As gamers have attempted in recent years to have their medium be taken more seriously as an art form, the question of semantics has often popped up. The term ‘video game’ has a childlike connotation to it, and opponents to the term will argue that nobody can take video games seriously as an art form when you have to ‘play’ them like a toy or sport. In his 2011 book ‘The Art of Immersion’ Frank Rose compares gaming’s struggle to be accepted as being similar to the challenges early novels such as Robinson Crusoe faced. Recounting Elan Lee’s ‘choice of the ‘This is not a game’ byline for the A.I. movie and accompanying alternate reality game, Rose wrote “Denying they had created a game (was) a pattern repeated many times before… whenever people were trying to figure out a way of telling stories that was new, unformed and not yet accepted. He was trying to make it seem okay.”
Trying to make it video games ‘seem okay’ has been especially important in trying to distinguish art house style experiences like Journey and Shadow of the Colossus from standard fare like Call of Duty. Read or listen closely to reviews and discussion on these games, and you’ll notice ‘interactive art’ or the shorter ‘experience’ are phrases that take precedence over ‘game’. What’s interesting about using ‘interactive art’ to determine the medium though is that it explicitly states the thing that makes video games unique as an art form- the interaction. A game can have no graphics (Papa Sangre), or no sound (Zork), but if the player can’t play the game, or interact with the art, then it isn’t a video game. So to the hypothesis then- does interaction necessarily have to benefit an experience in order to make a good game?
There have been carious attempts to discuss the idea of fun in video games. The actual process of moving around the world in The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther couldn’t really be described as enjoyable in and of itself, but nevertheless, it’s held by many as one of 2012′s most important and best video games thus far. Dear Esther’s interaction may be limited, but it isn’t objectively bad. Grasshopper Manufacture’s 2001 PS2 release, (and later DS remake) Flower, Sun and Rain, was deliberately made to frustrate- setting ridiculously convoluted fetch quests, accompanied by an in-game pedometer that would reward you with a costume item for every few thousand steps in order to satisfy what the central character at one stage admits ‘nothing but a collection of obscure in-jokes’. As irritating as interacting with FSR is, however, that interaction is key to the experience- not only is Goichi Suda’s game a punk commentary on the mistakes that adventure game designers still make eleven years later, but an experiment in how far the player’s patience can be tested before they stop persisting with a world or story.
Plenty of other games have toyed with similar concepts. D3′s 2005 PSP game Baito Hell 2000 (Work Time Fun in the West) poked fun at gaming’s reliance of Skinner Boxes, arranging a collection of mundane minigames that had to be played for hours on end to earn a pittance in-game currency. Even further back, meanwhile, Takeshi’s Challenge (Taito, 1986) was an early case of a celebrity (comedian-cum-gameshow host-cum- director Kitano ‘Beat’ Takeshi) working closely with video game designers for a tie in project; however with Takeshi’s distaste for the emergent medium a factor the game actually became an outlet for his frustrations- a collection of bizarre and often mundane tasks (you would have to leave the controller untouched for an hour, or warble karaoke into the Famicom’s mic) with instant deaths frequent.
These games are dreadful from a ‘fun’ perspective, but succeed in their artistic endeavours, either presenting a tale or deconstructing the medium. Moreover, the interaction is essential to that statement, whether or not the player enjoys themselves or has any agency on the story or experience itself. The original ‘interactive art experience’ Deus Ex Machina (Mel Croucher, 1984) gave the player no agency at all, the game designed as it was to match the music and monologues of the accompanying soundtrack tape. Its gameplay as well was simple even for the time, but key to the whole game; you could attempt to act as much as you wanted, but it was all futile, something all the more poignant in its final stage where blood clots had to be dissipated in the heart of a dying man- its final lines “imagine if life was nothing but an electronic game- imagine if I could start all over again. Imagine if I knew then what I know now” still echoing today. Bioshock (2K, 2007), meanwhile, is not best remembered for its moment to moment gameplay, but rather for its commentary on the illusion of agency itself, and the ‘myth’ of player choice. In my own personal experience, I had to play the game through on its lowest difficulty, so easily frustrated I was by its backtracking and combat that offered little enjoyment to me, but the game’s ‘big reveal’ two thirds through saved the experience, and without having played (as opposed to watched) the game up to that point, its statement- that there might be choices presented, but all are means to the same few ends- would have been lost on me.
No, interaction doesn’t have to be fun in the sense that ‘playing’ such infantile ‘games’ as Super Meat Boy or Battlefield is to add to an experience. In Telltale’s Walking Dead series, slow-paced adventure puzzling is often tiresome, especially when solutions to problems are fairly obvious. It uses violence brilliantly however, and frantically moving the cursor over a zombie and striking, only for nothing to work cleanly and the drama to continue, makes encounters memorable and service the story. In Quantic Dreams’ Heavy Rain, meanwhile, the standard button hammering Quick Time Events were mixed with complicated finger gymnastics, and Sixaxis usage, making moments like the iconic finger severing scene not only some of the best isolated usages of motion in any video game to date, but do some way to repairing the damage overwrought writing and poor voice work had done to the quality of the overall package. Even restricting interaction to its absolute simplest- picking options from a menu to choose a story path, has had its merits, found in the success of the sound novel genre in Japan that still informs games like Level 5′s Time Travellers.
All the above are cases where playing the game is of benefit to the package, regardless of whether the interaction is particularly complex, or even any good at all. So what happens when interaction actively detracts from the experience or artistic goals? Laserdisc based full motion video experiences were derided because ‘being in the movie’ amounted to adding rote memorization and trial and error to bad straight to video short films. It’s pretty easy to deride American Laser games’ output, but negative statements directed at the likes of Uncharted 3 seem more controversial somehow. Naughty Dog does strong character work in its games; stories are Macguffin chasing blockbuster pulp, but are solid and convincing- until the controller is picked up. By the third in the series, Uncharted’s staple diet of frustratingly long gun fights that out stay their welcome by a good margin, and set pieces that despite their spectacle, have the same rule set and trial and error of the bad old days of Dragon’s Lair, had gotten tiresome for me personally. The actual process of playing UC3 actively seemed to negatively influence the whole package. Does poor ‘gameplay’ not automatically mean ‘poor game’, or is it merely an obstacle that can be overcome by other aspects, as UC 3‘s critical and commercial success would appear to suggest?
Interaction, playability, whatever you want to term it, is the only thing that separates games from other media. With that in mind, it might appear that any game that you’d rather watch than play is by definition a bad video game no matter how well it’s written or how good it looks. Actual interaction is also the most personal and subjective aspect of any game , impressions weighed this way and that by our personal frustrations and expectations. It’s why the old days of games writing, where the intangible ‘playability’ was awarded a score alongside graphics and sound, all plugged into a mysterious formula and given a scientific score (in the case of eighties British magazine Ace, out of 1000, and accompanying a brilliantly ludicrous projected interest graph that somehow plotted how the player would feel about a game one year after purchase) are happily gone. Sound Shapes was what prompted me to put finger to keyboard here, because it was the only game I can think of that resonated with me despite the worst part of the game being when I was actually playing it. Maybe that’s what makes games such a powerful medium- interactivity as one of several tools, rather than a defining characteristic. Are there any games you love that you would rather watch than play? We await your comments with baited breath.