Friday, February 20, 2009

The Videogame Solipsist: Video Games Or Video...Something Else??

With the release of Flower and Noby Noby Boy, and my recent purchase of a 360, I feel like I'm more immersed in the videogame arena again. Enough so that I'm musing on the distinction between things that are definitively "videogames" as we've always know them and new "kind of a videogame, but kind of not" things like the aforementioned two titles.

Flower, as seen above, is a "game" in which you exist inside the 'dream' of flowers inside someone's apartment, dreams in which you control a 'train' of flower petals that fly about fields setting off chains of color and sound by hitting other flowers and so forth. It's not a "videogame" in the traditional sense that we think of, though. I haven't played it but my impression has been it's more akin to interactive art. Perhaps it's better to say non-videogame interactive electronic entertainment. This is a fine distinction to make, I admit, and most of my thinking on the subject has to do with the problematic definition of what a "videogame" is, not to mention the even tougher definition of what a "game" is.
So I'm going to just come out and roughly define a game as something you can win or lose. There's some sort of 'goal' you're trying to obtain. In a fighting game, it's to beat your opponent or win the tournament. In a strategy game, it's to complete your mission objectives or conquer the world. In an arcade style game, it's to get as many points as possible before you run out of lives. These are all simplistic examples but they're what I mean when I say 'win' or 'lose.' Can you 'lose' at Flower?? Noby Noby Boy might be a better point of debate, as it seems to be just a "stretching, eating, and pooping simulator", to paraphrase a friend. There is gameplay to it, but it's the kind of game that sits on the border between "videogame" and "tech demo" or "videogame" and "interactive art"/" non-videogame interactive electronic entertainment." You can't really win or lose the game, though there is apparently some overarching thing about combining what you eat and how far you stretch with players across the world to get the titular character and an accomplice to other planets. Or something.

Flower and Noby Noby Boy exist somewhere in the space between the different types of videogames. There's simplistic videogames like, say, Pac Man in which the goal is to survive as long as possible/get a high score and there is no 'story' to speak of; actiony affair like Gears Of War which has some story and a bit more gameplay complexity; games like BioShock or Half-Life which primarily tell story through the gameplay and the game world; games like Metal Gear Solid 4, which are tell most of their story through long, involved, movie-like cutscenes. Of coure I'm leaving out co-operative or competitive multiplayer games, which have narratives of their own. Anyway, while there are many more examples and types of games that sit in between these, I feel like Noby Noby Boy and Flower take the medium to a different place in which there is very little "gameplay" and no standard "goal", no true "winning", and the story is either all up to the player to fill in or done in a minimalist, impressionistic way. For the sake of argument, Peggle has very little gameplay (you choose where a ball goes, to reduce it to its basic elements) yet I still think it's a videogame. SimCity has no standard "goal", there's no true "winning" to it and you only truly "lose" if you give up, yet I consider it a videogame. Finally, Shadow Of The Colossus tells its story in a minimalist, impressionistic way yet I absolutely would call it a videogame.
On the other hand, there's something like AudioSurf, which lets you use songs on your computer to make levels for a 'game.' This sort of concept was done earlier with Vib Ribbon, which never saw release in the U.S. And anyway, AudioSurf is more of a 'game' in the traditional sense. It's controlled like a racing game but the gameplay is more akin to a puzzle game in which you drive through colored blocks and try to match them together in the grid below your car. You can't really lose no matter how badly you do but there is some skill to it and you have a goal in mind--get the highest score possible on a certain song at a certain difficulty level. True, you can just use it as a semi-interactive visualizer in which you inhabit music and experience it visually as much as aurally--something that was also done before in a different way by Rez. I would certainly say AudioSurf is more of a game than the two PS3 games discussed above, but I don't think of it on the same level as, say, Fallout 3 or Killzone 2. Again, it's somewhere in the gray area between the different types of videogames.

I could make all sorts of mealy mouthed comments about how Flower, Noby Noby Boy, and AudioSurf are art games whereas Gears Of War isn't remotely an 'art' game, but this doesn't help define what they are. They're all technically "videogames" in the same way that Die Hard and Eraserhead are "movies." But movies are just something you watch even if the experience is different. There's more to "do" in Gears Of War, more "gameplay" so to speak. But should this be our basis for saying what is and what isn't a "videogame"?? Is the level of interactivity what determines it??

I'm not really sure. And I'm not sure my definition of a game as something that has a goal which can or can't be achieved helps us, either. This is one of those tricky things where lots of gray areas come into play and nothing can be easily divided into groups. Still, I wanted to point out how different Flower and Noby Noby Boy are and to compare/contrast them to other, more traditional "videogames." I would argue they're as much tech demos and interactive art installations as they are videogames. It's good to see the art form expanding in this way, growing more 'artistic' in one direction while other branches like Wii Sports and Rock Band bring the medium to people who never thought of themselves as "gamers." Maybe what we need isn't a new label for these type of games so much as a different way of approaching them from both a consumer and a critical standpoint: what they make you feel and think is more important that if you had fun or what you 'did.'

No comments: