When is a game not a game?
Not a riddle, but a genuine question. Recently, there has been a general trend towards games that are light on what could be described as traditional gameplay. Is this a disgusting affront to the beautiful thing we call gaming, or a legitimate branch of our beloved pastime, destined to be ignored by many, but adored by some?
Nowhere is the non-game more prevalent than in the world of adventure games. It’s a broad genre encompassing a huge array of very different gaming experiences. Let’s imagine the adventure genre as a spectrum, with games placed on it according to their level of interactivity. An action-adventure-platform-shooter like the recent entries into the Tomb Raider series, or the Uncharted games, would be at one end, where games demand your attention and skill pretty much all of the time. Somewhere in the middle would lie traditional point-and-click adventure games such as the recent Thimbleweed Park, which requires an enormous amount of brainpower, but little physical interaction. Then, far at the other end of the spectrum, is where we’d find the audio-visual novella. Rather than a game, these curious entities more closely resemble a novel, with a generally linear narrative that can’t usually be affected too much by the player.
A perfect example is The Monster Inside. It’s a taught, noir-inspired experience that invokes the mainstays of that particular literary genre — the hard-boiled gumshoe, the mysterious femme fatale, the corrupt cops — to tell a brief but interesting story. Its graphical style is nothing short of beautiful, showing a series of small, simplistic isometric tableaux which serve as backdrops as the story unfolds. There are crime scenes, where you must click on designated areas to investigate, and further the story. And there’s music, which deftly conveys the mood of the era.
Let’s not gild the lily here: The Monster Inside is an ably written short story with a little visual flair and some very accomplished, atmospheric music. It’s kind of like an audiobook, and also has the feel of a point and click adventure. But you as the player, you don’t do a lot. The graphical and musical sheen is the excessive packaging the story arrives in.
There’s very little ‘game’ there. But the point is you have an experience. Now let’s look at another.
I’m going to address a particular type of person now. The breed of gamer who loves a rich, seemingly endless progression system, and is nourished by a constant drip feed of rewards that on the one had felt generous, but on the other, always leaves some shiny new thing tantalizingly just out of reach. You’ll know if you’re that person because you’ll already have racked-up 100+ hours of Destiny 2 since release. Yes, it’s you I’m talking to now.
Destiny 2 is a game about shooting things in the face, right enough, but it’s real purpose — what it really is — is a game about acquiring loot. Common loot. Insanely rare Exotic loot. And everything in between. Sure, the shooting is fun, but don’t you ever feel as if performing missions, taking down bosses, all that gameplay stuff, is just getting in the way of the sheer joy of obtainment of things?
If that’s ever crossed your mind, them Microtransaction Simulator’s got you covered. It finally has the balls to do what the likes of Destiny, Diablo, and all those free-to-play tiny-payment driven games dare not do: it strips out all that superfluous gameplay, leaving behind the real meat of the game — the loot. Because that’s what you really came for.
There is some gameplay, don’t get me wrong, but it's simple, so as not to get in the way of the real fun here. Four cards are turned over by clicking on each in turn. Each reveals a number. The number is irrelevant. But the color, oh, yes, that’s where the real joy lies. Because color indicates rareness. Of course, every time you play this game of four card draw, it costs you money (not real money – see the game’s title for clarification), but each card you turn over is worth a varying (also not real) cash value.
As if to emphasize that this game knows what’s important to you, the entire left of its spartan game screen is permanently dominated by a big fat rarity indicator. White is at the bottom. Anything colored white isn’t even worth spitting on in the street. At the top of the tree, almighty Peach, the rarest of the rare colors. You’d sell your right arm, your left arm, both your legs and your entire family for just one look at an item colored in glorious Peach.
Go into your inventory, and you’ll all the cards you’ve ‘won’. White is barely even worth the time it takes to click on them. Peaches and turquoises of this world bag you $100+ when sold.
You sell them, you make money. You use that money to buy stuff from the shop. The shop has stuff in it like ‘Guacamole.' And the opportunity to play in a casino. It’s all utterly pointless, and ugly too. Oh so very ugly. You also have the option to ‘lucid,' meaning you’re fully reset all your money, but things become cheaper to buy. This is also pointless. And that’s also the point: this might be the game that finally satisfies that insatiable hunger for loot. Or, it might (as I believe the developers are intending) shine a light on just how meaningless this endless pursuit for silly colored items really is.
I mean, it’ll probably just make you want to play Destiny. Which is also a valid response.
See: it’s all about generating a response
All experiences are valid as long as the person experiencing them gets something out of the transaction, and that’s a good way to look at whether these non-games deserve to exist.
The fundamental question must always be ‘what is the game’s purpose?’
Whether that purpose is to tell a story, make a comment about a current prevailing trend of the games industry, or just to throw some interesting ideas in your general direction, that’s a valid thing to do. Whether the resulting experiences are actually worth experiencing, well, that’s another matter entirely. But the most important aspect is to remember not to dismiss anything out of hand, especially when the experiences you’re presented with are free (as both of these examples are). You never know what you might be missing out on.