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As everyone does on New Year's Eve, I look back on the year that was and try to find a theme. With so many things having happened all in a short space of time (new consoles for all, new jobs for me, new realities in mobile, etc) it's hard to find just one theme among the multitude. However the one that strikes me was seeing several games that toyed with the lack of agency. For a medium largely centered around doing, 2013 was often a year about not-doing.
I'm talking about works like Gone Home, the full version of The Stanley Parable, numerous Twine adventures and Proteus. Games (let's not worry too much about are-they/aren't-they today) where you walk around and see, flip pre-ordained choices and read, input less and receive output more. I'm also talking about a year of non-gameplay, or even anti-gameplay, sentiments in the critical sphere.
A lot of very interesting writing from people like Leigh Alexander and Mattie Brice has urged new thinking, new ideas and a protective attitude toward games not meant to be played in the classic sense. It's been less a year of appreciation of mechanics and dynamics in otherwords, and more about aesthetics and sensation, about impression and storysense. The critical world can't move but for enthusiastic receptions of the implied story of Gone Home and pannings of Grand Theft Auto V. It advocates the need for change.
So what does it all mean? Well, a couple of things to remember.
One is that not-doing games are more fringe than they might appear. I don't say that as a bad thing (interesting things tend to happen on the fringes) but just to convey scale. There may be many personal games constructed in Twine out there, for example, but the number of players is very small compared to more mainstream hits like The Last of Us. Gone Home may be a critical darling but it's wee when stacked up against Candy Crush Saga.
But also this: What happens at the fringes tends to move the mainstream over time. Never as far as the fringe wants it to go, but certainly some. As the innovative camera and editing techniques of the Dogme 95 movement had far reaching effects for mainstream movies, I think the year-of-not-doing has opened the book on many techniques for games that are already filtering into the more commercially minded industry. Perhaps that means less cut scenes and more trust in the player, or a willingness to toy with the player-play relationship in a more conventional setting. I doubt that there will ever be a large market for a Proteus or the works of Porpentine, but creators of more mainstream games play their stuff and it influences their thinking.
Yet not-doing doesn't imply the end of fun. Arhythmic music doesn't fundamentally change what music is, but it does act as a creative source. Modernist fiction never managed to do away with plot, but as a technical exploration it inspired generations. In 20 years' time video games will still mostly revolve around playing, doing, hitting, killing, solving, sorting and all the other dynamics that we see today. There will still be arguments about why games can't get their act together to tell good stories and bemoaning why they must always be fun. But the works of the not-doers will certainly influence how games present themselves, say what they want to say and find confidence to be the medium they already are.
Happy New Year.