On the Central Questions of Games

The other night, J and I sat down to play through The Beginner’s Guide, neither of us having any experience with the game. We didn’t finish — intuition tells me we’re probably half-way through — so I’ll avoid diving too deeply into thoughts on the game itself; suffice it to say that when time is, I will have things to say. Rather, at present, I want to record some thoughts that have arisen from our conversation after playing the portion we did.

Very quickly, Davey Wreden’s previous game, The Stanley Parable came up. Both of us have played the game with somewhat similar appreciation. J, however, expressed that he preferred a game that made him want to play it again; this struck me distinctly, as I’ve gone back to the Stanley Parable numerous times since I first explored its oddly limited hallways. I thus made an overstatement — as is my habit — that I feel I can find more value in games with a bent closer to philosophical than your Grand Theft Autos or your Assassin’s Creeds (not that I don’t enjoy these games). Further thinking has made me revise/reconsider my position.

While true that games like the Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide present their questions more overtly than more traditional, mass-appealing games, this does not remove the ideas presented by other games. This, in fact, demonstrates an advantage or flexibility that video games have compared to other narrative art forms. This is to say that there are more ways of approaching the central questions of games than of movies or books. I’m unwilling to call the following list complete, but I’ll certainly declare it a start.

  • Philosophy from narrative: The most traditional approach to presenting ideas, through plot and characters.
  • Philosophy through personal choice: Perhaps a more acute narrative philosophy, contemporary games offer branching paths that invite the player to consider the ramifications of their actions.
  • Philosophy of self-awareness: Stemming from the knowledge of playing a game, the player can consider choices from a context outside the narrative of the game, imposing outside rules or general knowledge of games.
  • Philosophy of (conversation?): When the game knows (i.e., has been written) that the player is playing a game, the player can be encouraged or discouraged from playing with outside context, as in our previous example. The result is a sort of conversation between the makers and players of a game. This conversation can take many forms.
Still Available, Hard to Call Playable

This fourth example may be the most contemporary, at least in games widely available and easily playable. Tracing it’s history and tradition shouldn’t be our goal, but appreciating it as something unique to games is critical. I plan to bring it up in the future, both as a topic here and in conversation, as well as in my own considerations when playing games, be they abstract or shoot-em-ups. To whit: the interface-free segments of ‘real-world’ gameplay from Assassin’s Creed were always the most compelling parts to me.