Games shouldn't have to be "defended from innovation" - Pinchbeck

Dear Esther creator talks about walking sims and questions what makes a game a game

Gamers can be a fickle bunch sometimes. When The Chinese Room released Dear Esther over four years ago, some criticized the title for its minimal gameplay elements, but now the indie scene has produced many more so-called walking sims (Gone Home, Firewatch, etc.) that are more about the experience and the feeling you get while playing rather than trying to solve puzzles or defeat enemies. Much like David Cage has taken some flak for creating titles that are essentially interactive films, Dan Pinchbeck has had to defend his work because it fails to meet the qualifications that a certain segment of the gaming population deems necessary for a game to be game. In an interview with PCGamesN, however, Pinchbeck said that picking apart what defines a game is a pointless endeavor to undertake.

"I think it's one of those things that once you start unpicking it, it starts coming apart at the seams. If it's all about a game has to have mechanics well then you start to go, well, Space Invaders, is that less of a game than Far Cry because it's got fewer mechanics? Or, if a game is about having a fail state then does that mean that a game that doesn't punish you for dying, like a Far Cry game where it happens really trivially, does that make it less of a game than Bloodborne where the stakes for death are higher? Whichever way you come at it, you start unpicking those strands and it doesn't really make sense apart from the 'feeling' of what a game ought to do," Pinchbeck said.

Pinchbeck said that he grew up in an era when games kept pushing the limits. Developers didn't feel restricted: "Maybe it's because I started playing games in the late '70s and early '80s. Particularly during the '80s, it was sort of anarchic. The games being made and the stuff coming out was just completely crazy - people just trying stuff left, right and centre. It felt like games were always about questioning what they could be."

Questioning what something can be is one of the key elements that leads creative types to innovate, and to have to defend against that could stifle innovation. It seems like something that game creators are still dealing with. "When I hear things like: 'this is what games are and we have to stop that being diluted,' I think most of the people making games probably don't recognise that," Pinchbeck continued. "I think the idea that games have to be defended from innovation is new, as well as being something which I just don't agree with. It's not a conversation I ever remember having up until a few years ago."

Ultimately, if the experience is enjoyable and you get immersed in it, does it really matter what label you stick on it? "I'd prefer to play something which is questionably a game but is good, rather than something which is undoubtedly a game and is shit," Pinchbeck affirmed.

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Latest comments (13)

Marc Audouy Gameplay & Systems Engineer, Compulsion Games4 years ago
I agree discussing whether an interactive experience is a game or not is irrelevant. It's the same discussion as to whether something is art or not. We can talk for days about it without agreeing.
What's worth discussing though is whether an experience is engaging, enjoyable or interesting. There is nothing wrong with 'walking simulators" when they use interactivity as way to immerse the player in an interesting story. But there has to be a story in the first place, or at least a world, or some elements that will trigger emotions in the player.
Dear Esther fails spectaculary on all points, it's just boring. So please don't use "innovation" as an excuse for bad art. A white painting is boring however you explain the thought process behind it. A game where the only possible action is to walk in an empty world does not deserve our attention.
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Chris Tihor Writer/Game Designer/Programmer 4 years ago
See, but I didn't find Dear Esther to be boring. I found that it was engaging and atmospheric and while there wasn't much that you could do outside of navigating the space I found that that was enough to provide a worthwhile experience. I don't think that this is a case of "bad art" but a case where the experience wasn't to everyone's taste, and there's nothing wrong with that.
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 4 years ago
I thought the story revealed in Dear Esther was excellent and the manner of its telling both fascinating and beautiful, but then I've always enjoyed exploration and putting together a story from clues in the environment.
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Show all comments (13)
Marc Audouy Gameplay & Systems Engineer, Compulsion Games4 years ago
Fair enough, to each their own. I also wanted to point out that there is no inherent value in innovation (and applying the term "innovation" to such a simple experience is pushing the limit of the definition).
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Chris Tihor Writer/Game Designer/Programmer 4 years ago
I'll admit that "innovative/innovation" is way overused when hyping games, for sure. And I'd like to hear what Mr. Pinchbeck considers to be innovative about Dear Esther. I felt that the game was well-crafted certainly, but I'm curious in what ways it's meant to be innovative.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 4 years ago
Oh, Variable State's VIRGINIA needs to be played, I say. It's going to be hated by those who want every drip and drop explained. But man, does it tell a weird but somehow scandalous but mundane on a few fronts story once your brain is putting stuff together.
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James Coote Independent Game Developer 4 years ago
Innovation in the wider sense usually refers to when someone looks at a problem a completely different way from everyone else and/or brings in ideas from the outside. Then applies that to advance the field. (Think scientific discoveries).

