Something Old, Something New

Let’s get it out of the way now, right at the top – “That Dragon, Cancer” is not a video game in the same way that The Stanley Parable, Gone Home and Kentucky Route Zero are not video games. You may sit at your computer with your keyboard and your mouse and control them just like video games with video game-like graphics and sounds, but they are not video games.

Don’t get me wrong, saying they aren’t games doesn’t detract from their value in the world in any way what-so-ever, but they aren’t video games and no-one should be calling them that – especially video games reviewers.

Oh dear. Too late.

[Awkward name for this game, let’s just call it TDC for the rest of the article, k?]

Yup, this is exactly what has happened on gaming press websites all over the Intertubes. Gamespot, IGN, Eurogamer and plenty of other sites have posted their reviews of TDC in their PC games sections and the backlash in the comments has been pretty brutal, as well as entirely predictable. When something this niche gets given the same overall score as triple-A titles like Fallout 4 and the latest installments of Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed, confusion and anger are bound to follow.

Many comments assert that TDC is not a game and cite it’s lack of gaming elements, often in a hostile manner. Okay, they’re being buttholes about it, but they’re right. Others defend TCD, countering that the emotional strength of the experience is highly subjective and requires a certain level of maturity for someone to “get it”, but it’s executed sufficiently well to justify the high scores it’s been receiving. If you’re reading this thinking you’ve heard an argument someone similar to this before (“It’s not a game!”, “So? It’s still good!”) it’s probably because it’s been retrodden fairly frequently over the last few years.

TDC has joined other such titles as Gone Home, Kentucky Route Zero and The Stanley Parable in being deeply divisive between pure-breed gamers, who think things called games should actually be games, and those who care less about how they spend their time and money as long as the experience is good. These are not contrary positions and the definition of what makes a game a game is not under threat. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

All the head-scratching and arguments between these two groups is entirely down to the decision to publish reviews of these titles in the video game category. Quite simply, these titles (and many others) are a fully-emerged new form of artistic expression and should be categorized as such. They are not games; the human participant in front of the screen is not a “player”, no matter how much the experience resembles playing a video game. Instead, you take the roles of both director and audience of an interactive play that the writer and producer have put you in charge of presenting for your own consumption.

That’s a pretty grandiose way to describe what has been disparagingly termed the “walking simulator”. Maybe we need something catchier. Interactive plays? Digital experiences? By definition, cars cannot be art, but there are such things as “art cars”, so perhaps Art Games? Whatever, imagine a world in which these digital experiences are recognized in the press as an art form in their own right; their scores tallied and compared on separate charts; their own set of review criteria defined and appropriate language used to deconstruct and analyze them. Wouldn’t that be the mature way to deal with the conflict we’ve got now? Gamers have enough conflict to deal with already, splitting hairs over what to call something when it’s reviewed seems relatively simple to fix – especially when the category that’s currently being used as a catch-all simply doesn’t fit in these cases.

The only review of TDC I’ve seen that hasn’t had a red-hot chili comments section has been Rick Lane’s review on Bit-Tech. Okay, it’s still posted in the Gaming section and reviewed with the expectations and criteria of a video game but, unlike other reviewers, Rick had the good sense not to give it a score. He makes it abundantly clear in the final paragraph that it will not be to everyone’s taste, as much because of the structure as the emotional content, and suggests that the reader’s personal preferences should inform their decision to buy this game or not. This is tantamount to an admission that the review criteria he attempted to applied simply were not suitable for the task. If only more reviewers had come to this conclusion before they hit publish.

Maybe the consternation that TDC’s reviews has caused will be enough for the on-going need to define a new category for this kind of title to crystallize in the minds of those in charge of the gaming press – that is, after all, where the change needs to take place. The continual refusal to diverge reviewing practices and criteria for video games and interactive plays is harming coverage of both subjects. Presenting comparable scores for both categories of product is simply inappropriate. You’d never pick up the newspaper, read a 5 star review of a restaurant and a 4 star review of a film and think “well, the restaurant must be better than the film.”