The Gameplay Problem

One of the more recent gaming trends has been the rise of narrative driven exploration games, or “walking simulators” as their called somewhat backhandedly. These games seem to be on the upswing, with more developers joining the club daily. However public opinion on these games is split, with some gamers welcoming a break from the endless flood of action/adventure games on the market, while others find them too simplistic and lacking a proper challenge. One criticism in particular among the detractors seems to keep coming up: a lack of gameplay. But what do we really mean when we talk about gameplay? Can a video game really not have it?

Walking simulators aren’t really that new of an idea. To me, these games evolved from classic survival horror titles like Silent Hill and Resident Evil. Granted, these games had fighting mechanics, but they were very limited. You might be able to fight off a demon nurse with a 2×4 before it breaks, or get lucky enough to find a few bullets to keep the zombies at bay, but more often than not, you were left with just your wits to keep you alive. These games also relied heavily on the narrative. Piecing together the series of events that led to the T-Virus outbreak or desperately trying to understand just what the hell Silent Hill was. Survival horror games opened the door to thinking of games as a way to tell a story, to immerse the player in their universe.

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One of the early, and arguably most popular, walking simulators was Gone Home. Developed by The Fulbright Company, a small team of game developers who set about making a game focused more on exploration than a linear story, it’s described as a “story exploration video game”. The horror influence is clear from the beginning; you show up to a deserted house in the middle of the night with a cryptic message from your sister asking you to not come looking for her. The eerie silence and strange clues leave you waiting for some monster to jump out at you, but it never does. Instead, you’re left to your own curiosity to peruse seemingly random household items to uncover you sister’s forbidden love interest, the loveless marriage of your parents, your mother’s affair, your father’s childhood abuse and subsequent drinking problem. All these topics are rarely seen in video games, which is one benefit of the walking simulator genre: being able to breach subjects with other game structures wouldn’t accommodate.

“If this is to be seen as an example of no gameplay, what is gameplay?”

Despite favorable reviews from critics for its originality and nuanced story, user reviews painted a different picture. On Metacritic, user “goobergaber” wrote “This isn’t actually a game. It’s more like a visual novel. You walk around and find things to read. That’s it. No gameplay, no mobs, no weapons, no score, nothing.” The idea of the game having “no gameplay” is echoed through many of the unfavorable reviews. But what does this really mean? If this is to be seen as an example of no gameplay, what is gameplay? If we want to get academic, the Oxford Dictionary defines gameplay as “The tactical aspects of a computer game, such as its plot and the way it is played, as distinct from the graphics and sound effects.” Using this definition, it would be virtually impossible for a video game to have no gameplay. There will always be some mechanic to advance the story and engage the player.

However, a dictionary definition rarely helps to understand what people believe it to mean. The functional usage is far more useful than a text book blurb. Looking at reviews for games like Gone Home which are criticized for lacking gameplay, we can begin to see that a more accurate description would be that they lack exciting gameplay. To most fans, games can be fun for the act of playing them in and of itself. Grand Theft Auto V is a prime example of this. While the story is still fantastic, some of the most entertaining moments are the ones players create for themselves. Sure, we were all waiting to see what Trevor would do when he found out Michael sold him out, but we don’t talk about this nearly as much as crashing your bike and landing on your feet, just to get creamed by a speeding cop car. In games like GTA V, the game invites you to make your own story, your own fun.

Walking simulators on the other hand ask that you set aside that idea in exchange for exploring their world, and discovering their story. So if someone approaches a walking simulator with this mindset, then yes, it has failed to meet the definition of having gameplay because the minute to minute experience of playing the game isn’t itself entertaining. The overall experience is emphasized more.

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But even within the walking simulator genre, there are games that brake from this tradition of plot over exciting gameplay. Take The Stanley Parable for example. This is a game built around gameplay, presenting you with a seemingly endless barrage of choices to make, each of which changes the plot as the snide narrator tries to keep you on the proper path. It is constantly making fun of itself, and walking simulators as a whole, by calling attention to how the game doesn’t want you to stray from its story. The narrator even goes so far as to introduce “The Stanley Parable Adventure Line” to keep you on track. So yes, The Stanley Parable doesn’t have a tactical mechanic to advance the story, but it challenges our notions of what gameplay is by making the plot dependent on how you play the game.

In my opinion, these walking simulators are sacrificing exciting gameplay for the sake of the plot. Yes, this is an extremely risky gamble, one that alienates more gamers than it attracts. It doesn’t always pay off, but when it does, it challenges what games can be and makes us question how to define them. But I want to hear from you. Do you think that lacking gameplay is a negative? Does a game need to have exciting gameplay to be considered a video game? Let us know in the comments below and join the conversation.

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by Shelby Morgan, on May 2, 2016