What Is a “Video Game” Again?

This is a fascinating read by Jesse Singal on some people’s aversion to the “walking simulator” genre of games. The entire piece is quite lengthy, but it’s worth your time.

The video-game culture wars seem to be flaring up a bit. Wednesday, Heat Street ran not one but two articles on a favorite bugaboo of “real” gamers everywhere: artsy, story-focused games which offer scant interactivity and demand little to no skill on the part of the player. They’re more like films than games, goes the usual critique, and games are supposed to be games. Worse, these games often tackle themes like race, class, identity, and so forth, inevitably offering up some sort of progressive message — they’re political, which is just about the worst and most annoying thing a video game can be.

I feel like I first noticed this phenomenon with 2013’s Gone Home, a game about a woman who returns to her childhood home and…I’ll just leave it there. Without spoiling too much, Gone Home does not turn into the horror or action game that you would expect it to. It’s simply interested in telling a story through an interactive world. It plays with 90s nostalgia, which people in my age bracket just eat up, but the story itself is measured, confident, and engrossing.

Gone Home was not the first game of its kind, these so-called “walking simulators.” No, Dear Esther beat Gone Home by over a year, and while it did well enough, it wasn’t until Gone Home started to make “Best of 2013” lists that people shot up and started to really complain that “this is not even a game!” so how could it be one of the so-called best of the year?

Looking back, it’s easy to draw a line between the ire directed at this game, its creators, and those who liked it over to Gamergate, the embarrassment that the games industry slogged through in late 2014 into 2015. While the Gamergate drama has waned, the feelings that went along with that movement are still felt today. The conversation over “what counts as a game?” lingers, and not everyone agrees.

I happen to fall into the camp that thinks that anything that involved player input is a game. If I am essentially just walking from cutscene A to cutscene B, that’s a game. It had better have a pretty damn good story if I’m going to like it, but that absolutely counts as a “game” in my book. Maybe there’s a game where I never control my character’s movements and I’m just doing quick time events: yup, I’d count that as a game. These are very different experiences than the typical shooting and jumping we see in most other games, but they are no less games just because they focus on different experiences.

The simile I always come back to is film, where this conversation simply doesn’t happen. You have action movies like Transformers, Jason Borne, Star Wars, and a bunch of other exciting, violent, good old times, and a lot of people love these movies. But then you have comedies and indie dramas and documentaries and experimental everything, and no one gets up on their internet soap box and declares Swiss Army Man not to be a movie because no one gets shot in it.

They’re ultimately just words, and it doesn’t really matter what we call these things. Firewatch is currently my favorite game of 2016, and it’s been derided by some critics as a pointless walking simulator with no real action or any real gameplay. I know that I sat down with my controller in hand and controlled a character for 3 short hours. I was engrossed by the story, and thoroughly enjoyed exploring the woods and completing the admittedly straightforward objectives. It was wonderful.

I think it’s spectacular that new people with unique perspectives are getting into the video game industry and are shaking things up. Games are still a young medium, but they have been growing up at a sometimes embarrassingly slow pace. The image of a gamer being a teenage boy is outdated, and the games we see created should appeal to more than just that demographic.