I’ve discussed Train by Brenda Brathwaite before. After MIGS 2009, David Sirlin gives Train high praise, but asks “Is Train a game?” It’s not replayable, and it puts a focus on presentation that is more associated with art then games. I had the same initial thoughts, but I came to different conclusions.
First, while we don’t often have control over it in video games, presentation and the medium of play are very much a part of games. David Sirlin’s own talk at MIGS on “Every Click Counts” tsks designers for creating unnecessary affordances. We take controls and thus the controller into high consideration while designing. Does thinking about the Wii controller make New Super Mario Bros less of a Super Mario Bros game? Or Rock Band, which got to design their physical presentation in the guitar controller and clearly made a meaningful, accessible impact? Other games show this too – professional sports has to be played in front of a crowd, for example, and special rules (the 7th inning stretch, say, or commercial breaks) are incorporated for audiences or television. Are these less of a “game” for these things? They are just different.
In particular, varying the presentation invites broader communities as well as broader meta-gaming to occur around the game. Meta-gaming allows audiences to “play” mentally even if they can’t be competitive. Meta-gaming allows people to learn from the game by watching and talking and exploring, not just playing in one defined way. Checkers is a stronger game because it can be played online as well as physically, yet that’s a feature, not a required part of being a game. Checker’s presentation is a design choice. While usually it is common sense to go for the expansion of the presentation, restricting it has design value too, and shouldn’t affect it’s “gamey-ness”. For the people who can play, it is still a game and a meta-game. With Train, there is just a much larger meta-game then is typical.
Replayability, Sirlin’s second question, is a trickier fish. Most games today are hardly replayable, and I’ve argued in the past that this lessens them. Historically, replayability is a core, undeniable aspect of a game.
I see too flaws here though. One, many of these games are very replayable, if you consider the games to be shorter pieces of the overall experience. A combo exchange in Street Fighter, a fight in Dragon Age: Origins, a traversal section in Uncharted 2. If these pieces were just presented alone, we would consider them games – encapsulated mechanics, goals, replayable. So why would the larger experience containing many such games not be a game?
Because they seem to have a different objective.
Consider puzzle games. They contain these micro-games, usually in levels. The play of these micro-games can be somewhat similar to, we’ll call them gamey-games. But the goal is different. Or RPGs. A game like Android is an RPG and a board game at the same time. It contains many aspects of the most classic euro-games: bluffing, strategic planning, action-value calculations. Yet its core is in service of its theme, making the player forget they aren’t in a film noir Blade Runner. And let’s not forget the host of games that use these micro games for story, the proud dukes of the video game market – platformers, adventure games, action games, single-player shooters. All of these are focused more on narrative then on repeated gameplay. At least until you look at their micro-games.
Should we throw all of these games out because they don’t elevate their microgames as their ultimate representation? I don’t know. I find it hard to believe that something that contains a game isn’t still a game, just as a game that contains art is art, from a base perspective. It seems to come down to a big tent or small tent debate.
And rather, maybe it comes down to what meaning you’re willing to accept with your gameplay. Sirlin calls the games he admires teachers of meritocracies built around skill. Maybe that is their goal, their meaning, what they bring to the world. But couldn’t other meanings from other games be valid, even desirable? Why would we expect them to also teach meritocracy? Couldn’t they teach perseverance or economics or logic? Games seem stronger for having more possible meanings, not less, just as movies can and comic books have never managed to achieve in the public eye.
While not all these different types of games do honor to the medium they pull from, some, like Train, do. Maybe that is enough to put down the debater’s cap and say “Welcome, what do we have in common?”