Video "Games" in 2020

December 27, 2020

In October of 2019, I wrote a piece for From the Aether titled Video Games Do Not Exist. In the piece, I ponder the idea of “video games” coming into existence today — that developers and artists were never constrained by the limitations of those in ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The interactive experiences spawned in this alternate reality would not be classified as video “games” as different types of “video” experiences would originate alongside one another.

This premise is of course absurd as video games have been one of the catalysts for technological advancement. Consumer technology would likely look very different without early desires to bring richer gaming experiences into the home. Likewise, limited technical prowess forced early games to be developed with limitations we would find comical today. This is better summed up by computer graphics researcher Thomas A. Defanti in his 1984 paper The Mass Impact of Videogame Technology:

However, videogames have seriously and irreversibly affected the computer industry. Game players (mostly adolescents and people in their twenties) are unlikely to react favorably to a half-million-dollar office automation system that does not have joysticks, is not user friendly, and does not offer the simple high-level programmability offered by the simplest home game with BASIC. Color animation, which allows a much closer matching of human and computer bandwidths, is now expected from computing devices. Availability of intense, nonverbal, two-way communication is now taken for granted, spelling an early end to complete reliance on the unpleasant exercise of reading all day from a video display terminal. To a certain extent, we are very fortunate that computer graphics, unlike television, is incapable of transmitting “talking heads” very well, because that would be too-easy a misuse of the power of the medium, one to which educational television has defaulted.

In not having a previous medium to emulate, videogames have had to create a new way of communicating. They are truly a new medium. Maturity, still a long way off, will spawn some new form of what may be called interactive literature. Now, however, we can observe an industry in early infancy, struggling and toying to be part of our lives. It is a special time to watch, play, and enjoy.

But hypothetically speaking, if video games just happened upon us today, with all of the current technology at our disposal, they wouldn’t just encompass simple exercises of shooting asteroids, shooting centipedes, shooting invaders, shooting ducks, running left to right, or saving a princesses. These experiences would be so varied we wouldn’t classify every interactive video experience under the umbrella term “video game”. Don’t get me wrong, video “games” would absolutely exist — extending from digital recreations of their analog forebearers to high-fidelity large scale MMORPGs. But birthed along side those would be narrative experiences, simulations, and sandboxes, where the word “game” would not feel appropriate. Being developed alongside one another, these experiences likely wouldn’t draw comparisons. At least not like they do in our current reality.

So what is the point of theorizing what we might call video games in the alternate reality? Today, a “video game” is a video “game”, right? Well, my friend, in 2020, we may have made contact with the alternate reality.

Publications have published their Game of the Year lists for 2020, and more often than not you’ll find some of the following games on their lists:

  • Hades — An endless rogue-like game that doubles as a relationship simulator, triples as a home decorating sandbox, and is chock-full of a vast tapestry voice-acting and narrative. (It also probably won the GOTY from your choice publication.)
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons — A seasonally updated, endless sandbox experience that allows players all over the world to interact with one another while collecting, building, throwing birthday parties, and hosting talkshows.
  • Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition — A visual novel with ten years of development, zero plot, a historical account of the travesties of the past decade, and a vibe unlike any you’ve ever experienced.
  • If Found… — A visual novel featuring black holes and punk rock.
  • 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim — A visual novel of time travel and commentary on media; video games included. Also, real-time strategy.
  • Blaseball — Fantasy fantasy baseball that constantly changes, including lore of biblical proportions wholly developed by the community of observers.
  • Among Us — An online social deduction game played by friends, families, and politicians.
  • Microsoft Flight Simulator — A flight simulator by Microsoft. Also a digital replica of Earth that includes your house.

Of course these types of “games” are not new or even novel experiences. Idle games, visual novels, and simulators have existed for decades. But to be so prevalent in game of the year lists across so many publications is simply fascinating. Our definition of what qualifies as a video game is not changing and probably never will. But what qualifies as a masterpiece of the medium is now broader than ever. Sure, on the surface Hades is a video-game-ass-video-game — maybe the video-game-ass-video-game. But to compare that to an experience like Kentucky Route Zero, or KRZ to Animal Crossing even, is not apples and oranges; it’s apples and fabric textures.

The entries on lists of best video games can no longer be quantitatively compared (and probably couldn’t have been for the past 5–10 years). More than ever before they must be evaluated based on personal enjoyment with the experience, which… duh. And we all know lists are bullshit. I’m not trying to cement that argument here. (Plus, I like a list as much as the next person.) But the spread of experiences now ranked against one another is so wild that it’s worth noting.

Whenever I’m holding my Switch, my wife asks me what I’m playing. This year, more often than not, the answer was, “it’s… uh… like… hmmm… kinda like … it’s not really a game, but like…” so on and so forth. And I’m certain that’s the answer being heard more than ever.

If we’re to stick to the nomenclature of “video games” for these experiences, that’s fine. But it’s high-time we understand that they are no longer games. They are outright replacing, updating, or inventing new art forms, which seems fitting of Defanti’s conclusion:

Coin-operated videogames, from their pinball heritage to their extreme hedonistic desirability, have emerged as the black sheep, so to speak, of the interactive graphics movement. Yet, they are causing significant technological breakthroughs, especially in the area of cost/performance. We are seeing interactive fantasy emerge as a medium, and, with it, considerable development in the art of nonverbal communication. Coin-op technology quickly (within 2-3 years) passes down to personal computer systems, such that any home computer now has significantly better graphics and interactive devices than all but a few computer systems available in the lab or the office.

Knowledge of how to write games and present information through interactive animation will eventually encode itself into higher level programming structures available to subject-matter experts, teachers, intellectuals, children, and parents. A sizable portion of the computer graphics community already exchanges information on videotape. Floppy disk is now the home computer user’s way to send greetings. Animation will surely become a major form of communication once the delivery systems are ubiquitous.

Reading is, after all, a terrible waste of our human perceptual bandwidth, even if it is enjoyable. Fortunately, the richness of interaction claimed in the preceding pages can be experienced first-hand for considerably less than this book costs, even playing every game discussed here. You might want to hurry, though, before the classics disappear.

No other year exemplifies the change in the concept of “video games” than 2020.