David O’Reilly’s MTN, released on July 1st of this year, has received a reaction so thoroughly mixed that pancake batter would be jealous.
Checking out the reviews on the App Store, we zoom from five stars to one star in the space of just a few screen inches. It’s hardly surprising, seeing as though MTN proudly announces “no controls” as one of its extra-special “features”. It’s an app that resides belligerently under the “Games” section, thereby confusing some and enlightening others. MTN encourages players to ask themselves a question – am I really playing a game here?
Slowly but surely, more passive games like MTN have floated, unconcerned, into the competitive arena of commercial gaming. These games are often characterised by interesting art styles, a noticeable lack of objectives, and giving absolutely zero f**ks, choosing to promote an oxymoronic kind of active passivity in the gamer (or in this case, ass-sitter). They’re often referred to as “anti-games”, due to the fact that there’s pretty much no discernible point to a lot of them.
Electroplankton on the Nintendo DS offered the player a range of adorable, melodious amoebae to mess around with, creating magical displays of light and sound with just a few simple taps of the stylus. Indie hit Proteus’ emphasis is placed on simple exploration and discovery within a beautifully-realised world. Flower, a PlayStation 3 baby, absolved a generation of rage-quitters of the pressure to perform, and to merely be a small part of affecting and observing the flight of flower petals through a lush green field.
There are no real, tangible, definable aims in playing these games; they ask nothing of you but to play them. Whilst many people embrace the opportunity to simply spectate and appreciate instead of rise to challenges, more still feel understandably cheated of the standard quota of interaction and objectives they have come to expect from the label of “video game”, calling bullshit on this kind of artsy-fartsy, passive, non-interactive gaming as being NOT REALLY PLAYING A GAME, ACTUALLY.
Let’s be perfectly honest for a second: they’ve got a point. These games lack so much in certain crucial characteristics of games that it’s nigh-on impossible to allow them into the “Games” clubhouse. Okay, MTN/Proteus/Flower, so you’re telling me that I can’t make many decisions and that the ones that I do make are negligible? So nothing I do really matters or affects the game in a significant way? And how much money did I pay for you again? Yeah, you can sit outside in the rain, actually.
As gamers, our ego doesn’t often allow for a situation in which we are not both centre-stage and running the action, luxuriating in our own omnipotence. We must have everything, we must have options and decisions and high stakes and finely-tuned customisation so that we are able to utterly convince ourselves of our total domination of the game. Games like MTN, Flower and Proteus revoke our dev-given rights to this, utterly lacking in interaction or objectives, and consequently are met with confusion and often anger (I’m looking at you, Analpete). Lack is not generally equated with good, especially in the world of games.
Lack, however, is arguably just what games and gamers need. The absence of supreme power and control, if one learns to accept it, can be not only humbling to a player but also somewhat of a relief. With the outcomes of victory or failure taken off the table, the player has no option but to come to terms with an uncharacteristic impotence, paradoxically starting to take advantage of it and the strange freedom and wonder that it offers. The game’s developer allows us to marvel at their creation, permitting the player small input opportunities or simply the pseudo-interaction of perception to feel part of the gameplay experience (pseudo-interaction – jeez, we’ve come a long way from tits last week, haven’t we?).
This brings us, of course, back to the pressing matter at hand – is it a gameplay experience, and are these truly games? They lack so many characteristic elements of the structure of a game, the system of overcoming obstacles through interaction to complete your objectives and effectively win. The simplification of the gaming process and the removal of structures such as these, however, ensures that these barely-games ironically embody the purest, most childlike essence of gaming – play.
The developers of games such as Proteus, MTN, and Flower do not pit the player against the game, instead purposefully shifting the power balance so that we are forced to go back to the very basics of what it is to game – to play with it. Proteus’ “reactive ambient soundtrack” perhaps exemplifies this philosophy of simple play over structured gaming; as you interact with and react to Proteus, it interacts with and reacts to you. You play together. And, now, you’re playing a game.