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Op-Ed: Games Are Funny, But They Could Be

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Op-Ed: Games Are Funny, But They Could Be

Dark Souls, Animal Crossing AND Persona in one paragraph? Quickly, fire up the Built to Play drinking game!

Dark Souls, Animal Crossing AND Persona in one paragraph? Quickly, fire up the Built to Play drinking game!

Games make me laugh all the time. Not usually on purpose, but they do it anyway. I laugh when I die yet another stupid death in Dark Souls. I laugh when an Animal Crossing character asks me to deliver something to the guy standing next to them. I laugh when my character in Persona gets away with two-timing every girl in the city, because that's insane. My being a part of these tiny worlds lets me laugh at them in some way. When something insane and ridiculous happens in a movie, it's either a brilliant on-purpose joke, or campy nonsense that drags down the film for most viewers. But when it happens in a game, I did it, I caused the insanity, I'm the one who broke the fifth wall of seriousness and turned this whole world into some elaborate joke.

I'm the comedian, and this whole game can be mined for jokes.

Is this Nic Cage? Or is it  THE PAIN?

Is this Nic Cage? Or is it THE PAIN?

Everybody's seen the clips from the Wicker Man where Nic Cage yells about being covered in bees, or the Judge Dredd clip where Dredd is the LAWWWW, and outside of the context of a full movie, those clips are hilarious. But inside the theatre, for the people who paid to sit and watch these movies, those are the things that break the flow of a film, ridiculous, awkward scenes and stilted dialog that break our brief immersion into whatever world we're trying to be a part of. Games however, no matter how hard they try, can never really be immersive as a medium. It's sort of impossible to be mechanically driven and also immersive. There are games that choose to put aside mechanic complexity in favour of serving a deeper interactive narrative, which is a totally rad prospect, but those aren't, and probably won't ever be, the majority of games. As countless smarter people like Merritt Kopas and Darius Kazemi have said, games do what they do best by letting a player explore their systems. Systems and mechanics stacked high to the ceiling, bursting from a game to be able to convey a message or a story. It's what makes games a unique medium, our ability to interact with them in a deeper way than say, books or movies.

Samus' eyes are actually just a radar in the top left of her forehead. It's why she wears that helmet all the time.

Samus' eyes are actually just a radar in the top left of her forehead. It's why she wears that helmet all the time.

But systems aren't terribly immersive. When you see the way the sausage is made, it doesn't quite seem like a sausage anymore, and the less abstract your systems are, the more of the sausage factory a game is showing. Heads-up displays, like health bars and ammo counts immediately come to mind as something that tips me straight out of the immersion. Some games do a better job of presenting that info diegetically; Halo puts ammo counts on the backs of it guns as tiny LED displays, and Metroid Prime portrays your HUD as part of Samus's visor, occasionally fogging it up in intense heat, or showing a reflection of Samus's eyes if there's a flash of light. But even diegetic info doesn't feel quite right at times. The fact that I have health in the first place is sort of weird, and at the end of the day, I'm separated from the game by a screen and a controller. During a movie, I'm part of a captive audience, sitting in a silent room with mostly motionless people, all staring at one screen. There's something to be said for the immersion you can achieve when the outside world is locked away. Movies can do that, mostly because they run in controlled environments and last 3 hours maximum. Games are usually played at home or on the bus, where there's noise, movement and getting up to go to the washroom. In fact, a pause button is totally unimmersive. Movies don't stop when you need to pee, the characters' lives go on. In a game the world stops for your every whim. You're god, and being god isn't a terribly immersive experience.

The point is, you can't be ridiculous and immersive all at once. But that's an advantage that games have, and can use to tell better jokes than pretty much any other medium. The first time you die in Dark Souls II is guaranteed to be a stupid, ridiculous death. You can die in the tutorial zone, you can mess up a jump, you could fall off a cliff in the starting town. Anyway you slice it, your first death is going to be careless and stupid. Which is why the game rewards you with an achievement called "This is Dark Souls". It's a great joke. It plays off your expectation that you're going to die in this game famous for being hard, teases you for dying so stupidly, and then makes a nice little point about the game that you shouldn't really worry about death, because you're going to die a lot. Interactive jokes are sort of like a knock-knock joke in that way. One side opens the joke, the other side fills out the middle, and then the first side delivers the punchline.

Before we had vision cones, we had looney-toons style vision lines that made Metal Gear approximately a thousand times harder.

Before we had vision cones, we had looney-toons style vision lines that made Metal Gear approximately a thousand times harder.

A joke can be made funnier if you let the audience in on it. There's a really great joke in Moshe Kasher's stand up special where he has a member of the audience give him people and things to mime. Of course, the audience member is comedian Brent Weinbach, and they've rehearsed the bit, but for the audience, seeing the comedian react to what they think is one of them and play off of it seems even funnier. It looks like brilliant improv, or at the very least shows that Kasher has some great reactions. There's an element of surprise there. Jokes are all about surprising the audience with something they never thought of before, and letting them fill in a bit of the joke makes their expectations more solidified. They don't expect something, they know something, and playing off of that is even funnier.

Similarly, games with interactive jokes work off of flipping around what you thought you knew. At one point in Jazzpunk, for a split second, your damage indicators and noises turn into those from GoldenEye. It's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sort of thing, but it works. It plays with a mechanic you already know and understand. I mentioned the frog joke in this month's primer, but it's really my favorite joke I can tell without spoiling the whole game. A frog asks you to help him get to other side of the road, which turns the game into Frogger. Then, when you inevitably fail, the frog is bandaged up and wounded. Every time you try again, he gets more and more injured, begging for you to stop hurting him with your awful Frogger skills.

