Games. I play’em. And I hear other people like to play them too. How nice for us.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that most humans enjoy a game or two of some variety. Most intelligent animals do. The act of ‘playing’ is theorised to be something that is important to the social and mental development of intelligent beings. Some evolutionary biologists argue that the extension of the period in which humans play is key to our evolutionary past, and is responsible for the plasticity of our brain that continues into our old age. It is also argued that the evolution of dogs also includes the extension of play, so that they can relate to us and keep learning and changing with us throughout their whole lives.
As such, trying to come up with a formal definition for what constitutes a ‘game’ is quite difficult, and this is a subject of ongoing scholarly debates. Most definitions of a game include elements of challenge or describe the phenomenon of having fun. I would say that of the people I’ve asked, about half of them included fun in their personal definition and the other half included challenges or the completion of tasks. Personally, I feel like a game is a challenge with a payoff, where satisfaction or enjoyment is gained during the challenge or as part of the payoff.
Today I would specifically like to talk about video games. The thing about video games compared to other games is there’s usually a clarity of purpose involved in their production, which isn’t true for other games. Out in the real world, a game can be anything from something as organised and planned as a board game, to feeling a need to stack a bunch of rocks you found as high as you can. You don’t ever need to set out to play a game or enjoy yourself to end up creating a game of your very own. If you leave humans in a room with a bunch of random objects, they’ll come up with some way to play with them in order to avoid boredom. However, video games are almost always made by someone who started out with the intention of making a game of some kind.
It’s not often that people set out to do something else and make a video game. These things do happen, such as the Google Earth Game, or the Wikipedia Game, which are video games in the loosest sense of the word, but were made through people fucking around. People may work on software or other computational things and think to themselves, hey, that would make a great game! but the majority of games are defined by the intention of the creator. Most of the video games I can think of were made by a person or group of people who really wanted the output of their work to be a game.
Something people disagree on is whether something is a game when people don’t play with it. If you leave your version of Snakes & Ladders in your cupboard for twenty years, and no one even touches it, was it a game during that time? Or was it merely an object, remaining unplayed, so very sad. If we accept that games are always games even when no one plays with them, I can advocate for the devil and say that we have untapped gaming potential in that Atari video game pit in New Mexico.
Okay, all of that was a lead-in to my review of the indie horror game IMSCARED. I’m not joking when I say that my experience of the game made me question what video games even fucking are. IMSCARED is a horror game by virtue of the fact that the creator intended it to be a game, and people play it and find it horrifying and scary. It is a short horror game that utilises old-school graphics, obtuse puzzles, and meta elements like referring to files outside of the game in order to weave a story about a creepy video game creature that doesn’t want you to ever leave.
In terms of how it utilises the meta elements, I would compare it to the very well-known games Undertale and Doki Doki Literature Club! which do much the same thing, the latter of which is also a horror game. The key difference between IMSCARED and the other two is that while the other two have a plot and a meta plot, the former of which follows the lines of a standard video game, IMSCARED lacks an in-universe plot and only really exists in the form of a meta plot.
The game provided a confusing experience involving surreal horror (big win, in my books) and puzzles that were so obtuse that most of the time I solved them simply by wandering around bumping into things until the game rewarded my persistence (big loss, in my books, since I like to actually solve my puzzles). I love the graphics, especially the sprites, and the creepiness of the game works well. But I didn’t like it. I got bored of it towards the end, since I wasn’t having fun and the obtuseness of the puzzles also meant that I wasn’t being challenged. I was no longer playing it, and so it is no longer a game. For me. Naturally. Don’t come for me if you like this game.
The important part here is that other people don’t feel this way. This game had a flare of popularity because people loved the creepy, obtuse atmosphere and found the confusing elements of it engaging and immersive. This just goes to show that the kind of challenges and payoffs that people seek out and enjoy are totally different, which makes sense. In fact, I’d go further than that, and say that each person has their own unique profile of challenges and payoffs that make them feel happy when they play games, and game creators need to aim their games at the right people in order to enjoy any success.
What I can assume from here is that problems with video games come from when this challenge, payoff, and player selection do not work how they should. If it all works properly, then either the challenge is fun, because the gameplay is a romp or you’re bonding with fellow players or it’s funny, or the payoff is satisfying, because you feel a sense of achievement from success, or you get some kind of reward, or because it’s over, I don’t know. I enjoy games because I like the feeling I get from completing challenges that felt hard at first, and because I love a good story. So, IMSCARED didn’t suit me because the challenges weren’t the right level for me, and the story (or lack thereof) wasn’t catching me. I’ll probably expand out these thoughts in a later essay.
I didn’t enjoy IMSCARED, but playing it did lead me to have many philosophical discussions with my friends about what games are, and why we play them. So, overall, I would rate the game a success in that respect. The sprite art is absolutely lovely, and there’s a lot to love about the atmosphere of IMSCARED. It’s just not, well, a game. Not to me, anyway. It’s a topic of debate, so I don’t expect people to agree with me. What do you think?