BioShock is not a game. Neither is Half-Life, and neither is Braid. We shouldn’t be calling things games when we aren’t playing them against people.
Is this a problem? Not really. Just because single-player games are something akin to puzzles doesn’t take away from their enjoyment, and certainly doesn’t prevent them from presenting authentically moving experiences. However, this distinction between single and multiplayer games allows for criticism that gets closer to the matter of these works, since they have different goals.
For clarity’s sake, I’m calling single player games “ractives” (short for “interactives,” taken from Neal Stephenson’s term in The Diamond Age, where he distinguishes between ractive and passive entertainment.) This seems appropriate, since their distinguishing mark is their interactivity. Multiplayer games, on the other hand, I’m going to continue calling games. These terms are helpful, since they allow us to make more precise distinctions when criticizing playables, a term I use to cover ractives and games together.
It is legitimate to ask, for example, whether playables like Minecraft or Dear Esther are the same sort of thing as BioShock or Half-Life. One could argue, for example, that Minecraft is really a toy and Dear Esther is really a kind of audio book. I maintain, however, that the single-player/multiplayer distinction is the most fundamental, and that by categorizing playables this way they will be subject to more effective criticism. Once we recognize Minecraft and Dear Esther as ractives, for example, they can be judged against non-electronic ractives like Solitaire or the Rubik’s Cube. Similarly, games like Team Fortress 2, EVE Online, Settlers of Catan, and Chess can all be scrutinized together.
Why do I think the ractive/game dichotomy is fundamental?
A distinguishing mark of all ractives and games is choice; in fact, we could say that choices are what playables are composed of. Although secondary arts such as music, voice acting, and visual design do have an impact on the work’s aesthetic effect, choices remain at the core; one could take out everything other than mechanics, and the playable would still exist. These choices, of course, are always limited, and the limits imposed on the player or players are enforced through mechanics.
The key here is that the mechanics in a ractive are geared towards a different goal than in a game. In a ractive, the designer controls half of the equation, the second half being the player. These two components are in conflict with each other in some manner; the ractive may contain enemies to kill, lands to explore, people to impress, buildings to build, or any combination of challenges. However, no matter what these are, the challenges are always between the fixed creation of the designer, and the free agency of the player.
The aim of a ractive work is to induce an aesthetic effect in the player through his interaction with the world. Ractives are necessarily incomplete; it is in finishing the work that the player experiences the designer’s vision, and it is in making the choices available to him that he does this. This relationship, between designer and player, the fixed and the mobile, forms the heart of a ractive.
On the other hand, the relationships within a game exist between players. One’s choices are inevitably made on the basis of what one’s opponents are doing, or are likely to do. Instead of fixed vs. mobile, games are mobile vs. mobile. Whereas a ractive engages a player in interpreting the designer’s purpose, a game engages players in the social activities of interpretation and communication. In a ractive, information flows one way, from designer to player; in a game, information flows in every direction at once. In a ractive, the play mechanics help you understand the designer’s thoughts; in a game, they let you express your own to other players. In a game, the aesthetic effect is generated by the unique types of player interaction permitted by the mechanics, rather than interaction with a fixed environment.
(A side note: Many ractives attempt to simulate a player vs. player experience, but these simulations always fall short, as dyadic action-reaction AI will never be able to truly replicate the behavior of a triadic signifier-referent human mind. In any case, players are mostly uninterested in bots acting like humans, except insofar as they are a meaningful product of the human designer’s mind.)
What does all this tell us about playable criticism?
Games and ractives have to be judged in different ways. Games ought to be judged in a manner similar to the way that the board gaming community looks at non-electronic games. Are the mechanics elegant and intuitive? Do they provide new, exciting, and innovative forms of interaction? Are the mechanics well integrated with the theme? Considerations such as music, visuals, and voice over work are secondary. This isn’t to say that they are unimportant (no one likes to play something ugly), but by bringing the interpersonal mechanics to the forefront, game criticism can begin to look at the ways that video games succeed and fail at making a game a better game, rather than one with higher polygon counts.
Ractives are a different story. Since one’s attention in a ractive is focused primarily on the world rather than on the activity of another player, secondary arts such as music, character, and visual design have a much higher value. Players are immersed in these arts as they encounter the ractive’s world, and they can speak to ractive players in ways that are mostly irrelevant in a game, since they are an expression of the person the player is competing against. Mechanics remain vital, but their goal in a ractive is to express the designer’s vision, rather than to express the player’s.
Are ractives a higher form of art than games? This is probably impossible to answer, mostly because the aesthetic appeal of a game is much harder to put one’s finger on. Board gamers will often rave about the beauty and elegance of a game system, where the interlocking mechanics produce unique experiences and complex choices, but it’s a cold, intellectual sort of beauty. Few video games have reached the mechanical brilliance of the best board games, but even if someday they do, their artistic appeal will be just as abstract.
Ractives, on the other hand, live more on their surface. Dear Esther, BioShock, Braid, or Shadow of the Colossus produce immediate cathartic effects not dissimilar from the effects created in movies or literature, albeit through different means. In a ractive we are encountering an author directly, while in a game we are using an author’s system to interact with other people.
It might be that games and ractives are basically incommensurable. Nevertheless, this realization may be the key to producing better playables, ones which understand their own inherent strengths and provide players with the most enriching experiences.