I don't know what happens when you win, but I don't care. The initial joke was having to play Frogger all of a sudden, then I filled in the middle by playing it, and the punchline was that the frog was reacting properly to my failure. For that moment, I knew the game was frogger, which brought a whole new, different host of expectations from knowing the game Jazzpunk. And then it blew the whole thing out of the water by whiplashing me back into Jazzpunk. It's a great joke! I thought it was hilarious! I ruined a poor frog's life!

Goat Simulator is a harbinger of great things. And also goats.

Goat Simulator is a harbinger of great things. And also goats.

We tend to like things more when we can participate. In a slightly weirder way, shooting someone in Call of Duty is more visceral and powerful than watching the same scene on youtube, or even in a movie. Action gives us something. It’s one of the reason spreading jokes through memes is so popular. Having a joke template allows someone else to dictate the terms of the joke, ie. the format, concept and context, and allow the other person to fill in the punchline. It’s funnier to us because we had a hand in its creation. There’s a lot to be said for the power of interactivity, in learning, in entertainment, and even in comedy. If someone learns better when they do instead of read? Why not laugh more when they tell part of the joke, instead of just hear all of it?

That's flippin easy! That's friggin medium! That's flag'aphli'dl'kj''''' hard!

That's flippin easy! That's friggin medium! That's flag'aphli'dl'kj''''' hard!

Of course, that style of humour isn’t for everyone, and the kind of singular focus and clever writing required for a game with comedy as its primary gameplay element (read: an adventure game) pretty much automatically means any comedy-genre game you’ll ever play will be an indie game. But between Jazzpunk, Goat Simulator, and even simpler concepts like Don’t Shit Your Pants, we’re living in a comedy game golden age right now.

So let’s get cracking on that knock-knock joke simulator, huh?

 

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A Meandering Manifesto- On Getting Lost

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A Meandering Manifesto- On Getting Lost

To be fair, it isn't exactly the world's most readable map.

To be fair, it isn't exactly the world's most readable map.

The last time I got fundamentally lost in a video game, like, I-have-no-idea-where-I’m-going-I’m-pretty-sure-we’ve-circled-this-one-tree-five-times-already lost, was in Shadow of the Colossus. I was following the light beam from my magical sword to the next Colossus when I hit a wall. More literally, it was the side of a mountain. Then, I turned to try and find a path around the mountain, got distracted by a lizard scampering across a plain, and by the time I caught the lizard, I had no goddamn clue where I was.

The mountain wasn’t rendering anymore, so there went my landmark. SOTC has a map, but I wouldn’t call it detailed, so using that was out the window. My mad dash for sweet lizard meat found me standing on the edge of the world, looking over at some seagulls flying over the ocean. I didn’t catch the lizard, and for a few minutes, I was pretty sure I wasn’t even going to find a Colossus out there. The edge of the world is a lonely place, after all. Of course, I quickly remembered I could pull out my magical sword again and follow its light back to the mountain, but for a brief, shining moment, I was totally lost. And no matter how big open worlds get, it’s never happened since.

This isn't where I was, but considering typing "shadow of the colossus seagull" into google will probably bring back porn, it's as good as I'm willing to get. 

This isn't where I was, but considering typing "shadow of the colossus seagull" into google will probably bring back porn, it's as good as I'm willing to get. 

I don’t actually play a ton of open world games. I often find the lack of direction frustrating, and I’m more likely to finish something that gives me motivation on a regular basis, not just whenever I happen to be in the right mood to push myself along the critical path. That’s mostly just a symptom of the kinds of games that use open world design though. Traditionally, open world design meets sandbox-style gameplay and they go hand-in-hand forever into the night, but that’s not necessarily a given. You can have a sandbox without an open world, just take a look at Animal Crossing or SimCity’s sandbox mode, and you can have an open world without a sandbox, like in Shadow of the Colossus or Dark Souls.  The latter is uncommon, the former barely exists, and the combination of the two is pretty much every game in existence right now. Grand Theft Auto is the progenitor of the open world sandbox genre, sure, but Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, Sleeping Dogs, and all manner of dog-and-non-dog-related games occupy that same ever growing category.

Sandbox, meteor-box, whatever.

Sandbox, meteor-box, whatever.

But clever open-world design can actually add a lot to more traditional, directed genres. Recently, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds applied the open world concept to the entrenched and unchanging Zelda formula to pretty interesting results. By giving players access to every tool in Link’s arsenal from the beginning of the game, the traditional dungeon design had to be rethought and refocused on the player’s potentially wider tool belt. Additionally, being able to leave a tricky dungeon to go try another was a welcome change from having to bash my head against the impenetrable wall known as “Zelda logic”. Dark Souls takes a step further, giving players a huge open world and absolutely no tools with which to work off of, but works in that same action-RPG context.

Dark Souls as the glowing exception to the rule though, these worlds tend to be sterile. Link Between Worlds uses the same overworld map from Link to the Past, a 23 year old game. Wind Waker, another Zelda game with a relatively open world, is content to situate its Great Sea on a grid, only letting each square contain one island. The recent Tomb Raider reboot lets you travel around an open world, but then railroads you down action set-pieces that block off exploration. Maybe you’ll go back to an earlier area later to pick up a few trinkets and collectibles. You probably won’t though.

