In recent years you may have noticed the emergence of a strange new genre of "videogame". I put "videogame" in quotes because the difference between these titles and "normal" videogames is so striking that many gamers have refused to call them videogames at all.
The common feature of these... things... is that they emphasize narrative and immersion above all, frequently to the exclusion of any kind of gameplay whatsoever.
Dear Esther, Proteus, Gone Home, 30 Flights Of Loving, The Path, Heavy Rain, Journey, to name only the most popular. This whole thing might not be to your taste, nothing wrong with that. On the other hand, you might be fascinated by this radically new genre and would like to learn more.
What's that? You would like to learn more?
Glad you asked!
Did you know that there's a worked out design philosophy behind these "experiences"?
It's called notgames or narrative simulations.
It began when a group of game designers sat down and thought about how to do videogame narratives better. They came to a simple yet radical realization:
Interaction is not the same as gameplay.
Interaction is essential to a videogame. But interaction doesn't have to mean gameplay. It doesn't have to be "kill these enemies", "solve these puzzles", "collect 50 billion goblin c***s".
It can just be something you do.
Something that helps pull you into the world.
Like in The Walking Dead when you cut off that guy's leg, decide who gets fed and bury the kid.
Or in Metro: Last Light when you blow all your money on vodka and strippers, get blackout drunk and wake up in bed with an old woman.
Or in Red Dead Redemption when you ride home to your family to the tune of Compass.
Or in Planescape:Torment when you answer the question "what can change the nature of a man?".
None of those are gameplay. You can't win or lose them. They are non-gameplay interaction - degamified interaction.
And they are among the most engaging narrative moments in videogames.
A narrative sim is a title which is composed of nothing but such gameplay-less interactive scenes. The devs of Amnesia, Dear Esther, Gone Home, 30 Flights Of Loving, Proteus, Heavy Rain, The Walking Dead, Journey, The Path, and Uncharted (with that village scene, you know the one) are all influenced by this philosophy. Even the designer of Painkiller, Bulletstorm and Gears of War: Judgement has been convinced to try it out.
Pictured: Sometimes non-gameplay interaction can be more interesting than gameplay.
Another insight from the notgame community is this:
The medium is not games but simulations.
Traditionally, simulations have been considered as a subset of computer games or something totally separate. It's actually the other way around - computer games are a subset of computer simulations, just as gameplay is a subset of interaction.
This insight is key to resolving the biggest and most harmful logical contradiction in developer thinking today:
The confusion between videogames, the medium, and games, the activity.
Read any videogame website and you will see that this confusion is utterly pervasive.
On one hand, people talk about videogames as an entirely new medium that arose with computers. On the other hand they talk about them as a mere extension of traditional games and sports into the computer realm.
Do you see the contradiction? I'm sure most of us agree that we have a new artistic medium on our hands here. But games are not new at all, they are thousands of years old, and it's arguable whether they've ever been an artistic medium.
This phenomenon, this thing we have here, has to be one or the other. It can't be both.
New medium, or old activity. Pick one.
Pictured: You're right. Gone Home is not a game. It's a simulation.
No, if we want to make progress we have to follow the first definition to its logical conclusion. That means: The medium is computer simulations, not games; the palette is interactions, not gameplay; games are just one of the myriad things you can do with a computer simulation.
A computer game can be looked upon as a game replicated inside a computer simulation - a simulation that has gameplay in it, a game simulation.
This conceptual shift necessitates a little bit of terminological accurization. So when I say "videogames" I mean the whole medium. When I say "games" or "digital games" I mean gamified videogames, gamified simulations, simulations where the main interaction is gameplay. The trickiest part is to resist the urge to use "games" as shorthand for "videogames".
Probably the biggest flaw in narrative videogame design today is the insistence that every narrative videogame has to have gameplay in it. Designers insert gameplay when it doesn't make any sense, when it would be better to just let the player do something without making a game out of it.
(I should emphasize that notgame/narrative sim designers and fans are not hostile to games. Games are excellent computer entertainment and most "notgamers" are big fans of them. All we're saying is that there's an unexplored world of narrative computer entertainment beyond games, and sometimes the insistence on gameplay can be a big flaw in games that purport to tell some kind of story.)
(...That's right, I only phrased the title like that to get your attention. Consider yourself trolled.)
Bioshock: Infinite is also a simulation, but it's also a game. It and Gone Home have in common the fact that they are simulations.
