A Game By Any Other Name: The 'Notgames' Myth

As more and more titles challenge the notion of what a videogame can be, we rounded up five of the leading alternative game developers to ask them about the emerging sub-genre and how they feel about the ongoing debate they are invoking

Feature by Darren Carle | 06 May 2015

With the upcoming release of Sunset from developers Tale of Tales, the debate about what constitutes a videogame is not likely to go away. 2013 saw a steady stream of titles, sometimes branded as ‘notgames’, break through to the fore and as the year drew to a close, esoteric and highly-contested games such as Gone Home, Proteus and The Stanley Parable sat snugly in end-of-year lists with triple-A titles like The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V. Now, with the aforementioned Sunset on the horizon, and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture from Dear Esther developers The Chinese Room due later this year, a second wave of contestable gaming seems imminent.

Quite where the term originated is unclear, but ‘notgames’, ‘un-games’ or even ‘anti-games’ have grown from a niche concern into a viable commodity over the last few years. 2012’s Dear Esther was perhaps the first of such projects to prick the wider public conscious. Described as an experimental art videogame, interaction and task achievement is minimal, bowing down to simple exploration which triggers the game’s unfolding narrative. It went on to receive widespread critical and commercial success, having now sold close to one million copies.

That such esoteric gaming exists is nothing new, as indie developers have been designing strange and wonderful games for years. What’s interesting is that they are now finding a wider audience and drawing in more esteemed plaudits. However, such titles are regularly being met with fierce resistance from critics about their lack of traditional gaming credentials. There’s the aforementioned lack of interaction and goals, while challenge, a bed-rock of gaming design, may be close to non-existent.

Yet while some of those championing these challenging titles are proud to wear the label of ‘notgame’, it seems it’s a description unilaterally disregarded by the people who have actually created these titles in the first place. “I think we should be celebrating the diversity of games, not trying to box things off or reduce definitions so only some things fit,” begins Dan Pinchbeck, writer of Dear Esther. “I’ve never liked (the term 'notgame'), partially because I don’t think it’s good to define yourself by what you are not and partially because I think these games are games.”

“The label isn't really important to me,” agrees Steve Gaynor, designer of Gone Home, something of a spiritual brethren to Dear Esther with perhaps more emphasis on interaction. “If people are excited about the game and make a connection with it, that's awesome. If they're not into it, that's fine too. But I think drawing lines in the sand and picking sides isn’t really constructive.” It’s a general sentiment that is roundly echoed by those working within this sub-genre, a rebuff of the conservative mindset that often blights gaming and stifles innovation.

“I’ve never liked the term 'notgames' – I don’t think it’s good to define yourself by what you are not” – Dan Pinchbeck

In these cases, the innovation usually comes from casual experimentation freed from publisher deadlines and market expectations. Yet whilst these games may buck industry trends, it’s not always their creators' initial aim. “I was thinking it would be some sort of lo-fi, procedural RPG like Skyrim, so I had a quite conventional goal at first,” explains Ed Key, developer of Proteus, perhaps the most nebulous of these crossover indie titles. “Then as I began working with David Kanaga (Proteus' musician) we had conversations on making a game about music. From there it started going off on an uncontained direction with no pressure on us as to the finished product.”

It’s a familiar tale among such developers, where an initial goal slowly evolves into something less tangible whilst still following some basic ground rules of gaming. “We just wanted to try something a little different, but we were still inspired by the amazing history of FPS games,” explains Pinchbeck on Dear Esther. “We just took one small step a little further down one particular road than anyone else had gone at that point, but it was a road that had been cut by others. You can find a lot of what we did with Dear Esther in Doom.”

It’s an influence that flows both ways. Before developing Gone Home, Gaynor’s Fullbright Company had previously worked on a downloadable campaign for BioShock 2. If Gone Home is an epistolary novel with visuals and player-led narrative, then couldn’t BioShock, with its multitude of sound recordings that piece together the games’ inbuilt history, be described as Gone Home with guns? The point being that to pick apart what makes a game risks unthreading a lot more than just these new wave of titles that challenge pre-conceived notions.

