What is a Game, Anyway?

What is a game?

It’s a question I found myself asking as I sat down to play The Beginner’s Guide. I knew it was a narrative game, that I would be receiving content and story more than enjoying a particular play experience. And it made me ask myself why we call these things games, anyway.

Some story games, like Nina Freeman’s recent release Cibele, are more-or-less linear stories that feel more like films than games, and it’s made me question the terms we use for digital stories and whether they’re even useful anymore.

After all, That Dragon Cancer has gained laurels from critics and fans alike for its unflinching, creative portrayal of the developers’ experience of losing a beloved child to cancer.  Though its interactive gameplay is limited, that seems almost beside the point—like asking how good a popcorn cruncher Winter’s Bone was.

It turns out The Beginner’s Guide is the perfect game to explore the nature of games with, because it is a game all about game-making.

At the outset, creator Davey Wreden, who narrates throughout, describes Beginner’s Guide as a compilation of experimental games created by his friend “Coda,” who has stopped making games and whose work has never been released in any form. The degree to which this autobiographical narrative is true—whether this “Davey” is a character, whether Coda really exists—is never established, and maybe clearing up the confusion would defeat the point of a game that focuses so deeply on the misty space between expression and meaning.

Wreden, whose 2013 game “The Stanley Parable” deconstructed the nature of video games, is deeply invested in the relationship between the creator and its audience, and Beginner’s Guide is very much a game about what games are and how they should be received. At one point, Wreden describes a heated argument between himself and Coda about whether games should be “playable.”

Coda, who rejects a standard of playability, retaliates by sending Wreden a zip file full of “playable” games—empty white rooms that players can walk around in. I suppose that’s one interpretation of playability.

And Beginner’s Guide itself spends a lot of time hovering around that point between pain and pleasure that modern art seeks to spin out into meaning. Most of the levels that Coda has designed are tedious exercises in futility. It’s the gaming equivalent of composer John Cage’s 4’33”, which is four and a half minutes of the orchestra not playing their instruments. There are levels in which you must walk backwards, there is a level in which the player is meant to be imprisoned for an hour or so (we are, mercifully, spared the full experience there).

The narrator Wreden, of course, finds plenty of significance in these efforts, and as the game continues, the levels get darker and stranger, and the signification becomes more and more explicit, even as we begin to question the relationship between Wreden and this “genius” whom he admires.

And when the game isn’t tedious, it’s horrifying in a psychological fashion. In tone, it’s similar to The Chinese Room’s tour de force, Dear Esther, a game with minimal interactivity that allows the player to discover a bleak, terrible story. Wreden describes Coda “unraveling through [his] work” and describes his obsessive creation of prison games as “spiraling.”

The Beginner’s Guide is many things—it’s troubling, it’s psychologically nuanced, it’s ambitious—but it still doesn’t quite help me answer my question: is it a game?

The dictionary definition of a game seems to hinge on two points; it’s an activity with rules that people do for pleasure. This last certainly is a big part of how I understand games on a functional level. A “game” is something I sit down to play for fun, to relax after work or blow off steam by shooting bad guys, to enjoy myself.

Almost on its face, then, The Beginner’s Guide is not a game. There are rules (press w to walk, click to interact with things, etc.), and I suppose in moving around and clicking I could be described as “doing” something rather than passively receiving content. But pleasure? While there is satisfaction to be had in moving through a dark, nuanced narrative, I wouldn’t describe the process as pleasurable. Indeed, at one point the game offered me the dialogue option “I feel like I’m going to throw up” and I immediately seized on it, happy to be able to express my own visceral response.

And yet, The Beginner’s Guide is a game more than anything else, and that half-identification in fact points to both the ways in which it is not a game, and in which our vocabulary is deficient when it comes to digital art. We don’t have a large enough vocabulary to be able to talk about digital offerings that aren’t necessarily fun or particularly interactive, yet still have a strong point of view and artistic message.

We’ve had a solid couple of decades to figure out what to call indie art games, and yet we still fall back on the inadequate “game” for offerings that would be more at home alongside the grittiest kind of cinema verité.

Last summer’s cryptic, story and film-driven murder mystery Her Story, a game that is primarily made up of video clips of an interrogation scene, is technically the same kind of thing as Animal Crossing. It’s as if we only had the word “book” to describe any kind of printed matter, and so when you went to the bookstore, there was no clear, accepted distinction between novels and self-help, children’s stories and true crime.

It’s time we started giving indie games the respect they deserve, and that begins with learning how to talk about them. Until we can do that, we won’t be able to explain how different games function, and the varied purposes they serve. And for something like The Beginner’s Guide, that defies so many gaming expectations, maybe “experience” is the word we need.

It is a digital experience, and it’s one worth having—but it’s definitely not a game.

Sophie Weeks
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Sophie Weeks received a Masters degree in English Literature from Mills College in 2006 and completed her PhD in Victorian Literature at Rice University in 2013. She is the author of Outside the Spotlight, Unsettled Spirits, and The Soured Earth.
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Sophie Weeks
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Sophie Weeks received a Masters degree in English Literature from Mills College in 2006 and completed her PhD in Victorian Literature at Rice University in 2013. She is the author of Outside the Spotlight, Unsettled Spirits, and The Soured Earth.

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