I read user reviews of Gone Home at Metacritic today.
OK, I'll be honest. I didn't read them. I CTRL-F'd through them for a specific phrase. "Not a game."
Of the 94 negative reviews, 26 contained that phrase, with a few more using "barely a game." Statistically this is¬†a significant number that expresses a clear criticism. So let's address it.
I think Gone Home is a remarkable achievement, a cunning entry into emotional space that our electronic¬†entertainments have traditionally ignored. But I also think that these user reviewers might be right, and it might¬†not be a "game" as we define the term.
Or as we define it for now.
Let's start out with Webster's as a baseline. They have a number of definitions but this one is the most¬†applicable.
"A physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each¬†other."
Single-player computer games don't involve "participants in direct opposition to each other" on the surface, but a little closer examination will reveal that, of course, they do. The player is in direct opposition to the game¬†designer, who works to (among other things) impede the player's consumption of the game.
But this is a little too facile, as anybody who's spent any time in game design knows. Because a game designer¬†isn't just an opponent. They're also a referee. A cinematographer. And the manufuacturer of the equipment¬†necessary to play. At the bottom of everything, they're an artist, creating a cultural product (often in¬†collaboration with other people).
I think it's instructive to compare Gone Home (and similar creations like Dear Esther) to contemporary art. These¬†pieces of software are essentially installation art pieces transplanted into virtual spaces. The agency of the¬†player is limited to exploration and observation, much as it would be in a real-world gallery space.
The closest art analogy I can find to more traditional single-player games are the "instruction paintings" of Yoko¬†Ono. In these pieces, the artwork is a printed instruction that the audience has agency to interact with. In¬†1964's "Cut Piece," the audience is invited to cut a small scrap out of her clothing. In "Painting To Hammer A¬†Nail," they are asked to hammer a single nail into a block that eventually bristles with them. It is through their¬†actions that the art takes shape.
That element of audience agency, the feeling that only through the actions of the user can the product be¬†understood, is integral to what we consider games, and in many ways missing from titles like Gone Home. A common¬†criticism that watching a Let's Play is fundamentally identical to playing the game is, in that aspect, correct.¬†The position of opponent is removed from the designer's playbook.
But what's interesting is that traditional AAA games are also moving away from many of these elements of player¬†agency. Sure, you can't "lose" Gone Home, but with quicksaves and vita-chambers and variable difficulty and¬†infinite continues, can you really "lose" most modern games? Even Dark Souls just pops you right back at a bonfire¬†every time you get a blade through your guts. If the designers of these games are acting in opposition to the¬†player, they're not trying all that hard.
It gives us a funny inversion of the famous War Games quote - "A strange game. The only losing move is not to¬†play."
This brings us to the big question: is "game" even an appropriate word for single-player games? The medium has¬†advanced to such a staggering place that it almost no longer seems appropriate. Just because we can encompass Goat¬†Simulator and Bioshock Infinite under the umbrella of a single word doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. We call all things games, from physics sandboxes to epic narratives, from arena FPS games to socialization-based MMORPGs.
Are we stretching the word "game" past its natural elasticity, simply because we have no other term for these¬†products? And, in doing so, are we damaging the essential meaning of the term?
One of the earliest enthusiast magazines was Video Games & Computer Entertainment, which predictively split the¬†products into two distinct halves. It could be time to revisit that split in our new age of innovative and¬†expressive digital products. Right now we use "game" simply because that is the closest point of reference we¬†have. It might be time to stake out a new one.
Would it be wrong to call Gone Home a "computer entertainment?" Or would even that be too reductive and limiting,¬†implying that Fullbright's goal was simply to "entertain?"
We use "games" now because it's a useful shorthand to describe a concept that is changing almost too quickly to be¬†grasped. But using the word brings with it not only cultural baggage (which has been exhaustively discussed) but¬†also semantic associations. It's either time to stop using it altogether or start using it as a subset of¬†something larger.
Can we come up with a term for single-player interactive experiences that moves beyond "games?" Will we start¬†using "games" to refer to MOBAs and fighting games and other directly competitive experiences, moving it back into its¬†traditional definition? Or will we keep stumbling over our own language as users and readers bring expectations of¬†agency that won't be satisfied?