Quick background: I’m taking a class on computer game and simulation design. This week one of our topics for discussion was to talk about what defines a game. One of the students posted to the discussion board that “Final Fantasy VII is THE DEFINITION of a game!” While I can appreciate the fandom, and don’t mean to take anything away from it, the sentiment did trigger the following rant that I thought worthy of publication:
I feel I need to say this before I start out, the point of this week’s discussion topic is not to crow about your favorite game and how it “defines” the notion of “game”. OK, so you love your favorite game. Big whooptie. “Talk about your favorite games” was kindof last week’s topic.
The idea for this week is to talk about what aspects of games are essential to games, and to try to identify the necessary and sufficient criteria for the definition of “game”.
Now, to understand the full weight of what I’m about to say, you should know that I have a degree in philosophy, and that basically means that I ought to rabidly devour this topic. But I’m going to commit a little blasphemy:
I’m not really at all interested in this question.
I’m sorry, I’m just not.
I’m not now, nor have I ever been, in an existential crisis because I did not know what a game is.
I’ve never once been in a situation where I found myself looking at something, and thought to myself, “Gee, I can’t tell if that’s a game or not.”
And I’ve never had someone point at something and say, “Hey, know what? I just realized that’s a game!” and then thought “Wow, hey he’s right! I never noticed that before!”
I mean, “game” is just a word. Let’s not get too hung up on it, OK?
What if, instead of video GAME, they had been called video TOYS?
Would we think of them differently? Would they be different?
How is a toy different from a game? I can see clearly that these are different concepts, and I don’t see all that much that I consider profound or interesting about it.
If I call them “video SPORTS” suddenly you start thinking about competitive play and winning and losing and being a champion. That’s not really essential to a game, but it is to sports.
Or maybe you think more literally, and think instead about videogames that are sports simulations, rather than Counterstrike tournaments and Koreans who play StarCraft professionally.
Does it even matter?
I mean, if I’m building something that I call a game, and someone walks up to me and tries to say, “Oh, that’s not really a game. See, a real game would have… blah blah blah” I would be very uninterested in hearing the rest of that sentence. I’d tell that person to go away and not bother me, and continue making whatever I was making. People would either get it, or they wouldn’t. They would either like it, or they wouldn’t.
Take a look at Electroplankton and Korg DS-10. Both not games. The makers of these non-games got my money. Do they care that it’s not a game? Do I care? Does anyone?
Now, on the topic of Final Fantasy… I’m about to commit a little more blasphemy.
Mind you, I’ve only played the series through the SNES releases. Now, I loved the original when it came out. LOVED IT. It was the most epic turn-based RPG available on the NES, and had the best interface (at the time) although still painful and primitive to use. I loved FF II and FF III. I never owned a PSX, and never had the time or money back when I was in college to play through the CD-ROM era games. When FF VII came out, I thought it looked impressive and really wanted to play it, but I never got the chance. A few years on, I watched a friend who had just bought FF IX play it. While I was amazed at the graphics, I felt that the FF series had turned away from being games, and more toward… well, minimally interactive movies.
Here’s what I realized about Final Fantasy: you spend a lot of time walking around doing stuff. Mostly exploring and leveling up, talking to people, finding things. This is fairly interesting, and it’s cool to find all the items, encounter all the monsters, see and do everything. It’s fun, even.
But — it’s not challenging.
The random encounters that you grind through are just there to take time. Overcoming them is trivial, and you can last through many fights before you need to heal up and resupply, which is always pretty easy, so there’s little risk of party death. Even if you did lose your entire party, you’d just go back to the last save point and start over, hardly missing anything but maybe the last few minutes of play. The monsters barely do any damage to your characters, while most of the time you hit them once and they die.
Even boss fights aren’t all that much more challenging. You just need to be at about the right level, and you’ll cruise through the encounter. FF II & III even took much of that challenge away by turning the boss battles into scripted events. You encountered the boss and dished out a certain amount of damage, which then triggers a story event or dialog. Some fights, intending to be dramatic, would let your party get knocked down to nearly being defeated, and then some deus ex machina would happen, and something would save you and turn the tide. It was supposed to be dramatic, except that it wasn’t. It just made you realize that all the fighting you’d done up to that point was part of a scripted routine, and that no matter what, you had to deal/take that much damage in order for the game to trigger the next part of the battle sequence so the game could continue.
And here’s the other thing I don’t like about Final Fantasy. No matter what you do in the game, you’re basically only going to have one possible outcome. You either play through the entire game, or you give up and walk away from it. Nothing you do in the game makes any real, lasting, meaningful difference to the eventual outcome. The choices you make have no real consequence. There’s one story, with very few if any branches. There’s no choice you can make which, once made, permanently excludes other areas of the game from remaining open to you.
There’s a good parody game that makes this point pretty well, called Turn Based Battle. It basically is a parody of jRPGs and maximizes all the things that sucked about them while removing all the cool parts, and turns that into a game. Give it a try and you’ll get an idea what I mean:
If you actually enjoy it, other than to get the joke, I’m sorry.
In a like vein, check into Progress Quest — It’s kindof like SETI@Home in that it keeps your CPU warm, and you don’t have to interact with it at all.
I understand that the later FF titles did away with a lot of the random encounter grinding, in order to focus more on storytelling, and amazing graphics, but even so, the games are basically kindof like a movie. Only, you have a game controller in your hand, and you have to keep pressing buttons. Casablanca would not be a better movie if you had to press Play repeatedly in order to get to the end and see the whole thing. As for all the amazing graphics and animation, this stuff gets tedious in short order. Very pretty the first time you see it, annoying to have to sit through repeatedly. Imagine an action/fx film where the same exact action sequences get repeated again and again. YAWN!
So, sorry, Square/Enix, but I’d rather sink 60-100 hours into Geometry Wars than the newest FF. I like games with good story sometimes, but story and character are pretty inessential to me when it comes to enjoying a good game.
Also, this is a worthy read.
Honestly, I’m not here to tell you your favorite game sucks. If you enjoy it, who’s to say you’re wrong? Clearly, you like games for different reasons than I do, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Enjoy what you enjoy. I just wanted to put some thoughts out there so people can see other sides to it.