Dear Ester is a good example of innovation, given where the original creators came from. Versus evolving/incremental improvements, which are no less valid in moving games forward. But which often get mislabeled as "innovative" in order to make them sound more impressive.

Whether Dear Ester is any good or not is entirely subjective, and it's interesting to debate that. But it's not a factor when considering if it's innovative, (which it clearly is).

I think Dan has a point though. It may be a sign of a maturing medium, that many now feel the need to have a set idea of what is or isn't a game. Or could be another example of internet echo chamber amplifying a minority of opinion (whereas I feel like most people, when you sit them down, accept "no it's not my cup of tea, but it's certainly different"). Are the comment sections on gaming websites complaining about walking simulators just the modern equivalent of shouting "Judas" at Bob Dylan from the back of the concert hall?
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David Canela Game & Audio Designer 4 years ago
I think there's value in precise language. It facilitates precise communication and decreases the likelihood of misunderstandings. So I wish we hadn't got to a point where our definition of (video) game is basically "it runs on a electronic device and is not for work purposes".

The whole silliness in the debate about "walking simulators" originates in the lack of precise language and the expectations that were thus raised and consequently weren't met, after which some idiots concluded: if it's not what I expected it to be, then it is bad. Whether it is a game and whether it is any good are obviously two very different questions, but it's easy to confuse the two when you're disappointed. If somebody doesn't understand what you're trying to do, maybe they're narrow-minded moron, but maybe you're just not doing a great job explaining it, or maybe a little bit of both.
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Connor Martin Aspiring game designer/tester 4 years ago
When talking about innovation a good definition for me oddly enough is Wikipedias definition: "Innovation is defined simply as a "new idea, device, or method". However, innovation is often also viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs." The latter half is for me more important as it goes towards the idea that innovations are expected to be improving or touching upon areas that were failing before. I do not believe many "walking simulators" are actually innovating under that spectrum of the definition, they often excel in areas already doing well in the standard idea of a game, just with a larger focus oft at the cost of the other areas of the experience.
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Chris Tihor Writer/Game Designer/Programmer 4 years ago
The definitions of innovation are very useful, for sure, but I still don't know how Dear Esther is innovative. Merely stating that it is innovative doesn't really tell me anything either. Is it innovative in that any mechanics deemed superfluous to telling the story are stripped away? Not trying to be cheeky here, I'd really like to know.
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Hugo Trepanier Senior Game Designer, Ludia4 years ago
Simply, the main difference between Dear Esther and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is that one has player agency (the latter), while the other doesn't.

Rapture improves Esther in every respect and it shows that The Chinese Room has learned a lot from their previous experiment. They kept the same formula but improved it tenfold. It's probably still not a "game" by most people's standards but as an experience it's much deeper, more engaging, less linear, and the fact that it's more interactive than Dear Esther brings it closer to game expectations.

Without player agency it's just an electronic novel with pretty pictures, or a movie where you eventually control pacing. And there's nothing wrong with those, but they're not what people expect when you sell them a "game".
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Marianne Monaghan Senior Producer, Hangar 13 Games4 years ago
To disgress, @Marc, Raushenberg's white paintings have an important place in art history. John Cage called them "airports for lights, shadows, and particle." Rauschenberg said you could see them as clocks; if you paid close attention you could discern the time of day and weather from the way the paintings looked at that moment. They were an important precursor to minimalism and conceptualism. I'm not crazy about them myself, preferring a more engaging experience, but many art historians believe they are more than boring white surfaces.
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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University4 years ago
well you gotta admit some games are closer to movies than games. And that the player's interaction with the screen in these "games" is a mere formality.
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