When Is a Game Not a Game? ⋆ Pure M

With the release of the highly anticipated finale of Square Enix’s Life is Strange and Telltales’ Borderlands series, one of gaming’s overly debated topics has sparked up again: what is and what isn’t a game? Unfortunately, such an innocent question can lead to snobbery and hostility among gaming fans.

Former Bioware writer, Jennifer Hepler, witnessed first-hand how nasty gamers can be, when she made a remark in 2006 that games should cater to players who want to skip action sequences (No harm done, right?). Incidentally, L.A Noire took heed of this request back in 2011 — letting players skip action sections they had failed three times.

Hepler’s comment was posted on Reddit, under the title ‘This woman is the cancer killing Bioware’.

Within the past two years the most successful gaming franchise has been those of Telltales Games and their narrative, episodic series.

Telltale reported in 2013, at the time of the formal announcement of Season Two, that over 21 million episodes have been purchased across all platforms worldwide.

Quite an impressive achievement, as this year’s AAA games; Witcher 3 and Batman: Arkham Knight sold an accumulative number of 11 million copies.

A divide has formed among gaming fans, who bicker over minuscule details on what defines a game. Two terms have emerged from these disagreements: ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’.

When Hepler pitched her idea of skippable action sequences it was directed towards the causal players, who may not have the time or finances to invest into a 100+ hour game.

Being Different

A game today is usually defined by the amount of ‘gameplay’, which involves direct control of a character or on-screen events, and games that are outside of these boundaries have received the title of ‘interactive movies’ from gamers.

For instance, Metal Gear Solid 4 (MGS4) was met with overwhelming criticism from fans, who claimed that MGS4 wasn’t a game, but a movie. MGS4 has been reported to take twenty hours to complete — estimated that eight of those are cutscenes.

Life is Strange is not particularly unique — it belongs to a genre that has been redefined by studios such as: Telltale Games (TTG) and Tim Schafer’s studio Double Fine.

Double Fine’s recent project Broken Age is a point-and-click adventure game, where the player-controlled character can be directed to move about the screen, examine objects, and talk to non-player characters to learn more about the game world. It incorporates a variety of interesting extremes, including innovative puzzles, and two playable characters that the player can switch between at any time.

In contrast, TTG’s the Walking Dead is a graphic adventure, played from a third-person perspective with a variety of cinematic camera angles — the player can examine and interact with characters and items, and must make use of inventory items and the environment. In contrast to Broken Age, the Walking Dead’s puzzles are it’s characters. The player must figure out how to cater to each dynamic personality in the group, with each choice questioning the player’s morality.


The core of the argument against these non-traditional ways of gaming is that certain gamers dismiss this genre as a ‘game’ due to its unimaginative gameplay and lack of replay value. Players prefer to shape the world they are playing in, where every playthrough is unpredictable with Dark Souls being a great example.

All ‘point-and-click’ adventures have their nuances — they provide the player with the illusion of ‘choice’. The player is given the idea that every choice matters, when in reality the developers have crafted these ‘choices’ to lead every player to the same climatic ending

Unfortunately, games such as Dark Souls have created a mind-set among gamers that every game should abide by its methods and create a fresh, new experience every time you press ‘new game’.

Play Everything

The redefined ‘point-and-click’ genre is fascinating, and one that has introduced a new generation to the industry, now that Android and iOS have joined the console juggernauts as an outlet for gaming; there is no longer a single definition to describe a ‘game’.

Every time a person tries to define ‘gaming’, something will prove them wrong. There are numerous mainstream games that don’t fit the mold: Wii Fit, Dance Central, any game that involves the Kinect (and its vast catalogue of games…) even Singstar is debatable.

Which leads on to the endless discussion of what the term interactivity means in relation to gaming.

Interactivity has long since left mere buttons behind, with Virtual Reality on the horizon, gaming will no longer be restricted to a single controller. As seen at this year’s E3, Microsoft’s HoloLens will revolutionise how we play our favourite games.

The whole ‘is it a game’ argument stops players from having more interesting ones. The Walking Dead and Life is Strange are experiences that can certainly suck you in, but they’re definitely not games that you play for some mindless fun. They’re thought provoking and emotional stories told through the players’ actions.

The discussion has been exhausted to no end. Regardless, the topic rears its infuriating head every time the industry introduces something new and innovative.

Creating arbitrary principles to restrict an evolving medium is pointless. Definitions change over time to accommodate what actually exists, and ‘videogame’ is no different.

Originally published at www.puremzine.com on October 27, 2015.