In recent years, we have seen some astoundingly successful games that have gone so far away from the traditional concept of gaming that they are barely recognizable as being from the same lineage as their more conventional market rivals. These are games that have not only created interesting talking points through their uniqueness, but also challenged our ideas about what ‘playing a game’ really is.
Traditionally, every game from simple things like Space Invaders through to modern AAA titles like Fallout 4 has involved the core concept of beating challenges that the game throws at you and meeting objectives. While games styles vary, from platformers to RPGs to sports games, this is almost always the case. But the games we are going to talk about here actually break away from that format and use the medium of the video game to play around with entirely different concepts. Here we look at some of the recent titles that have done this:
Minecraft may not be new, but its cult status shows no sign of dwindling, with plenty of people of all ages still very much addicted to the game, and a vast community of devotees to be found on any Minecraft server list. However, Minecraft doesn’t really have any of the selling points of other successful modern titles. The graphics are distinctive, but willfully unimpressive, and while the game does officially have an ‘ending’, there is no true completion goal. In fact, what Minecraft is largely based around is something that is seen as mere filler in most games – grinding. You grind to get your materials, and you build.
It is of course, the building part of Minecraft that people enjoy and have latched on to. Some players have become so involved in the possibilities the game offers that they have crafted replicas of real world architecture, including cathedrals and palaces using it. Someone even famously built a full replica of the Starship Enterprise in Minecraft.
What Minecraft has done is effectively gamify the creative act of building or designing something digitally. The game world will allow you to share your creations, and may throw some things up to make your grand development project more complicated (such as creepers), but at its core, Minecraft is actually a creative sandbox, rather than what we would traditionally think of as a game.
Life Is Strange
Square Enix’s Life Is Strange was one of the most critically acclaimed game releases of 2015, with some critics even placing it at the top of their 2015 lists, above other major hits like Witcher 3 and Fallout 4. Much like the Telltale games it is often compared to, Life Is Strange sees you effectively walking through a story, with plenty of background and character development, intense decisions to make, and lots of atmosphere – but very little by way of ‘normal’ game mechanics. You can’t lose or die, you don’t have to really master any skills, and most of what happens happens in what, in a normal game, would be considered cut scenes. This may sound somewhat akin to an old point and click adventure, but in many ways only the illusion of interactivity is there and most of what appears in the game is to help engage you more in the world, or to move the story in a fixed direction (though of course, like a Choose Your Own Adventure, your decisions do make your own version of events transpire).
Games like Life Is Strange and the Telltale games are hugely popular because by taking out a lot of the game mechanics, removing the need for combat and having a limited number of paths a story can take, the story itself can be extremely rich and engaging, with satisfying conclusions whatever you as a player decide to do.
That Dragon, Cancer
While the previous two games we’ve mentioned did some unusual things with concepts, That Dragon, Cancer has to be the most unusual of the bunch. Released to very wide critical acclaim, this game doesn’t really have any normal gameplay at all, and is instead an interactive trip through the memories of a couple whose son is dying of cancer. This is definitely game development as art, and as a form of catharsis given that it is based on the real experiences of developers Ryan and Amy Green, whose son Joel both in the game, and in real life, had cancer. While this may feel like an odd subject matter for a game, what is interesting is that these kinds of stories have been expressed many times before in books, movies and documentaries, but this may well be the first time a video game was developed purely with creating an artistic statement that can allow a player to experience something from the developer’s life as its intention.
With innovative and intriguing ways of changing what we think of as the key mechanics in a game, or blurring the lines between games and art, these three games show how the way we think about what a video game actually is is changing.