Programmable Series – By Any Other Game

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Every video game is an interactive experience, but when does an interactive experience become a game? Video games by their very design require input from an external source, most commonly a keyboard, mouse, controller or joystick. If a game played itself it would essentially be a video. However, even many videos now offer some level of interactivity. As we move towards simplified interfaces and more accessible content, the lines start to blur on what can be considered a video game.

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Laserdisc systems were one of the first mainstream media sources to bring a simple interactive experience into the gaming sphere. In 1983, Dragon’s Lair hit arcades and served as one of the first popular laserdisc games – titles featuring arcade cabinets that operated around a fitted laserdisc player – in the west, paving the way for the likes of Space Ace and Time Gal which have since gone on to become cult classics. These games make use of prerecorded animation instead of the standard character and background sprites, whilst only requiring very basic input from the player to progress the story.

Laserdisc players used simple directional and button inputs, similar to what you would find on the average television remote control. Arcade set-ups simply transferred these inputs to a standard arcade joystick and buttons, creating an experience that the average gamer would easily identify with. This minimal interactivity along with fixed story progression and impressive visuals offered an appealing game experience worthy of the arcade and eventually home use. The popularity of laserdisc games dropped significantly in the late 80’s, but the idea of interactive movies continued on through future disc formats, such as DVD and Blu-Ray, in a more limited capacity.

Moving into the late 90’s, Bandai’s electronic pet-simulation Tamagotchi had become one of the biggest toy fads of the decade. It too made use of simple button commands to create an accessible and intuitive interactive experience, not dissimilar to that offered by the laserdisc games of the previous decade. Although Tamagotchi is considered a toy, the presence of a dot matrix LCD screen used to display pixel-art characters is very comparable to a traditional video game. In this writer’s opinion, this marks where the lines of what can be considered a “game” really start to blur.

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Tamagotchi, in its original form, offers nothing in the way of ‘completion’ in the sense you would expect from a video game – nor is there there presence of a story, or even points or scores. Your only objective is to care for your pet. The only definitive end a ‘player’ can achieve is the eventual death of your Tamagotchi pet, upon which you simply start over with a new one. Encouraging a player to have their character die as a means of achieving completion goes against the norm of traditional video games, and a lack of ending or score can be considered fairly unusual for the time. The pet also requires constant attention, which would remain outside of the expectations of games in an era where the design normally intended for play in short bursts. For these reasons it would be fair to say that Tamagotchi is certainly an interactive experience, but is not necessarily a game.

Although a game without an ending would have been an unconventional design choice at the time, aspects like these have become increasingly common in more modern games. Many contemporary mobile games also have no ending and may utilise gimmicks or events that encourage regular attention from players. This could potentially further a debate as to whether these are in fact games, or just interactive experiences.

In recent times, simple interactive experiences have become a huge part of our everyday lives. Touch screen and mobile devices have become common in most businesses and homes. Touch interfaces are being used for things as basic as a restaurant menu or as complex as architecture and design systems. The difference with the touch screen and the traditional analog input methods is that you’re reducing your commands to “touch” or “swipe” to simulate the buttons or directional inputs. The emergence of these technologies in video game hardware has forced many game developers to re-evaluate what made a game playable one one format and how to adapt these input methods to create an enjoyable experience on a new device.

The control scheme of surprise worldwide hit Flappy Bird is entirely centred around a simple single-touch command. Other games like SEGA’s Sonic Dash utilise a combination of both swipe and touch inputs to enable movement and jumping, respectively. These types of games don’t have an ending in the traditional sense but instead offer item collection or scoring systems, not unlike the leaderboards and high-scores of classic arcade games. The emergence of this new take on controls has contributed to a rise in the popularity of ‘clicker’ games, where the main objective is to simply click or tap on an object a certain number of times to progress. All of these games make use of having a simple method of input. Some mobile games do offer on screen buttons and directional controls, but this is less common as the style is normally considered less intuitive for these types of devices.

The rise of interactive experiences that further blur the line of what can and cannot be considered a game has naturally occurred alongside the widespread use of mobile devices and simplified control styles. As experimentation around and exploration of these boundaries continue, many sub-genres have emerged to help categorise what people are creating. “Adventure” is now a parent genre to “Interactive Fiction” and “Walking Simulator” games, which are the types of games that usually have limited interactivity but still offer a plot of some kind – something a narrator is often used to convey.

The Stanley Parable and Gone Home are two such examples of this. Due to the slow pace and limited technical nature of these games they differ greatly from traditional video games of the past with more action and goal orientated focuses. There are also “Simulation” games that offer the chance to recreate real life scenarios; sometimes in a straight forward manner like Viridi and others in a more humorous, unrealistic way such as in Catlateral Damage. These kinds of games also tend to stray from typical video game standards. Simulation games that try to recreate real-life events often ‘feel’ less like games because they are strictly trying to recreate an event for the enjoyment of the player as opposed to tasking them with reaching a more traditional goal or end point.

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Finally, there are games that can almost be considered to play themselves. Sometimes they may offer the opportunity for external input, but it is not always required. Once again, this is where I personally would categorise them only as interactive experiences but not as games. A defining example of this approach would be David OReilly’s Mountainin which you simply play the role of a mountain floating in space and can do everything a mountain does – naturally, this includes minimal movement. The title openly advertises having “no controls” as a feature, whilst offering optional input in the forms of letting you play musical notes and changing the weather conditions. There are no goals or objectives in Mountain and similar to the aforementioned Tamagotchi, the only ending you can expect is when your mountain ‘dies’. Early reviews of Mountain even drew comparisons to a computer screen-saver due to the main focus being watching rather than playing.

Similarly, Pippin Barr’s flash game Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment presents the user with an instance where control and inputs are available, but not required as the game will still play out on its own – namely in a mini-game inspired by the mythological story of the deity Prometheus. Other mini-games focused on different stories require player input, but this is ultimately meaningless and the game’s tasks can intentionally never be completed. These types of experiences may fall more into the realm of being an art pieces rather than games in the traditional sense.

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When exploring non-traditional ideas through game design, you may find yourself questioning whether or not what you are designing is actually a game, or simply an interactive experience. Whatever definition you decide on, don’t be afraid to push the boundaries and experiment with the tools at your disposal to see what you can create – you may be surprised by what comes of it.

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About Mike Clark (Chemical Taint)

*Indie game developer, specializing in classic and arcade style games. I design games primarily for personal computers and handheld/mobile devices. *Musician and part-time music producer. *Writer for Minus World's "Programmable Series."
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