The term “video games” is askew; it limits our expectation of their function, of what they actually are. So, really, let’s just call them what they are: interactive experiences.
Interactive experiences in the guise of “video games” has invited the expectation of leisure and escapism. This has given it the connotations of recreation, but with that, a kind of stigma that doesn’t even affect the receptive mediums of film and literature. Those mediums can feel like culture. Interactive experiences in the guise of “video games” feel like you just binge watched the entire Jaws franchise: No one really wants to pat you on the back for doing it. There’s a certain categorisation for how we experience them, there’s a certain stigma to the people who love them. People feel guilt about enjoying an interactive experience because its own terminology is infantilising; interactive experiences have been in the shadow of their first marketing attempts for several decades.
Very recently, in the past five to ten years, we’re starting to transcend the expectations we’ve held toward interactive experiences for the past thirty or forty: we’re leaving behind traditions, “art circuits” are starting, niche categories are forming with their own subcultures, and new products have already appeared that are uncanny: they use all the same methods to the medium, but they’re missing elements, or replacing those elements with so many others that we tend to reject them as interactive experiences. I’m talking about Twine (see also: 1; 2). I’m talking about how we’re already talking about VR. I’m talking about experiences like Samantha Kalman’s Sentris, that don’t really look like anything we’ve ever really made before, things that defy even how we describe them. This novelty has produced reactionary movements, has left many amazing new interactive experiences without loving players or even critical attention, and has challenged the industry, much like Hollywood, toward consolidation and lowest-common-denominator appeal.
Interactive experiences, what we always call “video games,” doesn’t really have a history. Without a bloodline, you can’t even trace a pulse, and we don’t trace its bloodline through its receptive ancestors, the film; to a lesser degree, the book; and to human imagination. We only talk in industry terms: we might chart out when Pong was released, or make elaborate attempts to recover some failed products from a landfill dump. These are all the hallmarks of a culture trying to find its history. We just need to go further back to find it.
The cinema as an institution appeared in 1895. It inherited its exhibition from vaudeville, and often was part of the show. Vaudeville was, after all, about the display of exotic or interesting things, a variety show with a theatrical bias. As cinema inherited its exhibition from vaudeville, early film style before 1907 was comprised of what film historians call the cinema of attractions.
The cinema of attractions was aimed at immediate display, not storytelling. Imagine the first filmgoers who were astonished at a moving picture: the thrill of a train headed your way, or the tide of the ocean against the white screen of your theatre. It all looked so real, but they were essentially proofs of concept at the cost of a nickel a peek.
Some examples include As Seen Through a Telescope or some of the Lumiere Brothers’ first films from 1895. The films might be one-shot, and they definitely do not seem very mobile; tracking around the film space was rare and editing was only done to string full 30-second reels together. Elaborate cross-cutting techniques weren’t in place until 1914 and D.W. Griffith. Instead the viewer is presented a long shot where the action unfolds and the reel cut occurs in order to most efficiently make use of the technological constraints of what were literally the first publicly available motion picture cameras.
This cinema isn’t primitive, exactly. It just had a different identity, exhibition, and purpose. It was the fastest way to fulfill scopophilia, that love of looking, that so infatuated those pioneers at the turn of the century. After all, the entertainment most like cinema at the time was the magic lantern show, a series of stills projected against a wall. Cinema took after what seemed most like it. That’s why for a good thirty years they were called photoplays. Even motion picture seems inaccurate, imprecise.
So how did interactive experiences develop? There are always timelines of initial developments: a patent in 1947 for a “cathode ray tube amusement device”; the odd analog solution like Tennis for Two, the 1958 oscilloscope pong simulation developed by William Higinbotham. Atari’s entire catalogue could be described as an interactive attraction booth at a higher cost. Film began to incorporate narrative and a focus on storytelling by the mid-1910s, and interactive experiences took a similar shape at a faster pace: with the NES and its competition came a new depth beyond a single attraction. It was technologically possible for stories to be told.
