What is game? Is videos game? Is games game?!

Is Beyond: Two Souls game?

Beyond: Two Souls released this week, and, as pretty much every single time a piece of interactive entertainment that doesn’t involve angry men with guns releases the question of “is this A Game?” raised its head. Is Beyond: Two Souls a video game? Sure, it has a main character, and a story (well, a “story”), and it has interactivity. But does pressing X to Jason count as “playing”? If you believe a decent slice of those ever insightful users on Metacritic, no, it’s not a game. And because it is not A Game, how can it get full points out of ten (as if that were some gold standard of Official Gamedom™) and be the paragon of the format?

Two things – what makes something a video game? And who the hell cares?

Industry secret – there is no How To guide for video game critics. There is no mystical tablet from Mount Sinai descended unto our greasy, sweaty hands holding our official membership card and the essence of a 7/10. And there is no sacred definition of what A Game is. Believe it or not, the people who make, publish, and distribute games trust us as critics to use our best judgment when considering whether their product is a game or not. And frankly, most of us couldn’t give a toss whether it fulfils some arbitrary criteria that defines A Game.

Developers, publishers, and critics all know that whether something is a game or not is completely irrelevant to whether something has artistic worth.

What is the point of classifying it as a video game, anyway? Sure, there are purely theoretical arguments that revolve around defining what games are. There are benefits and detriments for both sides. Formalism vs Zinesters, ludological studies, the inherent issues of generic taxonomy. Big arguments. If you want, you can start here, here, and here.

I’m admitting my ignorance – I don’t have a PhD in ludology. But coming from a staunch line of structuralists with my degree in linguistics and love for Saussure, I recognise the importance of labels. Labels have value and weight. But labels are also completely arbitrary. It’s not my place to define those boundaries. There is room for definitions, but that space is the realm of theorists.

Going beyond the philosophy, the theory, the hypothetical – what purpose does defining what a game is have?

To the vast amount of consumers of interactive entertainment (and even that terminology is problematic – all forms of entertainment are interactive), saying whether something is or is not A Game is completely unimportant. It’s extraneous guff. It does not matter in the least whether Beyond, and pieces of its ilk, is a game or not, because that’s just a label.

So what if the interaction is “limited” to pressing and shaking buttons to get to the finish? Isn’t that essentially what all games are anyway? The mechanical complexity is the point of contention. Most people consider Call of Duty A Game, right? You move around and shoot dudes and win the game, right? Or, you follow a glowing dot to another glowing dot, and press a button to stop things trying to stop you getting to the glowing dot? Or, you press a button in defined places to further some narrative? Or, you interact with mechanics until the thing stops?

John Walker talks of Call of Duty being an Un-Game. I partly agree, in that all games are Un-Games to some extent.

Buttons being pressed until the game ends.

All agency within every game is not true agency. A player can never, ever do something that doesn’t abide by the rules of basic interaction. Those rules bind the player into a mechanically defined world. And that’s okay. Games have boundaries, and that’s what makes them wonderful. Trying to break those rules, or fight against those rules, or exploit those rules, can lead to some truly emergent experiences. But it’s still a set of rules.

The formalist question is how many rules does a piece of entertainment need to be considered a game. Is Dear Esther a game, because you only walk around while a story talks at you? Is Gone Home a game, because you walk around and press buttons to pick things up? Is Beyond: Two Souls a game, because you can shake the controller to shower and wiggle sticks to move and press buttons at specific points to take predefined actions? Is Call of Duty a game, because you walk and run and jump and press buttons to shoot people?

How many rules does a game need to have before it becomes A Game? One? Ten? A hundred?

Who cares?

If David Cage and Quantic Dream and Sony say that Beyond: Two Souls is a game, who am I to say otherwise? If someone wants to call what they do “digital artwork”, or “interactive narrative”, or “agentive experiment”, who cares? I don’t. I just care if the final product is enjoyable and engaging to me.

So I say expand the argument. Stop worrying about deducting arbitrary score points because something does or does not wear the A Game label according to some completely arbitrary rules. Besides, there are far more obvious things to criticise Beyond for than whether it is A Game or not.

Lachlan Williams
Former Editor in Chief of OnlySP. A guy who writes things about stuff, apparently. Recovering linguist, blue pencil surgeon, and professional bishie sparkler. In between finding the latest news, reviewing PC games, and generally being a grumpy bossyboots, he likes to watch way too much Judge Judy. He perhaps has too much spare time on his hands. Based in Sydney, Australia. Follow him on twitter @lawksland.

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