AAA games rely on pre-videogame formats
The standard approach to videogame narrative today is to glue together an arcade game with a movie.
GTA, Bioshock, Gears of War, Assassin's Creed, The Last Of Us, Half-Life 2, Uncharted, are all structured like that, to mention just a handful of thousands of similarly designed games.
For the most part the interaction is limited to repetitive gameplay tasks: Collecting powerups, solving puzzles, eliminating endless hordes of enemies.
On the other hand, the most important parts of the narrative are not interactive. They are told as cutscenes, movies, scripted sequences.
Do you see what this means? We are using this new medium, computer simulations, to replicate old formats: movies... and games.
Narrative sims are a way to focus the interactivity onto the narrative itself. That way we can really start to utilize what makes this medium special.
Pictured: Gamified food
All this can be summed up in another maxim of notgame design:
Don't think about what gameplay you need, think about what interaction you need.
If the most appropriate form of interaction is some form of gameplay, then great, go with that. If not... use your imagination.
Don't think in terms of game mechanics, think in terms of interaction systems.
... and degamified food. See the difference?
Bioshock: Infinite is ostensibly a videogame about all sorts of interesting topics: racism, nativism, religion, the nature of democracy, elitism, time travel, uhm... alternate dimensions... waifu incest... errr... anyway, it should be very interesting to see how they convey their views on all these topics by means of interaction. Right?
But what do you do in Bioshock: Infinite?
All that art design, all those characters, all that world building, all those political statements - all just the backdrop for yet another Space Invaders clone.
Bioshock: Infinite is not a videogame about racism or religion or tyranny. It's a videogame about shooting people in the face.
Because that's what you do. Everything else is just fluff.
In fact, even the act of shooting people in the face is just fluff for eliminating game obstacles.
Elizabeth is supposedly this breakthrough in character design. But what does Elizabeth do? She gives you powerups. Elizabeth is not a character, she's fluff for a powerup dispenser.
Just think of all the amazing things you could do in Bioshock: Infinite if they had gone through it and degamified every interaction that ought to be degamified. If they didn't stubbornly insist that this is a game dammit! Everything must be gameplay!
I'm not talking about turning it into a puzzle adventure game like Monkey Island or Myst. That would be just as artificial except the whole world would be there for you to overcome game obstacles by solving puzzles instead of by killing enemies.
I'm talking about letting the world of Bioshock exist on its own terms instead of on the game's terms. A simulated world that doesn't stop existing if you fail to fulfill some arbitrary game goal, where the player character is not fluff for a game piece, where death is not fluff for the game failstate, where the places are places, not fluff for game boards, where the things are things, not fluff for powerups, where the people are people, not fluff for game obstacles or game rulebooks or powerup dispensers. A living world filled with meaningful interaction systems, not the bare trappings of a world twisted into bizarre game mechanics. People, things and places that you interact with as people, things and places, not as game elements.
This is not to say shooter games should not be made, of course. Or even that videogames with a lot of shooting cannot be meaningful. Shooting people in the face can be a highly meaningful interaction so long as it's not gamified. Just look at the relevant scenes in Heavy Rain or The Walking Dead.
But if the purpose of a title is to convey a narrative, as seems to be the case with Bioshock: Infinite, then it's better if the interaction is geared towards maximum immersion in that narrative instead of breaking the immersion by turning everything into a game just because "that's how we do it".
Pictured: Gamified money - a powerup fluffed up as money. How can a videogame say anything meaningful about money if money's just a powerup?
Business opportunities: Narrative simulations as the next blue ocean
Narrative simulations make sense not just from a creative POV but from a business POV as well.
If you think about it, a typical AAA 'narrative game' is sort of like a peanut butter and tuna sandwich. It's an inherently niche taste.
The players who came for the gameplay complain: "You got your narrative in my gameplay!"
And the players who came for the narrative complain: "You got your gameplay in my narrative!"
Your audience is limited to those players who can stomach (storyfied) gameplay and (gamified) narrative in the same product, necessarily a minority.
This is clear from the relative unpopularity of narrative games. Certain gamers and press tend to brag about how popular the medium is, but the reality is more complex:
Videogames are mainstream but narrative videogames are a shockingly small niche.
