Is Quantic Dream's Beyond: Two Souls a video game? It is an interactive narrative? An expensive visual novel? Games like Beyond, Gone Home, and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs are stretching the traditional definition of what a game is and according to Quantic Dream boss David Cage, that's a good thing.
"Some people can be very conservative about this medium and this is sometimes frustrating," Cage told GameSpot. "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 or should be; no one has this power."
"A video game can be so many different things. Angry Birds is a game; Call of Duty is a game; World of Warcraft is a game; Gone Home is a game. Who can decide 'you are a video game', 'you are not a video game', 'you are not a part of this family?' No. Let's open this medium to whoever has different ideas and it's great to see people trying to do games where shooting is not the main thing."
It's a topic that recently had Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs director and composer Jessica Curry penning a feature on Edge Online. She wondered why having different gaming experiences was a bad thing for the industry.
"We're often asked at The Chinese Room whether we're anti-games, or whether we're trying to deliberately subvert the medium," she wrote. "This question felt valid after we made Dear Esther, as the game (unintentionally) brought something new to the table and as a result raised some interesting debates. Move forward two years and a great deal has changed on the gaming scene. So when Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs was released we were really surprised to still be facing the question (and sometimes naked hostility) as to whether we are aiming to create interactive fiction rather than games."
"This question rests on the idea that games are purely driven by mechanics and goals, and this seems laughably outdated as a concept," she added. "Why do we feel the need to classify and name and label before we can enjoy something? For me, the key is whether it's an engaging experience (or not). The increasing breadth and diversity in games – a medium that ranges from Tetris to Gone Home – is wonderful."
A 'video game' is generally expected to provide some sort of player interactivity, but that definition of "interactivity" has long been in contention. Certain titles like 1983's Dragon's Lair are extended quick-time events, presenting a fixed narrative and pass-fail situations for players. Some count giving players a series of choices as interactivity, while others feel that offers little more than a digital Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. Japan has the visual novel genre, which gives players varying degrees of choice with very little mechanics. As you remove or trivialize a game's interactive nature, some begin to wonder if you were better off doing a CG film instead. They feel if you're making a "game" there had better be something to play.
In Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs' case, I think what tripped up that game is players expected a second Amnesia, not another Dear Esther. They were two different games made by the same studio, but each name carries a different expectations. I think the outcry would probably be the same if the next Assassin's Creed was a 4X strategy game. The first Amnesia was the base point when players sat down to enjoy Machine for Pigs, so it was judged on those merits. A Machine for Pigs may have been thematically consistent with the first game, but some expected it to be mechanically consistent as well. It's the doubled-edged sword of any brand recognition: that recognition pulls people towards your games, but it also means they expect more of the same, unless you've made a career of doing completely different every time.
People naturally classify everything; it's how we're wired. Compare and contrast is a large part of our decision-making process. I agree with Cage that no one person has the power to define what a game is or isn't, but on the flip side, that means no one has the power say I can't define what a game is for me. These definitions and comparisons help players, because ultimately regardless of what Cage thinks, he's selling a commercial product. It's useful to know that Beyond provides players with very little control and in many places the narrative will continue on if you take action or not. That's not necessarily useful for judging the full experience, but it's damn sure useful in deciding if I'm going to spend $60 on it.
When I'm explaining movies, games, or comics to my friends, I frequently use shorthand based on things I know they've experienced. This shorthand isn't perfect - it leads to developers saying certain games are like Dark Souls for example - but it's useful. It provides people with that base point to start from. This is important because our time and money is finite. I don't have $20 to $60 to determine if your game is something I want to experience. That's why we have gaming sites and message boards. It's why we have samples and demos. It's why we have Amazon recommendations. Because sometimes I have 30 minutes of time to kill and I don't want to waste that 30 minutes with a show, comic, or game I may hate.
So, Mr. Cage, please feel free to continue to create the titles you see fit and I'll feel free to call them games or not, based on my own experiences. Please don't feel shackled by my definitions, I'm sure you have your own.