You definitely won’t get lost.

Those guys are pretty lost looking too. Can we be lost....together? This summer on ABC.

Those guys are pretty lost looking too. Can we be lost....together? This summer on ABC.

Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls are, in some small sense, bastions of an older kind of game design. Of building a huge world and refusing give players direction in exploring it. SOTC leads you to the next colossus fight with its magic glowing sword, but you’re sure to miss the helpful stat-boosting lizards and birds along the way. Of course, they aren’t necessary, and most people’s major complaint about SOTC is the lack of things to do in its huge world. It’s a fair one too, considering that the enormous map is entirely empty outside of the next colossus you have to fight. But that’s what makes the world so appealing to me. It’s not a terribly well designed world in the gameplay sense, there’s nothing really funnelling you towards the colossi or any interesting challenges outside of them, and the arenas where you fight the colossi are pretty barren for the most part. But aesthetically and atmospherically, it’s second pretty much only to Dark Souls in setting a mood for a living, breathing world. Though, in SOTC’s case, it’s much more of a dead, barren world.

Play undead. Good boy,

Play undead. Good boy,

Huge expanses of nothing, ruins that serve no purpose, every little bit of SOTC’s map tells a little story about the world, or is at the very least fascinating to look at. That doesn’t make it a super fun game for everyone by any means, but the world enamours me. It makes me want to get lost. Dark Souls’ Lordran hits me in a similar way. It’s much tighter and livelier than SOTC’s barren wasteland, but it has the same sort of lore-revealing efficiency in its world design, with the added bonus of constantly teaching you how to play while forcing you into battle. Fighting the dogs in the tight corridors of the thieves’ down beneath the Undead Burg teaches you about how easy it is to stab them as they leap at you, which is a skill you’ll find comes in very handy during the Capra Demon boss fight, where two attack dogs stunlock you before the demon slams his axe down on your head.

To go back to Zelda for a second, the worlds remind me a lot of Zelda 1. Of course, Zelda 1 suffers from a lot of the same problems that SOTC and Dark Souls do. The open world often lacks direction, you’ll sometimes find yourself with a lack of things to do, and you cane stumble into areas far beyond what you can handle. But they’re also scary, lonely worlds at times, without much in the way of a home base or safe zone. Mind you, SOTC doesn’t have any enemies anywhere, but the world is enormous and labyrinthine for non-gameplay reasons. It feels threatening in a way that a world designed around constant combat just can’t. It feels dead, and that’s not “right”. You never feel at home. Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls may be the centre of the world, but it’s definitely not safe, and Zelda 1 starts on a non-descript square at the bottom of the map with no location-significance whatsoever.

Square H-8, in case you were wondering.

Square H-8, in case you were wondering.

There’s a sort of focus to building a world like that. An open world that isn’t meant to lead you down one path or let you do anything you want. Go anywhere, but do only a few things. It doesn’t sound like a very good selling point, and that’s probably why we don’t see too many games like that, but in my experience, it lets the world speak for itself, with atmosphere and character all its own.It makes for something very different from having the world be defined by dozens of minigames and pointless encounters created to pad the experience.

To be fair, the Colossi themselves are pretty sweet too.

To be fair, the Colossi themselves are pretty sweet too.

Big worlds are so often full of junk that isn’t, well, interesting. I enjoy Saint’s Row IV, but its rows of cloned skyscrapers are punctuated with, for the most part, variations on minigames I got bored of halfway through my first time playing them. And the bigger a world is, the less likely it is to have constant unique elements. Everything has to serve some player purpose, and the purpose is usually to keep them engaged and entertained from a gameplay perspective. At least SOTC’s emptiness serves the purpose of being negative space for the colossus fights, that’s something unique.

I don’t want to get lost in Liberty City, I don’t want to get lost in Skyrim. In fact, there’s no way I can get lost in them. There’s something around every corner, every nook and cranny has purpose. That outcropping with the seagulls doesn’t really serve a purpose, and there’s something realer about that. Or at the very least, something a little more magical.

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When is an Apple Like a Video Game? - Why it Just Doesn't Matter

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When is an Apple Like a Video Game? - Why it Just Doesn't Matter

Hey, you.

You, sitting in front of the computer, or on your phone, or reading this in the sky due to one of the many sky writers we have strategically placed around the continental United States to advertise the site.

I promise this is the last one.

I promise this is the last one.

You probably don’t agree with every single article we’ve published this month, that’s only natural. We think that any interactive entertainment is a video game. We published an article arguing the difference between "videogame" and "video game". We posted like, fifty screenshots of Animal Crossing.

But there’s something we feel pretty strongly about, that we need to address right here. We don’t think we really need to argue about defining video games anymore. We think interactive entertainment is good enough, but even if it isn’t, is the fight worth having?

Definitions exist because language runs on them, that’s simple enough. When I say apple, you know I’m referring to a very specific fruit because years ago, someone decided that fruit was called apple. That definition-word link is entirely arbitrary, and in fact, all definitions are. If we’re being honest here, there’s no logical reason that an apple is called and apple. It just is. Sure, apple comes from the old English “appel”, which just referred to any kind of fruit, and that term came from the Germanic “aplaz”, but all these words are just arbitrary sounds associated with a physical object. There’s no inherent logic to any definition.

