Opinion: Are games like Proteus and Journey really ‘games’?

As the indie gaming market expands and developers are finding it easier and more accessible to create whatever experiences they like. Without the pressures of a demanding publisher and financial restraints, more and more experimental games are being released. Likewise, big publishers like Sony and Microsoft are recognising the value of nurturing and taking financial risks on independent developers.

This creative freedom has spawned games like Proteus and Journey, which don’t reflect traditional gaming experiences and offer a new and different approach to what a video game can be and do. However, there would also be those that argue that ‘games’ like the aforementioned titles, are not really ‘games’ at all. They would point to the fact that these titles don’t have the necessary qualities that one would expect when defining a game, or are lacking in those qualities.

For instance, take Proteus, which Hidden Level reviewed recently. Proteus has no clear goal, aims or tasks for the player to complete. There is no clear narrative structure, no puzzles to solve, no platforming more complicated than walking, no enemies to fight, no score, no lives and no competitive element. There’s no clear mission statement like most traditional games have or a driving factor that motivates you to play. When you consider nearly all genres of games in existence, from puzzle, platformer, fighting, RPG or first-person shooter, they at least all offer a challenge to the player. Proteus has none.

Proteus is purely an aesthetic experience, it only wants you to explore and appreciate its world. Its true there’s no challenge, but that isn’t required in the enjoyment of it though. If anything, the lack of challenge is welcoming. Some might say “what’s the point?” but Proteus offers an alternative to what other games might.

For some of us, games are a chance to relax and unwind after a hard day of work or study and completing petty and frustrating arbitrary tasks found in many games can be a chore. I play games to escape work, not to start grinding again in a virtual world. As much as I like a game that requires a bit of patience and graft to be rewarded, floaty experiences like Proteus have their place too when time is short and I need a quick, hassle-free gaming fix.

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Proteus is a non traditional gaming experience, focusing on aesthetic enjoyment

Journey is a game that has also come under fire for its simplicity and lack of traditional gaming challenge. Although critically acclaimed by many games’ journalists, sceptics point to the lack of real challenge embedded within the gameplay, how it more or less guides you through the short campaign and doesn’t allow you to die.

It’s a similar complaint levelled at many adventure games, that they represent more of an interactive movie than an actual game due to the lack of player control. Again, there’s no scoring involved, but the game does reward you for exploring the environment and collecting the scarf fragments. Beyond that, which is no more than a side distraction that doesn’t actually affect the overall outcome of the game, there is little ‘gamey’ about Journey.

Games like Journey and Proteus would benefit far greater if they’re defined by what they do and relay to the player, rather than how they function.

But Journey succeeds because it offers something to the player not all games do. Again, it’s a relaxing experience that doesn’t frustrate and it tells a good story that’s emotional and uplifting. The final hour of Journey touches your heart in an honest way that few other games do and that kind of rewarding feeling is one that hasn’t been replicated so well in other more ‘gamey’ genres. It could be the very nature of Journey that makes it innately suited to triggering a sensitive emotional response from the player, and it would be great if other games could do it so well. It’s what many developers aspire to achieve.

Jonathan Blow’s comments last year to GameSpot about how games should be reclassified based on what experiences they offer and not on their mechanics may be relevant here. Games like Journey and Proteus would benefit far greater if they’re defined by what they do and relay to the player, rather than how they function. The fact they don’t fall into outdated concepts of what gaming is, based on specific genres, does them a disservice.

The outside perception of gaming is defined by a certain few genres, and as long as gaming is viewed as either platformers or first person shooters, the most dominant and iconic genres, games that are a little different will be shut out. A shame, as these games could be the difference in drawing in a new audience that want the kind of experience they offer.

If games like Proteus and Journey aren’t part of the ‘gaming club’ then I have less reason to support and champion gaming.

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