You may feel the impulse to quote John Carmack. After all, stories in games are like stories in pornography, right? They’re not important. The experience itself is the point. Yet even Carmack says that there’s always a story. The narrative is always delivered. It’s a simple as the fabula we might describe of the experience itself; it, in fact, is as simple as the fact we can always give some answer to the question “What is it about?” Even if a developer might think them unimportant, even if they seem like the excuse for the experience, the experience itself is ultimately delivering you a story, and that story has a method and content. This isn’t trivial, it’s inevitable, and discarding the consideration of narrative because of an implied auterial deprioritisation is beyond careless.
Much like film inherited its purpose and structure from the visually stimulating still images of its predecessors, vaudeville and the magic lantern show, interactive experiences have, until now, inherited their narrative structure from film. Film has been prejudiced toward blockbusters and the action mode since the 1970s, coinciding with the inception of interactive experiences in mainstream availability.
Genre and Mode
So what’s a genre and what’s a mode? From what we already say of interactive experiences, they have many genres; it’s the easiest way we can point to variety and diversity. They just don’t participate in all too much more than a single mode, and it’s kind of film’s fault.
Genre, meaning “type” or “kind,” refers to the familiar stories we tell with familiar characters in familiar situations. It includes the iconography of the genre (recurring motifs, images, and interpretation). It is the kind of story, and imagery associated with it, that audiences expect from a set of films, developed and marketed by film studios in order to continually produce safely profitable films.
A mode, however, is commonly defined as “identifying a broad but identifiable method, mood, or manner that is not tied to a particular form or genre.” If a genre is a story or narrative arc – and its related imagery – that we expect to see over and over, a mode is the way we tell the story. It’s the method to the storytelling, not the content of the story.
For example, while we might refer to “noir” as a genre, the term was invented to refer to a stylistic pattern of 1940s-1950s Hollywood crime films by 1960s French film critics, and in the decades past has become repurposed into both a mode and a genre, salvaged into its base components: filmmakers use noir as a mode when they adopt the stylistic, high contrast cinematography of film noir cinematographers; filmmakers use noir as a genre when they adopt the narrative elements or imagery of those crime films, especially male impotence or subjective paranoia against a hostile world, or “the wrong man convicted of a crime he didn’t commit” stories.
From literature to film, marketing genre has become inverted. Genre has become associated with Hollywood, because in literature it was a niche distinction apart from literary fiction, what we seen as the more “serious” work. Instead, in Hollywood, genre is positioned as dominant (for more on genre, see here).
Mode is the focus because it’s a specific mode that’s come to dominate Hollywood in the age of the blockbuster that pertains to us here: the action mode.
We tend to think of action as a genre, an audience expectation of adventure and spectacle. Yet when one holds the magnifying glass to “action,” it defies the narrative structures and imagery expectations in only one genre. Yvonne Tasker in Action and Adventure Cinema concludes that the specific qualities of action have to do with “pace, excitement, exhilaration: a visceral, even sensual, evocation of movement and violence” and states that “action as a way of telling a story across different genres suggests that it may indeed be understood most productively as a mode.” Brian Taves distinguishes adventure from action in The Romance of Adventure: The Genre of Historical Adventure Movies and states:
The usual definitions of adventure stress elements of the unusual, overcoming obstacles with narrow escapes, and vanquishing villains. In this sense, adventure becomes linked with action, a word attached to any film with a greater emphasis on action than emotion. Indeed, action is a more appropriate word than adventure to describe the style of storytelling that runs through many genres, a male-oriented approach dependent on physical movement, violence, and suspense, with often perfunctory motivation and romance. Action tends to shift sentiment, character, dialogue, and family to the background.
Adventure often goes hand in hand with action when its storytelling privileges action above emotion, including an exhilarating narrative with a focus on movement and violence. Not all adventure films privilege this active spectacle; and indeed, not all action films are about the unusual, or obstacles, or villains. Their combination is most common, but the formulations of both elements are too varied for them to be equivalent.
Action as a mode has become more common in the wake of the 1970s blockbuster, starting with the obvious Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg. The blockbuster includes cross-promotion with high synergy potential for economic profit, a summer release date and the audience promise of spectacle and exhilaration. Blockbusters are almost invariably action films: they could never otherwise make good on their promise.