We'll call it...a redfruit bush!

We'll call it...a redfruit bush!

If all human life was to disappear tomorrow, an apple would not be an apple anymore, would it? It would still exist, but no one would be asking anyone else for an apple. Or a pomme, or a яблоко, or a mazana. Apples would still exist, a round fruit would still grow from a tree we’ve called mallus domestica, but no one would be there to call it that. No one would call the fruit an apple. It wouldn’t be an apple, it would just exist.

Of course, we won’t all disappear tomorrow, and we’ll continue calling them apples until the Apple corporation successfully trademarks the term and sues the fruit. And we should, because otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to communicate the fact that we want to buy an apple at the supermarket. Definitions are important because they help us communicate.

So it’s only logical that we, as human beings that constantly desire better ways to communicate our stupidly complicated inner thoughts, want to have more definitions. We want tighter definitions with less room for error so communication is easier. That all makes a certain amount of sense.

Arguing about defining a video game really does not.

Not be confused with Peter Bergman and John Goodman's  "Pyst".

Not be confused with Peter Bergman and John Goodman's "Pyst".

See, blanket definitions tend to be loose, because policing every single thing that attempts to fall under that definition is a futile effort. You’ll always miss something, it will always end up being too complicated, and it essentially defeats the purpose of having a definition in the first place. If you need to analyze everything anyway, just put the definition of video games as being on a case-by-case basis. An airtight definition can only exist once you start working in loopholes for individual titles. This is a game, this isn’t. And at that point, who are you to even say? If the definition isn’t meant to be personal, we need a governing body to determine it, something everyone trusts to take each case and examine it thoroughly. And who pays them to do this? The ESA? Some eccentric billionaire with a grudge against Myst? Eventually, they’ll end up with a loose, blanket definition anyway, just to make their job easier for them, it’s only reasonable.

So the loose definition works. We can have sub-definitions under those, for granularity’s sake, like the distinction between films and short films. Both fall under the larger definition of film, but are distinct in their own way. Sure, that’s an easier call to make, but to someone with no knowledge of movies, they’d be ostensibly similar enough to call the same thing. The distinction exists for ease of conversation.

Touching Dr. Kawashima is like touching the monolith, but it reveals to you the secrets of non-games.

Touching Dr. Kawashima is like touching the monolith, but it reveals to you the secrets of non-games.

Similarly, we divide up games into genres. There are first person shooters, role playing games, platformers, racers, rhythm games, even newer genres like endless runners and minecraft knockoffs. Heck, even non-games exist, to define video games that aren’t necessarily games. They’re all subcategories of video games, and though there’s a lot of blurring between them, they’re distinct enough that they’re used in regular conversation to distinguish between different games. Those distinctions are small, and less important in the grand scheme of things, but they exist because gaming, as a community, wants to have the words to discuss things on an even ground. If we all know what an RPG is, we can discuss it better, since we operate on the same basic assumptions.

Though no one could ever explain why those platforms were even there in he first place...

Though no one could ever explain why those platforms were even there in he first place...

But that’s all they are, basic assumptions. A first person shooter is pretty self-explanatory. It is a genre defined by shooting from a first person perspective. Racers are game where you race. Platformers refer to the platforms you jump on in games like Mario and Sonic. They are simple, loose definitions used to make the conversation easier. Technically, Mirror’s Edge is a first-person platformer, but that genre is so small (Jumping Flash and portions of Metroid Prime round out the genre in its entirety) that the distinction is almost meaningless in casual conversation. In fact, trying to initiate a conversation about the first-person platforming genre would be ridiculous, because next to no one would know what you’re talking about.

Similarly, trying to argue about how a game needs to have a win state, or be about shooting, or needs to have a certain budget size, or must be fun, or have to be called “videogames” is just esoteric. The conversation going on about video games isn’t about that.

It’s about a larger community. It’s about the folks that work every day to make games, think, write and talk about games, or play games. It’s about accepting these people and discussing this strange, ever-growing hobby we all share. Or maybe it’s not a hobby. Maybe it’s a craft, or an obsession, or a love. Maybe it’s a passing interest. Maybe you want to have a five-minute conversation, maybe you want to have a conversation for the rest of your life. Either way, why would you lock out people who don’t fit your heavily-policed, narrow definition of what a “game” is?

Inside the book are the secrets of video game definition, and how to pull of neon sweaters.

Inside the book are the secrets of video game definition, and how to pull of neon sweaters.

Refusing to accept, say, Gone Home as a game doesn’t just hurt the developers, or the people who love it. It doesn’t just frustrate the people who want to have an honest conversation about an interesting, important piece of media and now have to deal with a flamewar about defining it. It also hurts you. You aren’t participating in a grander conversation about something you like, you’re just reiterating the same points again and again, locking more and more people out of your definition- your conversation.

I lied! This one's for real though.

I lied! This one's for real though.

Definitions are important. We need them to communicate. But we don’t need to get ridiculous about them. Video games are an interactive piece of entertainment, usually with a clear win or a loss condition, but that’s increasingly less important. There is no threshold for interactivity, there is no point in arguing that something is or isn’t a game when the game is presented to you. Even a video game that lacks traditional game elements, like Animal Crossing, is still called a video game in conversation. And when someone comes up to you, wanting to talk about video games because they love Animal Crossing, telling them that they’re wrong because it’s not really a game is as ridiculous to them as telling them they can’t talk about apples because they only had an apple pie.

