What makes a video game… a video game?

[Slayn Bacon asks: What is the defining characteristic of video games?]

So, what is it that makes video games different from other forms of media?  What makes games different from movies, books, and television?  Well, to be honest, most people probably know the basic answer to the question:  Interaction.  In video games we are allowed to control the character, our avatar in the gaming world if you will, and steer the character to its story’s conclusion.  In a movie or television show, you simply watch the plot play out, and see its conclusion without any input of your own.  Likewise, in a book (for the most part), you have no say in how the story plays out, even if you physically turn the pages yourself.

Of course, this one simple word, interaction, brings up a plethora of new questions:  What counts as player interaction?  What games are actually video games, and which are really just glorified movies?  What about completely linear games?  Simply saying ‘interaction’ doesn’t really answer the question as is, so let’s answer these new questions then, shall we?

The thing about ‘interaction’ in games is that without it, the game would never complete itself in the instance of the person playing it.  You could leave a movie running, or turn of a TV show while it’s being broadcasted on a station, and the particular movie or episode would complete whether or not you were there for it.  Sure, decreased viewership could cancel a TV series or stop a much-needed movie sequel before its logical completion, but you yourself are not directly responsible for theses acts.  In gaming, if you turn a game off and never play it again, you will never personally the that game to its completion.  Mario will not save the princess.  Kirby will not eat to his(?) heart’s content.  Sonic will never stop Dr. Robotnik.

While there are other means of seeing the game and the ending other than playing it yourself, such as Let’s Plays and other forms of videos and walkthroughs, even if you yourself didn’t play through the game, someone else had to in order for you to look up all those videos.  Video games absolutely require interaction in order for them to be completed in some form or another, regardless if its you yourself that played the game, or another gamer that you’re watching play through it.

But still, what about games that are completely linear in nature?  What about games that, even with player interaction, leads to going through the exact same game with no changes to the exact same solution?  Well, for the most part these are still video games.  Let’s take for example Dear Esther, a semi-recent indie game that literally involves nothing more than walking along a path from one area to the next.  Exploration offers little results, and there is no fighting, or gameplay… simply a goal of making it to a lighthouse.  No matter who plays through it, you will hear the same dialogue, see the sights, and get the same ending.

However, it’s still a video game in the most basic sense of the word.  Sure, it may not be much of a game for the most part, since you don’t do much but walk, but it still requires interaction for you to complete it.  If you, or whoever you are watching, just stopped walking, you’d never to able to get to the conclusion of the tale.  If it were a movie, you would simply watch the character, detached from your player point of view, reach the end of his tale without any interaction on your part.

But that brings up a new conundrum–what about visual novels?  Visual novels are often contested in the gaming as to whether or not they are video games.  By their name, visual novels are essentially, novels with visuals to help enhance the tale; or, in other terms, a digital picture book of sorts.  However, many people consider these video games, despite the genre’s name and trappings as digital books, using the same word that I’ve been using through this entire piece:  Interaction.

So, are visual novels really games or not?  It’s still a very hard question to answer, and it’s because of that that it’s even a heated topic in the first place.  One can argue that most visual novels require interaction–the choices you make affect the visual novel and the ending itself.  However, that’s the same amount of interaction that you’d give to a choose-your-own-adventure book:  In those, you make decisions to lead to a certain outcome; the only difference between those and visual novels is in reality the visual aspect.  Some visual novels don’t even give you a choice in the matter; they are just stories that you click through until the end of the story.

In that case, it’s very hard to classify visual novels as games… however, visual novels are actually a pretty wide genre.  Take 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors.  This title is predominately a visual novel, but there are also segments where you have to solve puzzles.  999 features apparent interaction and player input, even if the core of the game is reading through a story.  In that case, this particular visual novel can certainly be classified as a video game, even when other titles in the same genre are not.  So, um… I guess the grand answer to the visual novel question is ‘yes and no’.  It may seem like a cop-out, but saying it’s one or the other denies valid and truthful points the other answer things.  Besides, the world’s rarely clear-cut.

There might be more to talk about, but I believed I answered what I could think of well enough.  Video games require a certain amount of interaction to actually be video games, even if the interaction is small in itself.  It’s a simple enough concept, but deciding how much interaction is enough is difficult and debatable.  There’s so much more that could be explained, but I believe this wall of text has gotten long enough.  Until next time.

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