[The Primer is a new monthly feature meant to tie in with our monthly theme question. Every month, we’ll put together a short list of games related to the theme question that we think are worth your time. Hopefully, you will too.]
“What is a video game” is a pretty big question. It’s open ended, and has a lot of answers. So we want to give a little bit of a reference point. Some games you can anchor yourself to as we think about why we define games, and what those definitions mean. Some of them are rooted in “gaminess” while some are about expanding what you might consider to be a game. Either way, here a few games you might want to check out.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf:
Animal Crossing is one of the first games that comes to mind when people talk about open-ended game experiences. It’s technically open world, in that no part of your tiny town is blocked off from you, and it never pushes any goals on to you. But unlike most open world games, there’s no clear “end” to Animal Crossing. There’s no win or lose condition that ends the game, or any clear-cut way to progress. If you decide progressing means getting all of the villager pictures, that’s your prerogative, the game doesn’t mind at all.
Like most sandbox games, Animal Crossing asks you to make your own fun, for the most part. But unlike the Grand Theft Autos and Saint’s Rows of the world, there are no missions, no bosses, no clear ways of measuring your progress in the world. You don’t get better, you don’t get further, you just continue existing in your tiny village. It’s distinctly un-gamey. Nintendo actually coined a term to describe Animal Crossing and its ilk: “non-game”. At the 2005 Game Developer’s Conference keynote, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata called titles like Brain Age and Nintendogs non-games because of their lack of “a winner, or even a real conclusion.” And even though Animal Crossing: New Leaf, the newest entry to the series, adds dozens of new tasks to do in your town, the core of the game remains the same. Choose how you want to measure your progression, or don’t. Just hang out for a while, no one’s going to stop you.
Johann Sebastian Joust:
Including JS Joust on this list is double cheating, in that it’s neither a video game, nor is it even available to purchase as of writing. It’s played with PlayStation Move controllers linked to a computer playing selections from Bach’s concertos at different speeds. When the song is slow, the controller is very sensitive to slight movements, but when the music gets faster, you can move around more. The goal is to force the opponent to move their controller too much, causing the light on top to turn off.
But it’s not a “video game”, mostly because it doesn’t really have a “video” component. It may be played with game controllers, but even the developers, Die Gute Fabrik, call it a “no-graphics, digitally-enabled playground game.” It’s a game in the purest sense. Simple rules with clear winners and losers, and entirely free-form outside of that. Nothing in the rules says you can’t throw your shoes at other people, for example. JS Joust might not be a video game, but it does open the floor for discussion of more “digitally-enhanced” games, which, when you think about augmented reality games becoming more and more popular on iOS and Android devices, might soon become a much more crowded field than ever before.
Noby Noby Boy:
Noby Noby Boy is...weird. It comes from the mind of Keita Takahashi, the creator of the cult-hit Katamari Damacy, which might explain some of its oddness. You play as Boy, a snake-like creature that gets longer as it eats things using either of his two mouths One’s on his face, one’s on his butt. And that’s pretty much it. You eat everyone and everything on a map, and grow longer and longer and longer, until Boy becomes an enormous, unwieldy snake monster, incapable of moving without bumping into one of his own colourful segments.
Oh, there is one thing though. Boy gets bigger so he can give his length to Girl, a much larger snake monster hanging out on top of planet Earth. As she grows longer, she can reach other planets, unlocking more content for Boy to explore. Since Boy can’t do it alone, every single Noby Noby Boy player in the world contributes to Girl’s growth, and also reaps the rewards when she reaches a new planet. There are no personal goals, nor is there really any win or loss, like a traditional game, but there’s definitely progression, in a strange, totally impersonal way, where rewards are global, rather than individual. Noby Noby Boy isn’t an MMO, but hundreds of players were, for a time, all contributing to the same goal, without much of an end in sight. It’s strange, but it’s hard not to like a game where you can eat your own butt.
WarioWare, inc.: Mega Microgame$:
If Animal Crossing is Nintendo’s poster-child for non-games, then WarioWare is the exact opposite. Playing WarioWare is basically playing “video games” in their purest form. Simple, five second affairs, with only one button, a directional pad, and a single command. Beat one, move on to the next. One second you’re shooting ducks in Duck Hunt, the next you’re being asked to choose the “praise” option from a menu. WarioWare takes for granted the idea that the player is experienced enough with the grammar of games that they’re able to figure out what do with one word and limited input.
When the game presents you with a top down view of a girl with a gardening can and a plant, then commands you to “water!”, someone familiar with games would understand immediately that the top-down view means the girl is controlled with the d-pad, and the plant, as the only other sprite on screen is the target. WarioWare puts you through the ringer of platformers, RPGs, shooters, matching games, every kind of genre that’s playable in 5 seconds with one button and directional controls. It’s pure video game.
At the same time, the games are incredibly short, and packed together tightly. While they constantly reference video games and gaming history, some people would hesitate to call them “video games” on their own. They’re microgames, sure, but they’re also distillations of video game in the simplest sense of the word. Like a reduction of the medium, they get rid of anything not explicitly required for a video game. Separated into its base elements, it’s a series of incredibly simple tasks without much in the way of reward other than more microgames, but taken as a gestalt, WarioWare throws game after game at you, asking you to use your familiarity with various genres and gaming history to keep on your toes. If nothing else, WarioWare is the gamiest game that’s ever gamed.