They’d think you’re crazy, and maybe shy away from talking or engaging with video games in the first place. Because it’s not about your definition, or my definition, or anyone else’s. It’s about how when the subject comes up, all that happens is the same argument, again and again Nothing new is said, and more and more people are left out, because what they wanted to talk about has been subsumed by the same talking points that have been reiterated for years.

My personal definition of video games? Things less delicious than an apple pie.

My personal definition of video games? Things less delicious than an apple pie.

People have personal definitions about dozens of things. Once you start strictly enforcing those definitions on others you limit their ability to converse. Apple vs. apple pie seems more arbitrary than win/lose vs. interactivity to you, the seasoned apple and video games expert, but to the gaming newcomer, it’s all the same. Games might be a little more complicated than apples, sure, but not by much. At the end of the day, we don’t want to wring our hands about whether they’re games or not. All we want to do is talk about why we like them, why they’re important to us, and how they get so delicious.


 

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OP-ED: Semantic Kombat- Videogame vs Video Game

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OP-ED: Semantic Kombat- Videogame vs Video Game

Every time I write the word "videogame", I get this weird squiggly red line under it in word. It means the word is wrong. It means videogame is not a word, even though I see it used on occasion over its proper alternative- video games. “Videogames” is a proper noun, versus “video games”, an adjective and a noun. So why the distinction? Both words mean the same thing, even if one technically doesn’t exist. Why have both words in the first place? Surely we should be able to just choose one at this point. Why do semantics even matter when talking about defining a game? At the risk of admitting how pretentious I am, it does matter to me, at least a little bit.

80864d98b6c60d0e85bb5ce3b77a4788.jpg

Let’s think about the term “video game” for a second. It’s two words, technically. Video, which refers to visual content, and game, something people do for amusement. So it’s a visual amusement, or specifically, a game where the visuals are on a screen. It’s a simple definition, and it doesn’t really offer too many problems. If it isn’t visual, it isn’t a “video game”. Taken on its own, game more commonly refers to an amusement played along set rules, usually with the possibility to win and lose. Video games pretty much always have rules by nature. Even in games like Minecraft, which lets the player do almost anything they want, they are still trapped in the confines of the world. There’s an internal logic to a game world, both from a narrative perspective, and a technological perspective.

Anyone down for hide-and-seek?

Anyone down for hide-and-seek?

Technologically, games can’t account for infinite possibilities. Programmers and game designers can only do so much, and that’s why you can’t develop superpowers in the middle of Call of Duty and start flying around, melting people with laser beams. Sure, they could have done that, but they put their resources and efforts into making a different kind of game. One where that doesn’t happen, and can’t, because the developers didn’t code that in. Narrative-wise, every world has rules. In Star Wars, Luke doesn’t suddenly defeat Darth Vader by turning into a giant and crushing him underfoot. The story has established Luke can’t do that. He has some pseudo-magical powers, but we all understand their limits. On the flip side, that means everything that does happen in a narrative happens for a reason, even your own personal narrative of playing the game, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Take THAT, cel-shading.

Take THAT, cel-shading.

For now, we understand that any game does technically have rules. You can only do what the game allows you to. However, we run into a problem with that idea. Sure, the world has established rules, but what happens if I break those rules? Speedruns often involve clipping through the game’s architecture, or glitching out certain segments to make the game go faster. Link can’t usually pass through locked doors without a key, but Wind Waker speedrunners can make him slip right through. But they’re still playing the game, they’re just playing for a different goal, with different rules. That’s part of what makes video games so great, often, you can take an existing set of rules, and layer your own over them for a totally different experience.

So rules are a bust, at least in the traditional sense. You can’t just suddenly start playing a heavily modified version of tag while everyone is playing hide and go seek, you’d be breaking the rules. Sure, you’re playing by your own, but the existence of communally agreed upon rules means you’re not the playing the game everyone else set out to, and that means less to some jerk who really care about defining games by their rules. Video game rules are inherently malleable, since, at least in a single player context, there’s no one to tell you that you’re playing incorrectly.

My uncle words at Namco and he told me that if you get to the kill screen they take you into space to pilot Mecha-Pac-Man and fight the alien ghosts.

My uncle words at Namco and he told me that if you get to the kill screen they take you into space to pilot Mecha-Pac-Man and fight the alien ghosts.

What about win/lose states? Does a game have to let you win or lose? There is no traditional winning or losing in say, Animal Crossing, which goes on forever, with or without the player being involved. There are tiny win states when you pay off your loan, but those don’t end the game or anything. But what about a game you can’t win at all, like Pac-Man? You don’t “win” Pac-Man, you just go as long as possible. You do, however, lose Pac-Man. Not “can”, but “do”. You will eventually lose Pac-Man, because you can’t win. You can hit the kill screen, but that’s not a win state, it ends the game destructively, in an unintended way.

The same win/lose problems come up in playground games. You don’t win jump-rope, for example. You just go as long as possible until you lose. So at the end of the day, games by nature have to have a win or lose state. Even most playground games technically have win or loss states, because they are, by nature, multiplayer experiences, and it’s hard to have those in the real world without forcing a win in some way. So the “game” part of “video game” differs from its traditional definition. Malleable rules and non-traditional victories that don’t involve another player make up the backbone of video games. The “game” portion of the word is different than the one we based it off of. Why not come up with a new word for these kinds of games?

