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GAMEPLAY ISN'T EVERYTHING?

20 Jul 2009

[Denis Dyack said recently that "gameplay isn't everything". This week's post explores that topic in detail, and attempts to clarify some ambiguities in game design terminology that I believe have contributed to some confusion over what Dyack is actually advocating.]

"Gameplay Isn't Everything"

A few days ago, Gamasutra reported on comments by Denis Dyack (of Eternal Darkness and Too Human fame... or infamy, depending on your perspective) with respect to the relationship between gameplay and narrative:

"Gameplay is not everything," said Silicon Knights (Eternal Darkness) founder and president Denis Dyack. "If you look at the most popular games today, they are far more narrative-focused. If games are to follow the trajectory of films, then the dominance of gameplay will diminish in place of an increased focus and importance on gaming’s stories and the ways in which they are told."

I take issue with the suggestion that games ought to follow the trajectory of films, but I'll reserve the industry's film envy for a later post. Today I want to talk about this "gameplay isn't everything" business. The first problem to address, however, is a semantic one: what exactly is meant by "gameplay"?

What Is Gameplay?

On some level, we all kind of "just know" what gameplay is. We know it when we experience it. But it's a bit harder to really nail down, concretely, what defines it, what differentiates "gameplay" from "not gameplay".

For purposes of this argument, I've chosen to define "competition" as the prime differentiator. If you have competition, you have gameplay; if not, you don't. More specifically, the presence of competition distinguishes "games" from "experiences".

Unfortunately, this creates another tricky clash of terms. We tend to use "game" colloquially to describe an entire spectrum of interactive experiences, from the abstract to the concrete, from the authored to the emergent. From here on out, I'll use the term "video game" explicitly, to refer to any product of our medium. Within that spectrum, "game" describes a product which is built around competition, while "experience" describes a product which is not.

So then, why competition? For starters, note that I'm not exclusively referring to multiplayer. There exists a wealth of single-player games that are built around competition, usually (but not always) in the form of AI opponents. In any case, I started developing this line of reasoning after reading Jason Rohrer's excellent article in The Escapist last August, Testing the Limits of Single-Player:

"The discussion of AI highlights that the human factor is not what allows simple game mechanics to blossom. It's not what humans bring to the game, but what two competing players - human or not - bring that allows the beautiful complexity and subtlety to emerge... Go's depth exists separate from the personalities that play it, like a property of the universe just waiting to be discovered whenever two entities sit down, in opposition, to explore it."

In most cases, the opponent is concrete: the opposing players in Unreal Tournament, or the other civs in Civilization. Sometimes, the opponent is abstract: the obstacle-laden level designs of Portal, or the abandoned puzzle fixtures of Myst. In all cases, the opponent's role is to prevent the player from winning the game. Player and opponent struggle against one another, forming a ludic narrative that lasts until victory or defeat is finally realized. This is the essence of gameplay.

What Isn't Gameplay?

The defining characteristic of video games is interactivity. The defining characteristic of a "game" -- in its specific definition as just described -- is competition. But competition is not a prerequisite of interactivity, so it stands to reason that another kind of video game must exist, one in which competition is absent. I call this type of video game an "experience".

Experiences, under this specific definition, do not have gameplay. But that doesn't mean they're not video games. Again, the defining characteristic of video games is interactivity, and experiences are fully interactive.

Experiences replace "competition" with "facilitation". The game doesn't work against the player, but rather works with the player to facilitate a particular experience. This might be the exploration of a fully-realized, authored storyline, or it might be an abstract realization of an emotional state or progression of states, or it might be anywhere in between.

Examples of experiences are somewhat rare. The Half Life 2 mod Dear Esther presents a linear progression through an environment coupled with a fractured progression through a narrated story, but with no challenge gates whatsoever. There is no opponent, either concrete or abstract. Independent developer Tale of Tales has focused on this kind of work: The Path is all about exploring an area in search of interesting tokens, but can in fact be "completed" by simply walking a straight line, unchallenged; The Graveyard is similar, involving the exploration of place and memory absent any opposition.

Is This All Just A Big Misunderstanding?

To return to Dyack's assertion that "gameplay isn't everything": I've seen responses from the game design community run the gamut from enthusiastic agreement to vehement denial. My impression so far is that the response tends more toward the latter, and I'll admit that was my knee-jerk reaction when I first read the article.

Further reflection, however, led me to differentiate "games" and "experiences" and to realize that both are fundamentally "video games", as both share interactivity. And that, I think, cuts to the heart of Dyack's point.

In my interpretation, Dyack is not advocating for experiences to replace games; he's advocating for experiences to be recognized as being as valid as games. Pure experiences are rare right now, but they're by no means unfulfilling. (Personally, Dear Esther is one of the most memorable video games I've played recently.)

So in the end, I agree with Denis Dyack, but with one little caveat. Gameplay isn't everything... unless you're making games.

(Also, our terms suck. We need more of this, please!)

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