Zarathustran Analytics in Video Games, Part 6: Accomodating Nonconformity

As any classification system necessitates, there are exceptions to the four basic categories being used in the Zarathustran Analytics. Going beyond the mere nitpicks of innovative games that strike careful balances or parallels, it is important to identify the games that specifically lack one of the three variables. When analyzing a video game by its experience rather than game design or player input, one might conclude that a game that does not feature all three variables isn’t really a video game. You don’t classify them this way to be belittling, though, you do it because these games create a different experience and should be judged by different criteria. Why criticize a game for not having a story when it wasn’t created with that in mind to begin with? Why criticize a lack of options when they would have served no purpose? There needs to be room for purists in the medium of video games and the exceptions to the four forms addresses that.

The most obvious place to start is with games that don’t have plots. Note the difference between that and not caring about the plot for a moment. There are plenty of games where the plot is entirely forgettable or the plot is one sentence long. Save the princess. Get to the end of the level. Or at the very core: beat the game. I contend that the goal of winning is in and of itself a story in a game. It has a beginning, middle, and end. The game may consist of nothing more than jumping off platforms or wanting to be “The Guy”, but that’s simply an incredibly small story. It has finality and the player puts in all the details. That doesn’t always make it a good story, but it definitely should be considered one.

So there are definitely games with no plots. The best example would be SimCity or anything else with Sim in front of it. I have to take note of these games because they don’t have endings. There isn’t a way to win them and thus there is no way for the game design to let the player form a story in their minds. Having a beginning, middle, and end mirrors plot, and without those elements there can’t really be one. As Will Wright himself noted about the Sim line-up, they aren’t games. They’re toys. They’re interactive environments and simulations that you can explore and affect. And that definition extends to any other game of such a nature…if there is no definitive moment that the game ends (beyond player imposed structure) then it becomes a simulation.

So what about a “game” that doesn’t have any game design? This would be a game where the player input solely exists to continue the story. The best term for this genre is “interactive fiction” but they come in such wide varieties that this might be misleading. It may be a bit of a semantic leap to say that these games have no game design; you certainly click around, have an inventory, and affect an environment. But at the same time the game is so enslaved to the plot that you literally cannot progress until your input is exactly what the plot wants. This is far beyond Zelda or Final Fantasy “cannot progress”, this is when the plot controls every single aspect of the game to the point that there is no longer a game there. You carry what’s relevant to the plot, you act according to the plot, and you die according to the plot. True, there can be a great deal of experimenting and play testing with this kind of game but it’s still an interactive story, not really a system where you can make meaningful choices on how you play or win.

Well, what about a game that features no player input? Well, that’s not a video game. You’re watching a movie or reading a book.

As a final note, it’s important to outline where the graphics, sound, processing speed, A.I. and all the other elements in a video game are located. They’re a part of each element in varying ways. The graphics and sound of a Bejeweled combo, the art of Okami, or the balanced variables of a game are all substantial portions of the three basic elements. Yet the problem with any of these elements is that they are so up for grabs that any broad generalizations about them are going to be reductive. Who’s to say what kind of graphics best work in a game, whether photo-realistic or cel-shaded? Or what sounds are best? At its core, part of the reason Zarathustran Analytics chooses to analyze the game experience in terms of just three core parts of a game is because it frees up the conversation of video games. It’s safe to say a video game needs player input, game design, and story structure to identify the experiences they create. To then handicap the medium by saying games need a particular kind of AI, graphics, or sound would ultimately be a detriment to what the medium is capable of. By keeping the art, sound, and programming free for creativity, we can ensure that video games stay open and artistic.

The basis of creating categories, of labels for even the exceptions to video games is to allow these experiences equal footing despite missing one of the ingredients. The conversation needs to move beyond favoritism or arguing about how the game design isn’t fun. How do these variables affect the overall experience of the game? If a game does not have a story, does it still provide an experience that is engrossing for the player? If it has incredibly linear game design, does it still tell a story worth hearing? It is like labeling the parts of a clock or a car. To admire the thing properly, to discuss it beyond pointing at things you like or think are broken, means assigning names. You give meaning to the parts, you identify how they work together, and you are then able to talk about the product as a whole.