Merriam-Webster says that the first known use of video game was in 1973, which makes sense. That’s one year after Pong, and right when video games were hitting it big in North America. They were still simple enough that they could sort of be defined as anything. It was easy to call it a game, because that’s what it was, and it was played on a TV screen, so video. There. But there’s a weird issue here, both words come from other mediums. Video referred to video screens, like computer monitors and TVs, while game was referring to the fact that, at the time, video games were a lot like games that already existed. Pong was ping-pong, everyone knows what ping-pong is.

Game. Or not. It's up to you.

Game. Or not. It's up to you.

It’s actually a lot like movies. The word “movie” comes from “moving picture”, which means movies are just a series of images flashed before your eyes. Kind of demeans the experience right? Aren’t movies supposed to be about combination of the acting, the music, the directing, the cinematography and everything else? I mean, if movies are moving pictures, then are .gifs movies? Are viewmaster reels? Movies are also called films, but that just refers to the thin layer of chemicals spread on photographic plates for developing film reels. Defining a medium by its physical presence isn’t the worst idea in the world, but it does offer some issues when it comes to video games, which are becoming increasingly digital, and began life as discs and cartridges. Can we just call an NES game a ROM? Is that the same as calling a movie a film? I don’t really have the answer, but common sense says we don’t because no one else does.

The best way I personally have to define a video game is by saying that it’s interactive entertainment. You watch movies, you look at art, you listen to music, but you play games. That verb distinction is important to me. It changes how I experience the medium, how I ingest it. You look at art, because it does not move. You watch a movie, because you have to observe the motion. You listen to music, because you use your ears. You play a game, because your actions have influence over the experience. That’s the distinction, and that’s the definition I like. The win or loss matters only when you start dissecting the “game” part of the word, and that's for another time.

It’s hard to be mad that we use a word. We’ve been calling them video games since the ‘70s, and we won’t really stop anytime soon. Video game rolls off the tongue a lot better than “interactive entertainment”. And it’s truly incredible that we’ve come to the point where calling something a “game” defaults to a video game, rather than a board, card, or playground game. I’m not looking to change the way we write the word out, it’d be silly to. This isn’t a crusade, I just prefer videogame over video game. As a proper noun, the word has a transformative power that pushes it just a little further from its two parent words.

This is the first google image result for "video game". Seriously.

This is the first google image result for "video game". Seriously.

Sure, it’ll always be stuck there, since most video games are still games in the traditional sense, and almost all have some visual element. That’s why keeping that parent word DNA at the fore is still important. I don’t think the word even separates the conversation. Personally, I don’t want to let games that are less visual, or less game-y get brushed off as “not a video game”, but honestly? That doesn't happen that often. I think I just want to combine the two words, make them inseparable, as their own concept. A proper noun that shows that these aren’t like two other mediums. That video games aren’t a combination of video and game, but something greater. They can’t be viewed in the same lens as movies, nor like traditional games. They’re inherently comparable, but that’s because they’ve evolved from them. They’re something bigger than video games They’re videogames.

And also, I’m pretentious. But that’s a given.

 

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The Primer- Games on Games

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The Primer- Games on Games

[The Primer is a new monthly feature  meant to tie in with our monthly theme question. Every month, we’ll put together a short list of games related to the theme question that we think are worth your time. Hopefully, you will too.]

“What is a video game” is a pretty big question. It’s open ended, and has a lot of answers. So we want to give a little bit of a reference point. Some games you can anchor yourself to as we think about why we define games, and what those definitions mean. Some of them are rooted in “gaminess” while some are about expanding what you might consider to be a game. Either way, here a few games you might want to check out.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf:

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Animal Crossing is one of the first games that comes to mind when people talk about open-ended game experiences. It’s technically open world, in that no part of your tiny town is blocked off from you, and it never pushes any goals on to you. But unlike most open world games, there’s no clear “end” to Animal Crossing. There’s no win or lose condition that ends the game, or any clear-cut way to progress. If you decide progressing means getting all of the villager pictures, that’s your prerogative, the game doesn’t mind at all.

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Like most sandbox games, Animal Crossing asks you to make your own fun, for the most part. But unlike the Grand Theft Autos and Saint’s Rows of the world, there are no missions, no bosses, no clear ways of measuring your progress in the world. You don’t get better, you don’t get further, you just continue existing in your tiny village. It’s distinctly un-gamey. Nintendo actually coined a term to describe Animal Crossing and its ilk: “non-game”. At the 2005 Game Developer’s Conference keynote, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata called titles like Brain Age and Nintendogs non-games because of their lack of “a winner, or even a real conclusion.” And even though Animal Crossing: New Leaf, the newest entry to the series, adds dozens of new tasks to do in your town, the core of the game remains the same. Choose how you want to measure your progression, or don’t. Just hang out for a while, no one’s going to stop you.

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Johann Sebastian Joust:

(Photo from the Johann Sebastian Joust press kit.)

(Photo from the Johann Sebastian Joust press kit.)

Including JS Joust on this list is double cheating, in that it’s neither a video game, nor is it even available to purchase as of writing. It’s played with PlayStation Move controllers linked to a computer playing selections from Bach’s concertos at different speeds. When the song is slow, the controller is very sensitive to slight movements, but when the music gets faster, you can move around more. The goal is to force the opponent to move their controller too much, causing the light on top to turn off.