This inception also coincides with the slow birth of interactive experiences, which are themselves an active medium. As we have discussed, as its most available prior medium now focusing on spectacle and excitement, interactive experiences inherited their first attempts, beyond “proof of concept” titles similar to the cinema of attractions, in the action mode. Action shifts depth to the background in favour of violence and movement; and, if Carmack is any indication, interactive experiences has never actually come out of that inheritance, that prioritisation and internal hierarchy of the action mode. That is, until now.
As previously stated, there is always a narrative in interactive experiences, even if it’s deprioritised or a framing device for exploitative carnage. This narrative, no matter how pointless, still inherits from other narratives and other traditions, and it informs how we talk about the medium at all.
When Twine first began to gain momentum in alternate gaming press and elsewhere, the immediate reaction was questioning its status as a “video game” at all. It’s a glorified choose-your-own-adventure, they say. It’s hypertext, they say. The arguments didn’t stop at Twine: Game Maker didn’t make “real games,” Construct didn’t make “real games,” RPG Maker, too, was inauthentic. The only authentic candidates were the products of the traditional AAA studios and their polished indie cousins.
Twines were certainly “video games.” They just weren’t in the action mode of an interactive experience, and that’s all video games were, to the point where they became equivalent. If you’re raised on a homogenised diet, any other food will look poisonous.
Game developers have certainly taken notice. Take, for example, this Extra Credits video, where they label the next generation of enthusiasts the “Minecraft Generation.” On a new generation raised with interactive experiences that slightly deprioritise immediate action and violence in favour of construction and pensive experimentation, their expectation of all interactive experiences changes likewise, leading to a new generation of interactive experiences that don’t have the same narrative frameworks or focus on active solutions. Undertale is a role-playing game that, by its own description, is about deconstructing how gaming has focused on destruction, calling itself “the RPG game where you don’t have to destroy anyone.”
Is it any wonder Minecraft and Undertale have been enormously successful when they explicitly capitalise against a long-standing tradition of movement and violence? Is it any wonder that Twine has been against such criticism when it does the very same in a far less familiar way, without any visual reference points?
“Video games” as a term for “action mode interactive experiences” is not the only culprit, however. We tend to refer to the dichotomy as indie titles and “AAA” titles, a title that only really refers to an economic heft as equivalent to technical spectacle and innovation, the potential of open-world exploration, a high-end price point and an expectation of value. We refer to genres that, while relying on movement, deprioritise violence, as “casual” – a demographic reference. We use economic terminology in place of the actual texts in question; we don’t talk about what they are; we talk about the economic systems that made them instead, and the rest is shorthand, because the product is so inexplicable. It doesn’t have to be when the organisation of these experiences is within their inheritance as an audiovisual medium.
Interactive experiences have, to date, been operating as a language without a history to guide it. Even as they inherited a focus on the action mode and adventure genre from blockbuster films of the 1970s, unlike film, interactive experiences have only recently begun to expand beyond a single hierarchy of movement and violence over storytelling and emotional depth, and the borders between terms like “game” and “play”, and what is merely an “interactive experience,” are being pushed. The expectations of recreation do not always apply; and yet they persist in being labelled games, because that was what was imposed on them since the 1970s. Yet the casual challenge of a game like Pong doesn’t match up to the actual, dreamlike, artificial experience of an entire world displayed in high-definition, nor does it align with products and titles that discard competition in favour of free play, like Sentris does, or whole movements that can remove visual input in favour of prioritising elements of literature and game development elements in synchronisation, like Twine.
When we challenge these expectations, we struggle to find the right word, and I found this happening one day as a couple played some of my partner’s work at an exhibition. As they walked off, one asked the other, So what is it?, and the other struggled for a few seconds before saying, I think it’s an interactive experience. I’m overjoyed that the phrase is becoming a possibility within our own little dictionaries; but it should never be what we’d consider miscellaneous or undefinable. There are more experiences than games, just as there is more to life than recreation. An”interactive experience” should not simply be a phrase you use when all else fails: it is just what video games have become.