marketing for Quantic Dream's games actively promote their movie-like qualities, and claim their games are "blurring the lines between games and film." Their latest game, Beyond: Two Souls, was even featured at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Furthermore, Beyond starred popular film actors Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe through motion capture technology, and Quantic Dream purchased prominent ads on the film review aggregation site the days before the game's release. The "game" part of Beyond: Two Souls comes from making decisions that influence the course of the story, as well as QTEs (quick-time events, explained here) and some puzzles and light combat systems. In the end, though, my favorite summary of the experience is Kirk Hamilton's: "Beyond is, more or less, a SYFY original miniseries that occasionally asks for input from the viewer."

In a lot of ways, The Walking Dead is like Beyond: Two Souls. You don't actually do much in the game, you just pick from options for dialog during conversations with other characters, and in each of the game's five episodes there's one or two tough decisions where you only have time or ability to pick one of two alternatives, and the game asks you to pick one and live with the consequences throughout the rest of the story. There are some puzzles, but overall the game involves no real skill, and it entertains no sense of "winning" whatsoever.

But if these games aren't games, what are they? I'm not really sure to be honest, but the fact is they're targeted at people who play videogames, they're played on videogame systems, and they use the same technology as videogames, so they're going to continue to be called games, even if they lack win states and increasingly difficult obstacles that require skill development, or any of the other aspects that people feel make games games.

However, with how the numbers are running, we've only seen the beginning of such game-story hybrids. Every single game I've mentioned in this post is a commercial and critical success (with the exception of Beyond, which has received mixed reviews). To date, The Walking Dead has earned over 80 "Game of the Year" awards and sold over 21 million episodes. The Uncharted series together has an average of over 90 out of 100 on game review aggregation sites like, and collectively has sold over 17 million copies and garnered multiple "Game of the Year" awards. The Last of Us received no less than 42 perfect-scored reviews, and holds the record for the fastest-selling PlayStation 3 game with over 3.4 million copies sold in just three weeks. As long as capitalism is still a thing and consumers continue to react like this, games like these will continue to be made.

Games like The Walking Dead may not be strictly games, but people want whatever these not-game things are, and they've proven themselves capable of addressing serious issues, entertaining millions of people, and being visually stunning and truly beautiful. So, whatever these pieces are, should we really lament that they aren't "games" like we've previously defined the word? I agree that maybe we shouldn't call them games anymore, but I'm definitely a fan and support the continued development of such uniquely interactive and powerful narrative experiences. I may not know what we'll be calling these things in 50 years, but I'm 100% sure we'll be calling them something, because this new genre isn't going anywhere but up for a long while yet.


  1. Great article- but you don't directly provide the information on what "really makes something a game" by Corinne Lewis' definition? What's their criteria for what a game is, and how does that exclude TWD or TLoU?

    1. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what Lewis's definition of a game is--we only had one brief talk. However, I'm pretty sure she was mainly referring to gameplay being the main focus for the whole experience, with a demand from the game to the player to build a skill and make tactical decisions. I got the sense that something like XCOM is much more respectable to her than Uncharted. Like I said, though, she did admit that TLoU had cracked a kind of code with a better marriage of game and movie than the Naughty Dog achieved with the Uncharted series.