But it’s not a “video game”, mostly because it doesn’t really have a “video” component. It may be played with game controllers, but even the developers, Die Gute Fabrik, call it a “no-graphics, digitally-enabled playground game.” It’s a game in the purest sense. Simple rules with clear winners and losers, and entirely free-form outside of that. Nothing in the rules says you can’t throw your shoes at other people, for example. JS Joust might not be a video game, but it does open the floor for discussion of more “digitally-enhanced” games, which, when you think about augmented reality games becoming more and more popular on iOS and Android devices, might soon become a much more crowded field than ever before.

(Photo from the Johann Sebastian Joust press kit.)

(Photo from the Johann Sebastian Joust press kit.)

Noby Noby Boy:

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Noby Noby Boy is...weird. It comes from the mind of Keita Takahashi, the creator of the cult-hit Katamari Damacy, which might explain some of its oddness. You play as Boy, a snake-like creature that gets longer as it eats things using either of his two mouths One’s on his face, one’s on his butt. And that’s pretty much it. You eat everyone and everything on a map, and grow longer and longer and longer, until Boy becomes an enormous, unwieldy snake monster, incapable of moving without bumping into one of his own colourful segments.

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Oh, there is one thing though. Boy gets bigger so he can give his length to Girl, a much larger snake monster hanging out on top of planet Earth. As she grows longer, she can reach other planets, unlocking more content for Boy to explore. Since Boy can’t do it alone, every single Noby Noby Boy player in the world contributes to Girl’s growth, and also reaps the rewards when she reaches a new planet. There are no personal goals, nor is there really any win or loss, like a traditional game, but there’s definitely progression, in a strange, totally impersonal way, where rewards are global, rather than individual. Noby Noby Boy isn’t an MMO, but hundreds of players were, for a time, all contributing to the same goal, without much of an end in sight. It’s strange, but it’s hard not to like a game where you can eat your own butt.

WarioWare, inc.: Mega Microgame$:

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If Animal Crossing is Nintendo’s poster-child for non-games, then WarioWare is the exact opposite. Playing WarioWare is basically playing “video games” in their purest form. Simple, five second affairs, with only one button, a directional pad, and a single command. Beat one, move on to the next. One second you’re shooting ducks in Duck Hunt, the next you’re being asked to choose the “praise” option from a menu. WarioWare takes for granted the idea that the player is experienced enough with the grammar of games that they’re able to figure out what do with one word and limited input.

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When the game presents you with a top down view of a girl with a gardening can and a plant, then commands you to “water!”, someone familiar with games would understand immediately that the top-down view means the girl is controlled with the d-pad, and the plant, as the only other sprite on screen is the target. WarioWare puts you through the ringer of platformers, RPGs, shooters, matching games, every kind of genre that’s playable in 5 seconds with one button and directional controls. It’s pure video game.

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At the same time, the games are incredibly short, and packed together tightly. While they constantly reference video games and gaming history, some people would hesitate to call them “video games” on their own. They’re microgames, sure, but they’re also distillations of video game in the simplest sense of the word. Like a reduction of the medium, they get rid of anything not explicitly required for a video game. Separated into its base elements, it’s a series of incredibly simple tasks without much in the way of reward other than more microgames, but taken as a gestalt, WarioWare throws game after game at you, asking you to use your familiarity with various genres and gaming history to keep on your toes. If nothing else, WarioWare is the gamiest game that’s ever gamed.


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Animal Crossing: The Cure for my AAA Doldrums

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Animal Crossing: The Cure for my AAA Doldrums

A few weeks ago, I thought about buying The Last of Us on launch day. Usually, when I think about buying a game, there’s not a lot of decision process. If it’s something that interests me, I dive right in if I have the money. If I’m not interested, then there’s no sale. But for some reason, even though I knew that The Last of Us is a game I’d probably enjoy, and was a game I was following for a while, I was so throughouly disinterested in buying it.

Probably because I’d been playing so much Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the fourth game in Nintendo’s life simulator series. You play a customizable villager who has moved to a town populated entirely by talking animals and just sort of live your life. You make money by fishing, or catching bugs, or cultivating and selling rare fruit and you use the money to build public works projects for your town or furniture for you home. Of course, first you have to pay off the obscene mortgages places upon you by local extortionist and racoon, Tom Nook. 

 

"Why is (Animal Crossing) making me want to stay away from big budget, AAA gaming, at least for the rest of the summer?" 

 

Yes, it's a cartoonish looking children's game, but maybe that's what it takes to show the flaws of this industry.

Yes, it's a cartoonish looking children's game, but maybe that's what it takes to show the flaws of this industry.

It’s not like this game fills any of the same niches that AAA games do for me. It’s a strange beast, a social game divorced of social game mechanics and simple connectivity. But it has the same constant goals and generally passive atmosphere of the traditional social game. One wouldn’t be entirely remiss to call it an expanded Farmville, but with rocks that spit out money to check every day instead of crops. So why is it driving me away from gaming’s latest darling, why is it making me want to stay away from big budget, AAA gaming, at least for the rest of the summer?

There are a few reasons. First, and this point can’t be understated, Animal Crossing might be one of the most progressive games on the market. Now, saying that makes me very sad, because it’s a game from Nintendo, a company who recently patched out same sex marriage in one of their other life simulator games, Tomodachi Collection. Japan is not known for gender equality or race equality, or progressive views in general, but somehow, Animal Crossing manages to be more progressive than any FPS I’ve played in years. 