Some titles, like Journey, are effective gateways to these new breed of games. Though its challenge remains low and interaction is certainly pared back, Ed Key points out that it contains some fairly standard gaming elements. “It’s a bit more hidden, but it absolutely has a racing section and a stealth section,” he points out. “It sits somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.” It’s an astute observation that sheds some light on the grey area that’s invoked if we try to define what is and what isn’t a game.

Then there are titles like 2013’s The Stanley Parable, which not so much chips away as takes a sledgehammer to gaming conventions and accepted wisdom. A high-def remake of an earlier mod-game (as indeed was Dear Esther) The Stanley Parable sees players step into the shoes of the eponymous Stanley, a faceless office drone who goes on a surreal adventure, to the dulcet tones of a narrator freely breaking the fourth-wall while second-guessing the players' moves.

As with the others, its developer Davey Wreden claims he didn't set out to challenge the gaming medium but with little-to-no expectation on his shoulders, he was able to bend a few rules. "That aspect didn't emerge until I saw that the structure of the game was itself highly paradoxical," he says. "All I knew was that a narrator would offer you a choice without a simple answer, and from there I just started designing outward to see what would happen. It was only through doing this that I began to realize what I wanted to do was mess with players' expectations about how a story like this should go."

However, whilst The Stanley Parable is indeed a mind-scrambler, it's one that found favour with a lot of gamers. Selling over 100,000 copies in its first three days, its success has effectively allowed Wreden to go into full-time game development for the next five years. "It makes me incredibly optimistic about the possibility that a subversive and mysterious design can actually grasp some sort of public awareness," he marvels. "I want other ships to rise with this tide, so that rather than one game being received well, we end up with many."

Sunset is one such title that is overtly influenced by this initial wave of breakthrough games, as Tale of Tales co-founder Auriea Harvey explains. “We’re gearing it towards people who are already game-literate,” she says. “People who like stories and exploration, people who played Gone Home and Dear Esther." She adds; "It’s probably going to be something unusual, however I think gamers are a lot more open minded about things these days.”

A large part of the success of these games appears to be down to their inherently elusive nature. As debates rage and journalists struggle to accurately describe individual titles, so players' attentions are piqued. "I did get really annoyed by it, but at the same time it was just free PR really," says Ed Key on Proteus' mixed reception. "People were talking about it all the time. It was crazy and I couldn’t have possibly orchestrated it, but it was a real blessing and it certainly did help it to sell."

With the likes of Steam gaining more and more traction, and both Sony and Microsoft's commitment to indie gaming becoming something of a battleground, we can certainly expect to see more of these contestable games. Yet whilst it's perhaps understandable that they are met with some trepidation, and gamers are certainly allowed to actively dislike individual titles, the fad for calling them 'notgames' or similar, even as a positive badge, seems debilitating to the medium as a whole. As Ed Key previously said at the time of Proteus' release, "Encouraging a strict definition of ‘game’ does nothing but foster conservatism and defensiveness in a culture already notorious for both.”

If videogames are to grow as a medium and explore all that they can be, then surely challenging those ideas that eke away at pre-conceived notions is harmful for all. If nothing else, it might just be that today's genre-pushing, indie experiment could be incorporated into tomorrow’s mega-budget, mainstream star attraction. And even if not, what is there to lose other than some much needed diversification? "That's what indie is all about," says Gaynor. "Going smaller and exploring less established avenues of what games can be."

Inevitably we will start to see more and more ideas – about player choice, about violence in games and about immersive story-telling that these ‘notgames’ are built on – start to seep into mainstream gaming. The only people who will lose out are those who firmly believe videogames should only be about shooting people, space marines and zombies in the face. Which is all fine and well ,but surely there’s room for other ideas and for other ways to play. Call them challenging, boundary-pushing games. Call them pretentious art-house games. But call them games.

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