gswesther.jpg['The Magic Resolution' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch column by UK-based writer Lewis Denby, examining all facets of the experience of playing video games. As we enter a new decade, a small new trend seems to be emerging in the indie scene: the removal of interactivity. Are we entering an era in which games no longer have to be games?]

When is a game not a game?

I've spent the last few minutes trying to think up a witty response to that question, but actually, it serves more of a purpose to leave it unanswered for the time being. It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately: is there a magical line somewhere that separates games from other forms of "interactive" media and, if so, where exactly does it lie?

A couple of years ago, it might not have been an issue. Games could, for the most part, be easily defined by their inherent interactivity. Attempts to create narrative experiences that dismissed this interaction had, in the past, been less than successful. The interactive movie flailed about and quickly imploded, and interactive fiction's few attempts at pure narrative led to most people suggesting they might as well read a book. For a vast majority of gaming's history, the medium has been about doing. But now, as we enter a new decade, is there a chance that could change?

In 2008, Dan Pinchbeck, a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, released a Half-Life 2 mod called Dear Esther. Part of a research project examining novel uses of first-person game engines, it removed all agency from the player, casting him or her as an unidentified figure exploring a desolate island. Randomly triggered audio clips spouted the memoirs of a dying man, and letters to the mysterious Esther, whose presence seems to be felt on the island in an unusual and abstract way.

Dear Esther seems to have spawned a new trend in indie development: the game that isn't a game. Since Esther, we've seen Judith - a low-fi walk around an unsettling castle, a retelling of the opera Bluebeard - The Path - Tale of Tales' controversial and heavily symbolic version of Little Red Riding Hood - Small Worlds - a pure-exploration game, in which the player slowly uncovers a collection of snowglobe-esque environments - and now a couple of my own pieces. My ongoing Half-Life 2 mod project Post Script is an attempt to see how little interaction you can get away with in something that's still ostensibly game-like. Nestlings just gets rid of the game altogether, and simply uses the Source engine to tell a short story.

Critical eye

It was a couple of days after I released version one of the first episode of Post Script that Robert Yang first emailed me. Yang is a designer and writer I thoroughly respect. As well as having developed an entire section of the upcoming Black Mesa mod - a current-generation remake of the original Half-Life - he's the creator of Radiator, a collection of short Half-Life 2 mods exploring unusual and highly personal themes. So to have him very carefully explain to me exactly why he thought my work... well, didn't work was something of a punch to the gut.

Some of his criticisms I absolutely agree with. I'm not a level designer, for example, so my signposting and general architecture construction were less than brilliant. But Yang also outlined what he thought were the three ingredients of successful single-player game design: a strong aesthetic, decent storytelling, and meaningful interaction.

For the most part, I agree. But this got me thinking about that magical line again. And the question I emerged with was: is there an assumption that games shouldn't cross that line, wherever it may be? Are we saying that pieces built in videogame engines absolutely have to be games?

Yang and I have exhanged a few emails since, debating this topic. He sees pure narrative in game engines as an interesting movement, but one that will ultimately lead to a dead end. He's written on his blog about why he thinks this is the case, outlining his ideas about the best game design practice. And while his argument is strong, I can't help but feel we're approaching it from a binary perspective, when in actual fact, that's going to lead nowhere. There's not a compromise. We're talking about radically different things.

Yang is talking about game design. I'm talking about exploring an entirely new form of vaguely interactive fiction. It exists somewhere between cinema and videogames, probably. But while it appears, on the surface, to be closely related to the former, something about the fact that it's you exploring this place subtly sets it apart.

I guess you had to be there

So my argument is not to directly oppose Yang's theory of successful game design. Quite the opposite: I largely agree with it. But I agree with it if what you're doing is something that sits within the traditional format of play. Even Yang's own mods, which have been frequently called "experimental", fall firmly into this mould. You "do" something, and it has an effect on what happens next. You're making choices, acting upon them, and forwarding the experience. By contrast, in Dear Esther, all you're doing is pressing the forward key (or repeatedly hitting the jump button and moaning that your gun's missing, if you're an oaf).

But it's this sense of being a part of the story, rather than being shown it, that sets it apart from non-interactive works of fiction - be they films, or novels, or comics. Yang argues that these non-games largely rely on unfolding a story that happened in the past, rather than one that's happening in the present, but that doesn't have to be the case. I suspect that's been true so far because it's easier to create a world that exists in its final state, rather than one in which the events are happening right now. But there's nothing stopping designers and writers exploring new ways of approaching pure narrative in game engines. Nothing except an assumption that it shouldn't be done.

And that's kind of the crux of my argument. Why should we prescribe what's acceptable in game design? And won't doing so prevent new, interesting forms sprouting from existing concepts? In the end, perhaps it doesn't matter exactly where that magical line resides. Perhaps it's not even as simple as that: maybe, in the future, videogames will fall on a sort of greyscale between pure games and complete non-interaction. Or maybe they'll branch out in completely different directions. Who knows?

Point is, now that various designers have set the wheels in motion, something is going to happen. Either commonly held design ideals will mean this emerging form will be stopped in its tracks, and people won't bother approaching it. Or we'll start trying to make these things, start experimenting, start exploring this new angle to narrative design. Maybe it won't work; maybe Yang is right, and it's dead before it's even taken off. But if we don't try it, we'll never know.

I mean, I think Dear Esther is one of the most astonishing, inspiring and touching games I've ever played. If I like it, someone else will. Right?

[Lewis Denby is editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. He's not a game designer, but that doesn't stop him from trying...]