Updates Tuesdays and Fridays.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Home Again

The reason I decided to do a review of Home at the beginning of last week, rather than the end, is because I wanted my usual self-indulgent theory-post to build on that review. So now, we’re going to talk a bit about whether Home is a “game” and what that means. A conversation has started up on the Home Facebook page based on IGN’s review of the game, which was something to chew on, anyway. The subtitle of the review reads: "Home offers an intriguing concept, but it's not really a game."

To his credit, our reviewer, Eric Neigher, does begin with a definition of “game," saying that "traditionally, the line between a game and a toy is often delineated by whether or not it's possible to lose." Apart from the fact that I lost lots of toys as a kid, there are two issues I have with his definition.

The first is that I just really don’t like it. Separating games from toys is a good place to start, but any definition of “game” that excludes The Longest Journey is a definition I do not like. We’re probably also excluding Flower and Dear Esther and that does not give me joy either. It raises questions about what “losing” means (is it a loss to “die” in Braid, when there's no meaningful distinction between rewinding right before and right after death? What about in a game like Bioshock, where you can “die” in an encounter without really being penalized for that death?). I also don’t know if I agree that you can’t “lose” Home; if there are unpleasant or unsatisfying endings, do those count? My major gripe, though, is that I think that that definition is really broad without actually saying anything about why we play games. We don’t necessarily play them because we have a possibility of losing. Sure, that’s what makes a game like Pac Man or Super Mario 64 or Skyrim exciting – skill, sometimes planning, are required to avoid losing, which gives the game an added edge, making skill more necessary and completion (of a level, of a quest, of the whole game) more gratifying. But we’re not always in games for those reasons. I didn’t enjoy Black and White because of the excitement granted by the possibility of losing (which never happened to me once, despite playing over one hundred hours of it), I enjoyed it because I liked throwing fireballs and watching a 300-foot tall crocodile rain lightning on unbelievers.

Above: Entertainment.

We play games for lots of reasons, and starting your review with a definition of “game” that the game in question doesn’t cleanly fit indicates that we don’t want to talk about it like it’s a game – or, maybe more precisely, we’d like to talk about it like it’s a bad game. Which reviewers are allowed to do, of course. Games can be bad, and reviewers can say so. But I think that the definition of “game” the author gives indicates that he’s approaching Home like it’s something it’s not – that is, conventional.

The second issue, and the bigger one to me, is that once he places home outside what a “game” typically is, he doesn’t really ask any questions about that definition. I started this blog for one main reason: we are changing the way we think of games. We have new games, I’d argue better games, than we’ve ever had before, and we’ve got more innovation in the market than we’ve ever had before. So, Benjamin Rivers makes a something, calls it a game, puts it on a distribution platform known mainly for distributing games, and then a person whose job it is to review games reviews it and calls it “not a game” - some, then, might ask how it got here.

At this point, the pompous academic in me says “Well, this is interesting! If it doesn’t fit this definition of a game, why are we treating it like one? What are the gamelike elements we are assessing? Why deliver it in this way? If this isn’t a game, (why) are we consuming it as we consume other games? If it is a game, what about it makes us think it doesn’t feel like one?” And this is where our IGN reviewer says “6.5.” OK. Sure, so, maybe answering those questions isn’t within the scope of his review. It’s not his job to be overanalyzing the existential abstraction of “game,” it’s his job to be reviewing games. But that shouldn’t be the end of the conversation. Home did something new, and something cool, and it’s fine if you don’t like the graphics or the story or the sound or the gameplay or damn anything about it. I feel, though, that the fact that it did something different, within the context of a game, is worthy of mention.

I want to address only one philosophical question about Home in the capacity of being a game, and that is: Why are we consuming it/discussing it as a game? Maybe we decide that it isn’t really a game, maybe we should come up with a better language for what it is – why are we consuming it like a game now? And the answer, I think, is pretty simple: We don’t have any other language for it. The only real language we have for a program you download through Steam (or elsewhere) and in which you move a virtually-represented character around a virtually-represented world to advance a story or accomplish something (even if that "something” doesn't strictly involve skill) is the language of games. The only way we know how to interact with it is like it’s a game. The only way we know how to talk about it – graphics, gameplay, story – is as though it’s a game. That language is new – the idea of studying games and talking about them seriously is a relatively new one. Our discourse isn’t refined yet, we don’t have canon meanings for terms or firm definitions of what qualifies. And that’s true across media – what qualifies as a “novel?” Or a “film?” The point is to ask these questions, because that’s how we end up with innovation, with people stretching our understanding of what is possible to convey, what emotions it is possible to elicit, with the medium. We have a lot left to discover, and I think game-with-a-question-mark games like Home and Dear Esther are exploring, more than a lot of AAA-titles are.

I do want to say that I agree with Neigher on a lot of what he says. He acknowledges that his definition of a game is not the only valid one, that Home is worth playing more than once, that there's an interesting experience to be had even if it's not a game. What concerns me is that if more games like Home comes along, we'll judge them in the same way. I'm comfortable saying "We don't have a really good language for talking about this now;" what I don't want is for us to think that answer will continue to be adequate as more and more games like Home appear. I don't want to put it on any reviewer to do all this exploring, to redefine the word “game,” or to ask a bunch of open-ended questions without offering much in the way of answers, which is all I’ve really done here.  I hope, though, that Neigher review won’t stop people from playing  - or developing – Home, or games like it. What I hope is that he was starting a conversation, not finishing one.


  1. If IGN seriously questions whether a certain program is a game, then they shouldn't even be reviewing it (and grouping it with games and listing "Game Details"). If you only have a fuzzy idea of what is and isn't a game, then you don't have the right to make that choice. Review it fairly and get on with it.

    The only reason this all matters is the fact that some people have bigger soapboxes than others. It's nice that the game was reviewed at all, but it sets a chilling precedent.

    I'm also saddened by his statement that the graphics are "old-gen" and not "retro". "Old-gen" means that you tried but couldn't overcome technical obstacles to make it look better. This really isn't the case with Home. Also, he had better not be hating on retro graphics, which is a well-established style that is certainly not going away.

  2. I had that thought, too - if you don't think it's a game, why are you reviewing it? If you do think it's a game, why are you dinging it for not being one? Like I said, I'm hoping people aren't turned away by what he has to say about it.

    And yeah, in my perfect world, visual art in video games would be graded on direction and style and innovation, not on whether it's particularly "cutting-edge" or was possible to create 10 or 20 years ago. That's not what makes art art.

  3. Indeed, the definition of game is an overblown use of argument from authority. It's his definition. Games have goals and player agency. Goals differentiate games from toys. Winning and losing tend to come into play when there are goals and player agency, but they are a symptom rather than a definitional quality.

    Besides, we use the phrase 'game' to refer to almost every interactive recreational computer activity that isn't a chat client -- and even then, MMOs are pushing that line. Bottom line, if it's marketed as a game, it's a game. If it isn't marketed as a game, it still might be one. There are plenty of toys that we call games -- especially older examples like almost everything Maxis made before they got bought out.

  4. Hal, was that Jesse Schell's definition? I couldn't remember exactly what he said but I know it was along those lines. I tried to find my copy of The Art of Game Design but I believe it's buried itself somewhere in my room - it'll either turn up or become kimchi.

    I do think it's important that there be more of a language (or a more refined language) for talking about games, but I think it should be an inclusive one. The review is using the language to exclude. That doesn't really encourage ingenuity or experimentation. Plus, it's kind of elitist, to no real end.

  5. Can't remember if that's his exactly either, but it's certainly informed by it. Goals are definitely a big part of it.