There was a time when video games were easy to define. You’d pop a quarter into a lively looking cabinet, shoot some aliens, and try to set a high score. The rules established by the early generation of arcade hits throughout the 1970s have long since dictated what we’ve come to expect from interactive entertainment, but as the industry matures – and the strides in computational power unlock new possibilities – the lines between cinema and gaming are beginning to blur. For many, this trend is a blight upon the hobby that they've grown up with – but are such opinions shortsighted?
Quantic Dream has long been an advocate of cinematic gameplay. While it struggled to make much of an impact back in 2005, the criminally overlooked Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy as it was known in North America) attempted to replicate the format of a film on the PlayStation 2. The results were mixed, largely because the Parisian powerhouse was limited by the technological prowess of Sony’s then flagship format, but the release was successful enough to encourage director David Cage to try again with Heavy Rain. The latter made a much bigger splash when it deployed in 2010, exceeding €100 million in revenue – but it divided critics over whether it should be classified a game.
Fast-forward to the present day, and the French outfit is asking the same questions all over again. Beyond: Two Souls, the current generation swansong starring Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, has managed to split the industry in two, raising quandaries regarding its place within the space. Reviews have been varied – much more so than its predecessor – with many journalists lamenting the lack of interactivity in the release, while others praise its astounding production values. The main criticism from detractors tends to stem from the game’s lack of traditional action – but what is it that actually constitutes a game?
According to company co-founder Cage, that’s not for anyone to decide. “Some people can be very conservative about this medium and that’s sometimes frustrating,” he told GameSpot earlier in the week. “Some people wish that games would always stay what they were in the past 30 years, just with more polygons. No one should be allowed to define what a video game is; no one has that power.” In the eyes of the controversial luminary, anything from Gran Turismo to Quake should be considered a game – but the outspoken executive is eager for the medium to expand beyond experiences where shooting and driving are the key interactions.
It’s a bold approach when you consider that the most commercially popular console brands all have an element of the aforementioned mechanics. Grand Theft Auto V managed to make over a $1 billion within three days of being on the market, and it’s a title that’s very much steeped in the staples that Quantic Dream is actively attempting to eschew. A glance at the most hotly anticipated holiday releases of 2013 reveals a similar story, with Call of Duty: Ghosts, Battlefield 4, and Watch Dogs all likely to register at the top of most players’ Christmas wishlists. But does a title need platforming, shooting, or high scores to be considered a game?
Merriam-Webster defines a video game as an “electronic [experience] in which players control images on a television or computer screen”. It’s a broad description, but it doesn’t appear to contrast Cage’s own outlook on the industry. Beyond: Two Souls may lack experience points, online multiplayer, and a linear learning curve, but you still very much manipulate moving characters using an input device – be it a DualShock 3 or a tablet or smartphone. In that sense, then, the PlayStation 3 exclusive can unquestionably be categorised as a video game. So why does the debate even exist in the first place?
Cage believes that there’s a certain type of player that refuses to appreciate games for anything other than action, killing, and competition – and it’s one of the key markets that it’s hoping to reach with its latest release. “We need to convince these people to give [the title] a try and say, 'OK, this is going to be different',” he continued. “Yeah, it's about a young woman. No she doesn't have a gun. And maybe you will enjoy the experience because it's different, because it's something maybe you haven't played before.” But in restricting its newest experience to a largely inconsequential string of button prompts, the developer appears to have ruffled feathers rather than appeal.
And yet the industry clearly demands a visionary to drag it out of its creative slump. Titles such as Tomb Raider, BioShock Infinite, and even The Last of Us promised emotionally absorbing experiences with relatable characters, but all devolved into dead end firepower fests in the end. This emphasis on gunplay and action is clearly hindering the industry’s expansion, with all of the abovementioned titles – no matter how enjoyable – failing to marry the thrust of their narratives with complementary gameplay mechanics. So how can the industry grow up, without outright ignoring the tropes that the past four decades have established?
Well, it’s arguably already happening in the indie space. Mojang’s sandbox smash Minecraft may lack pre-defined objectives, but it fuses many common gaming staples – crafting, survival, and exploration – into an experience that largely avoids the combat-heavy crux of most popular games. Meanwhile, Telltale’s award winning The Walking Dead offers an evolution of the point-and-click escapades of old, swapping the sawed-off shotgun antics of its Activision counterpart for an adventure that’s all about player agency and decision making. These are both tremendously unique releases – but crucially, they’re still games.
As a consequence, maybe the response to the titular query is that it just downright depends. Quantic Dream may not win everyone over with Beyond: Two Souls, but as gaming continues to snowball in popularity, perhaps it’s down to you to decide what you want to get out of the medium. With blockbusters selling more copies than ever before, there’s no need for traditionalists to feel threatened by more experimental releases like Journey and The Unfinished Swan. But with digital markets such as the PlayStation Store offering new avenues for developers to explore, there’s never been a better time for creative minds to push the boundaries of the industry either.
What do you think constitutes a video game? Are you open to more experimental experiences, or do you think that interactive entertainment should be defined by a specific set of rules? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.