Wednesday, 6 July 2011

When is a game not a game?

I think the so-called backlash of Alternate Gaming is a natural outcome of today’s commercialised mainstream gaming industry.
Which begs the obvious question, an alternative to what? 

Back in the boom-time of the mid-eighties to late-nineties there was no such thing as alternate gaming, mainly because at least every second game was completely different from the first. There were definitely some very weird games produced, but nothing was ever really seen as truly alternative, because there was no standard to be alternate from.
That all started to change as the market grew, and the standardisation began to draw all the creativity into the safe middle-ground of 3D platforms and First Person Shooters. With the advent of the ‘SONY Playstation’, 3D, and birth of ‘modern gaming’ the big players became predominantly market driven, and the market was growing at an expediential rate.

So the coining of the Alternate Gaming market is a relatively modern invention. But still, what exactly qualifies as an alternate game? In some cases it can be seen as something with a slightly edgy or underground quality to its game-play. In others the game-play can be a derivative of a much older style of game brought up-to-date for today’s technology. But there is another, artier, form of entertainment program evolving, and this type forms the main body of the controversy…

But these games arn't restricted to categories, and that's the point. A good example of a game mixing both the first and last types would be ‘The Path’ by Tale Of  Tales.

Although at first glance the casual observer may not take this as anything vastly different from the norm, they would be wrong.

In this type of game it isn’t so much about the graphical presentation as it is about the game-play. Although The Path is generally coined as an ‘Art’ game this is really all about discovery, with no clear gaming goals, and a lot of FPS-fed gamers just didn’t get it!

Other, less arty, examples of this altered game-mechanic style of game could be Pathalogic and The Pit, both by Ice-Pick Lodge, a Russian development team.

A very commercially successful example of the second type of old-styled game could be ‘Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved’, but this is also arguably part of a second, and perhaps seperate, modern genre of the retro-styled game, which does often have a rather large amount of overlap with the alternate labled games.
Although many people would put Geometry Wars at one end of a sliding-scale, with the games that use more innovative, or weird, game-play at the other.

The last type of alternate program I going to show has, rightly or wrongly, also been coined as the Art-house Game. Although many people say things like this are not games at all, but merely interactive multimedia software. Now I may be wrong, but something you can interact with under any banner sounds like the general auspices of a good old-fashioned computer-game to me.
One of the most well known, and perhaps most controversial, offerings in this 'is it a demo' genre is ‘Linger In Shadows’. Is this a game? I would say yes. Although there are tasks you can do, you don’t have to. But surely this 'do-it-or-not' concept is also a main-stream game staple nowadays.

Of course it all depends where you draw the line in the sand. Some would happily say ‘Little Big Planet’ obviously fell into this hold-all Alternate Games category, yet other gamers would dismiss this, saying it has nothing in common with some of the other ‘games’ in there, not realising that that is perhaps the entire point!
None of these programs fit the, now standard, first or third person shooter mould seen as normal games, but surely a game doesn’t have to. And that, I think, is where the backlash is coming from.
This seems to be seen as a separate issue from the ‘hardcore’ verses ‘casual’ gamer arguments, but I'm not entirely convinced it is.
Casual-games seem to be a staple feature of the family-friendly, fun, systems like the Wii, while the more powerful systems initially went for the ‘core’ gamer, although they are now changing their tune rather dramatically as the ‘casual’ market has grown into a force to be reckoned with. But it can also be argued both ways that some of these ‘casual’ games are truly alternative as well. I think there is a lot of overlap and a fair amount of confusion as to exactly what people are talking about in this field.
Remember, many people have grown up in the ‘modern game’ era now, but a fair proportion have also come through the boom years where new concepts were ten-a-penny. And we aren’t going away soon!

I’ve compiled an interesting, but by no means definitive, list of curiosities below; some older, some newer, but all written within the ‘modern game’ time-frame; and I would be interested in your thoughts about any or all of these:

First Published
PS1, PS3
  • SeaMan                                  
DC, PS2, 360
PC, DS, Xbox, 360
Flash, Java, PSP
PC, 360
PC, Mac, 360, PS3
PC, Mac
PC, Mac, Flash
PS1= Original Playstation or PS1, DC=Dreamcast, DS= Nintendo DS, 360=Xbox 360
Systems in Italics are online releases

So what do you think? Are any truly alternative? Are they all truly games? Are they a glimpse into an ongoing underground diversity that may give-way to a thriving and varied gaming future, or are we doomed to a never-ending line-up of FPS games?
Given the changing face of hardware, and user interfaces in particular, will the disparate variety of games seen in the 8 and 16Bit era ever reoccur, giving us the mushrooming plethora of ideas so prevalent in the early years?

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