In a sad announcement, The Chinese Room announced that it would be taking “a pause.” This pause, while not an outright stop to the studio developing games, would mean that the games being developed would be taking shape at a much slower pace. For those unaware, The Chinese Room is a studio largely known for making a genre of games known as Walking Simulator—games where not many actions are taken by the player with the exception of exploring the world and experiencing the story. It’s a genre that has received much hate in certain sub-sections of the gaming community with many claiming that because there is so little “to do” it doesn’t truly make them games, but rather, something less when this is far from the case.
What is at stake here is the definition of ‘video game’. What defines a video game? Is it is a story? Its ability for the player to take agency in that story? Is it killing 100 zombies? 200 zombies? Is it just to play a game electronically? Does the player need to press X, Y amount of times?
If a product answered yes to all of these, most would say that it is in fact, a video game. But what if we were to take away some of these, or even others not even listed when describing the nature of a ‘video game’? At what point does it no longer become a game? Well, that’s an answer that I by no means can provide a definitive answer on and doubtfully, no one truly can. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an argument to be made to define what makes a video game, however.
Let’s take another genre that tends to push the boundaries in gaming circles when it comes to if something is a game or not: Visual Novels. This genre when it comes right down to it, largely, plays like a book. Some titles such as the Ace Attorney series involve gameplay elements that are intertwined in the visual novel. There may be places to go, search, questions to answer, and an actual fail state. Outside of these sections, the content provided is simply storytelling: listening to characters talk, learning more information on the story unfolding with no impact you can have on how these long scenes can play out. As a consumer of these titles, your agency exists in small bubbles, where you can only act within these small confined areas. The key though is that you can still act, even if it’s just limited to these areas. You can take ownership of how these scenes and sections playout, making your own playthrough its own unique experience.
It becomes even more questionable of a title’s status of being a game when it adheres to being a visual novel stricter than the Ace Attorney series. Steins;Gate is a popular visual novel that doesn’t include many of the interactions that are typically found in visual novels. Steins;Gate does however include one element that requires it to be a game, the phone trigger. At certain points through the game, you will receive text messages that give the player a choice, be it a choice in what to say or a choice to even read the message. Some of these phone triggers, depending on the player’s action, will change the outcome of the story. This is much the same idea as a choose-your-own-adventure novels, but with an added twist that only a game can include, a temporal element. While the player has an extremely small amount of agency compared to other games, there is still agency.
So is agency over your experience enough to be considered a game?
No. there are plenty of shows or books that allow you to make a choice. What sets games apart isn’t the ability to make a choice, it’s rather a further degree of choice that isn’t available in those mediums. It’s not just deciding the what, but also the how.
In Front Of
Walking simulators meet this requirement. They allow the player to both choose what they are doing and how they would like to do it. The Stanely Parable is a game that encapsulates this concept almost perfectly by being the feature mechanic of the game. In The Stanely Parable the goal of the game is to simply reach the end…whatever that end may be. Going through route X may result in ending Y, but going through route X while performing action A may result in ending Z. This becomes further compounded after ‘completion’ and ‘completion’; where each creates different outcomes based on not only what you do, but how you did it.
Even walking simulators who don’t use this ability so extensively as The Stanely Parable still allow the “how”. Take Gone Home for an example, a game that involves the player exploring the empty house of their youth. You can experience the information set before in a manner and method you would like. The story may be the same, but you can choose how you experience it within the confines of the game to a greater degree than other mediums.
What separates a video game from other mediums isn’t some unwavering line, but rather a muddled and murky area where what defines one over another is based on blurry degrees of separation. While walking simulators are certainly closer to this line than most other genres, they are still on the video game side of things.
It’s important that walking simulators are in fact video games because they exemplify a portion of the artistic aspect video games can encompass, an agency in the experience. It is one thing to watch or read a story where you are observing the story unfold however, it is an entirely other thing to be the actual main character and to carry out the actions you must: to turn the dial, to make the decision, to press which button, etc. These choices, these options, these paths that you can control your actions all allow you, the player, agency over your experience to a greater degree than other mediums.
It is for this reason that we need walking simulators, we need video games that simply allow us to experience stories with different agency than movies or books can hope to achieve.