What does it take to be a game? Win states? Rules? The questions pop up again and again. And as expectations for games grow, we try to answer these questions with increasing confidence. Are games just code, or are they something more poetic?
Titles like No Man’s Sky or Abzu offer richly realized spaces to explore and immerse ourselves in. As I explore the galaxy and dive deeper into the ocean, I keep returning to these question. I think I have my own answers to share. Join me in this video for a look at relaxing worlds and a chat about just what makes games so damn wonderful!
I recently got the chance to speak with a developer for an interview and we eventally talked about what they thought games do best. Their answer was poetic but rang incredibly true. Games, they stressed, can transport us to places, drawing us into vast and fantastic worlds. They offer a respite from the drudgery of the day to day, inviting us to dream and encouraging us to adventure. Broadly, all art can do this. But games find themselves in the interesting position of allowing us to interact with their worlds in a very real way. It can make it hard for us to let go and return back to reality.
With the release of No Man’s Sky, many players eager to explore the wide galaxy that Hello Games built found themselves less impressed than they imagined. There’s many reasons for this and no one entity is to blame. Marketers boasted of near infinite worlds, creators spoke about things they wanted to do before they knew if they could do them, the press made spectacle, and fans let their hopes run wild. But one thing is certain: regardless of expectations, No Man’s Sky offers a world and we, as players, can accept the invitation to play in it.
Games are complicated, in the sense that critical discussion around games has difficulty agreeing on what they are or are not. What does it take to be a game? Do you need a strict set of rules? Do players need to be able to win? These criteria are popular candidates for discerning what games are. You play within a system and you are able to show your mastery over that system by achieving some form of victory. You rescue the princess, link the fire, score the most points, or reach the end of the story.
The attempt to impose such criteria on games ignores their strength for building worlds. It says that inhabiting a space is secondary to somehow claiming that space as your own. This tension exists in No Man’s Sky. While the player is able to explore at their leisure, the game offers an implicit goal: reach the center of the universe. But this calling to something other than merely existing within the space seems forced, a tacked on feature that exists only to satisfy the expectations of people who insist that games can be quantified.
Here’s what I think: games are in a continual state of existence, dependent on players. Like quantum particles we only confirm with observation, games affirm their existence as long as players engage. Games only exist while play is occurring. The question is not what goals we seek or worlds we set out to conquer. The question is “what is play?”. The answer is vague, because play itself defies attempts at explanation: play is emotion. Anger, sorrow, joy, laughter. As long as our interactions elicit emotions, play is occurring.
My personal game of choice right now when I need to unwind is Abzu, a quiet underwater exploration game made by Giant Squid Studios. In all, playing it takes about two or three hours, if you guide your way through each location and participate in the narrative. It exists on the opposite end of the spectrum of No Man’s Sky in terms of design; Abzu is not large, it is explicitly finite, and never changes. You don’t dive into a new ocean every time you play; the merely return to the same one. Bereft of systems like crafting or economics, you might expect that Abzu can’t compare to No Man’s Sky.
Yet, as I’ve struggled to adjust to new professional realities and prepare for the future, I play these two games for the same reason: to be somewhere else. I don’t play to win. When I play them, I’m already winning. Fighting off anxieties and taking some form of solace from a world that’s full of actual economics and politics that seek to erase me and others.
This escapism is often one of the other reasons we play games. There is nothing wrong in wanting to escape. There is nothing wrong with taking time for you. There is nothing wrong with playing games. The problem comes when we decide that we do not want to return from the state of play. When we insist that the escape last far beyond what is reasonable. When we insist that we can stay within the fantasy world forever.
We like to imagine that there will be one final game for us to play. For many people, No Man’s Sky was going to be that game. A world of endless possibility, where anything would be possible. I don’t think this is any better a way to look at games than insisting they must have win states. Games are space. Digital space. They can never be a proper substitute for reality. They will never be as good as we imagine.
It is long passed time for enthusiasts to stop thinking of games in terms of systems and win states. It is also insufficient to think of them as mere escapes or consumed objects. The truth, I’ll argue, is self evident: games are worlds, with all the complications and messiness that any world might have. They are not mere dalliances nor cold, immutable artifact. They are living, if imperfect, realms. It doesn’t matter how big they are. It doesn’t matter what promises them may or may not keep. What matters in the invitation: “Will you join in an adventure?” and we look back, grin, and say “Fuck yeah. That sound pretty good.”