The only videogames that everyone plays just like everyone watches TV or movies are - pure games. Angry Birds, Candy Crush, Wii Sports, Mario Kart. Games with little or no narrative, games that can't really be compared to movies or TV shows. Half-Life, Gears of War, The Last Of Us, Bioshock, Zelda, single-player Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed, even GTA - the kings of narrative games - are not nearly as popular as pure games and do not constitute a mass medium.
The activity, games, is mainstream, the medium, narrative videogames, is not.
Pictured: Murder simulation
I think one of the main reasons for this is because videogame narratives have until now been unavoidably mixed in with gameplay.
Lots and lots of people want interactive, immersive worlds and stories. In fact, I'm pretty sure most people want that - billions of people.
But they can't get that without collecting a lot of tokens, solving a lot of puzzles and killing a lot of enemies.
Or, more often, failing at those tasks and having to start over. And failing again and having to start over again. And again. And again.
So most of the potential audience for narrative videogames just don't bother.
But if you extract the interactive narrative from the gameplay (and the cutscenes), the medium is suddenly a lot more attractive to the masses. You can get people to play Proteus or Gone Home who would never consider playing Uncharted or Assassin's Creed. This will only get more and more noticeable as narrative sim designers create more accessible content, interfaces and interaction systems, and bring videogame storytelling to more and more blue ocean demographics.
The console industry is in a tight spot now. It really needs to expand the market just to stay afloat. Notgames are the best way to do that. Remember, Heavy Rain was projected to sell only a few hundred thousand and sold over 2 million. How much could you sell with triple-A marketing, polished interaction systems and genuine mass market content?
The Wii brought non-narrative videogames to the masses and raked in the blue ocean profits. Whoever brings narrative videogames to the masses will get similar profits.
While we're on that subject, I should probably clear up a common misunderstanding:
Narrative sims don't have to be all artsy fartsy
So far notgames have tended to focus on more or less deep artistic messages.
But don't let the arthouse tastes of the pioneers fool you. Notgames don't have to be "art", notgames is just a design philosophy that can be filled with literally any content including the most lowbrow entertainment.
The notgame model is the key to turning videogames into a new mass medium as sophisticated as film or literature. But it's also the key to turning videogames into a mass medium as unsophisticated as film or literature.
And that's where the really big growth potential is: Notgames with mainstream content. Narrative simulation equivalents to 50 Shades of Grey, Harry Potter, The Hangover, Two And a Half Men, Jersey Shore, Homeland, The Big Bang Theory and so on.
Action simulations, adventure simulations, comedy simulations, thriller simulations, horror simulations, drama simulations.
Telltale's The Walking Dead is all of the above. Sadly, Telltale has been too chicken to rip out the residual gameplay - the puzzles and QTEs - which has so far kept their series from reaching their full potential. But if you fully embrace the core of Telltale's non-gameplay interaction model, you could profitably The Walking Dead-ify (interactive movie-ify) practically any movie or TV show. (Telltale's Game of Thrones could be the first truly mainstream notgame, provided they remove all the gameplay. You can't fail the dialogue scenes so why should you be able to fail the action scenes?) And that's just one approach to degamification.
Maybe some smart publisher should greenlight a lineup of interactive movie series?
...and murder gameplay. Which kind of murder has more potential for storytelling?
Take it from a Mythbuster
Adam Savage is not a gamer but has tried many different games in the past. Each time, he was turned off because of the gameplay.
As Adam explains, he was engrossed by Myst, couldn't get enough of exploring the simulated island, but stopped playing because he couldn't figure out the puzzles and got sick of being stuck.
He was just as mesmerized by Tomb Raider, spent hours just looking around, climbing, jumping, swimming, immersing himself in the virtual world, but got sick of constantly falling to his death and having to start over.
He came for the simulation but left because of the gameplay.
How many Adam Savages are out there? How many people who like the simulation and narratives in videogames but are turned away by the gameplay?
Why shouldn't we give them what they want?
My hope with this post is that a few more developers will be convinced to give notgames a try. If it's not your thing, at least now you know enough about the genre to make an informed decision.
Notgames blog: http://notgames.org/blog/
Notgames forum: http://notgames.org/forum/index.php
Frictional games blog (Amnesia): http://frictionalgames.blogspot.com/2010/04/why-trial-and-error-will-doom-games.html
The Astronauts blog (Painkiller, Bulletstorm, Ethan Carter): http://www.theastronauts.com/2012/11/why-we-need-to-kill-gameplay-to-make-better-games/