 #dealwithit

 #dealwithit

Men can wear dresses and skirts, girls can wear pants, gender isn’t a binary in Animal Crossing; it’s unbelievable, unprecedentedly fluid. I can only really think of games like Saint’s Row and Second Life that allow you to present your character in a similar way. Haircuts of either gender are available to any character, and multiple characters comment on how boys can wear makeup and how you look damn fine in whatever you choose to wear.

People smarter than me have already discussed at length Animal Crossing’s core customization flaw, the fact that there’s no race option. The fact that you character defaults to white is made even more ridiculous by the fact that the system-level Mii creator allows various skin tones. The only way to change skin colour in Animal Crossing is to leave the game for a few hours in the summer and “tan”. The terminology is frustrating. Where gender isn’t binary, race is default. You are white, unless you want to go out of your way to be not white. Two steps forward and one step back is the name of the game here, but that one step still puts Animal Crossing five steps ahead of the AAA competition, where deviations from the norm are cast aside and either made fun of or exploited.

For example, Mass Effect treats same-sex romance options as dalliances for the most part, with only the relationship between a female Shepard and Liara considered to be as valid as the “straight” options, and mostly because they’re two women and thus hot. Male Shepard and his single same-sex romance option, Steve Cortez, don’t even get to have on screen intercourse, likely because Electronic Arts felt that their audience wouldn’t want to be party to something like that. And Mass Effect is considered to be an otherwise fairly progressive game, with women and men treated equally in-universe, and homosexuality is considered to be completely normal. 

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Do you see where I’m coming from? It’s so refreshing to me to see a game that treats gender with such equality and rationality. Sure, Animal Crossing doesn’t have any same-sex options, but it’s not that kind of game. Animal Crossing is devoid of sexuality, likely because it’s an “all ages” title. But it isn’t devoid of emotion, with characters of either gender expressing their love for you, regardless of your gender. It’s not a huge step forward. But compared to where the rest of the industry is, this unassuming children’s game about living with talking animals is the single most progressive (non-indie) game on the market. And it’s hard to dive right back in to the exclusionary, occasionally bigoted culture of AAA gaming after experiencing that.

According to Nintendo's statistics, Animal Crossing New Leaf is primarily played by women. 

According to Nintendo's statistics, Animal Crossing New Leaf is primarily played by women. 

Not to mention the fact that your character becomes the mayor of the game, the most powerful figure in the town, regardless of gender. Animal Crossing is a power fantasy, but it’s decidedly not a traditional white male one. As a straight, white male, I’m sick of being told that violence (often against people who are not straight white males) is power, and I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like for people who aren’t like me, the people who have even more of a reason to be offended by this, the people who feel excluded when games tell them that in order to have power, they must be like the people who came up with this power fantasy. I miss pleasant games. Games that want to be taken at their own pace, games that don’t want me to run and shoot every brown person I see while my player character refers to them as “faggots”. Games that don’t exclude you simply because you don’t “fit”.

AAA gaming is in a rut. Naughty Dog had to fight to get protagonist Ellie on the cover of The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth isn’t even ON the front cover. The Last of Us might not even be the best example of a game that falls into the standard pitfalls of AAA gaming, but it's just the catalyst of all this for me. The culture around these games is pushing away anyone who isn’t a straight, white male, and excluding anyone who doesn’t want to take part in these power fantasies of violence and, well, exclusion. And not every AAA game is like that. Tomb Raider is, from all accounts, fairly respectable towards protagonist Lara Croft. Saint’s Row let’s you play as a woman and play with gender distinctions. But these are exceptions, exceptions that often have to make sacrifices to sell well. And I’m just so tired of it.

Just a regular day in Animal Crossing, boys, girls, and gender ambiguous ducks working together.

Just a regular day in Animal Crossing, boys, girls, and gender ambiguous ducks working together.

Let me tell you this fun fact about Animal Crossing before you stop reading this and comment about how gay I am for hating on Call of Duty and Battlefield and Guns of Shooting 69. Animal Crossing lets you run by holding the B button. That’s not a big deal. It’s been a feature in games since Super Mario Bros. in 1985. But running is almost always a bad idea. It destroys flowers that beautify your town and chases away the fish and bugs that make you your profits. Not only that, but it tramples your town’s grass, which only grows back at a very slow rate, and not at all during the winter and fall.

 

 

"Why would the game even let you choose something so negative?"

 

So why would you ever run? It’s a universally bad choice. Why would the game even let you choose something so negative? Because that’s what Animal Crossing is about. Choosing to take the game slowly, to stop and smell the roses, to experience this tiny little world at its own pace. Animal Crossing knows that eventually you’ll get bored with it. Six months in you’ll stop visiting the town, it'll be infested by weeds and all flower life will wither away. It knows that one day it as a world will die. And so it wants you to appreciate it for every thing it is. It wants you to slow down and take a look deep inside of it. It wants you to see that there are flaws with race customization; it wants you to see how it’s barely removed from Farmville and many other time sink social games. It wants you to see it for all of its flaws, because it knows that above all else you’ll see the most important thing.  

You’ll see that Animal Crossing might not be perfect. It might not get all of its progressiveness right, but it wants to. You'll see that Animal Crossing is one of the most well intentioned games you’ll ever play, and that’s something not even the biggest budget can buy.

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