Last week I wrote about games that tried to turn text into a playable experience. One of the games I didn't get a chance to talk about was Today I Die by Daniel Benmergui, which doesn't quite fit in the same category. It would be more accurate to describe it as a "playable poem". There have been a few other playable poems that have been recognized in the Casual Games scene recently, such as I Wish I Were the Moon (also by Daniel Benmergui) and The Majesty of Colors by Gregory Weir (Author of Silent Conversation).
Games like Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, Karaoke Revolution and Audiosurf aren't just music games, they're games that take existing music, and recontextualize it into gameplay, giving players a new way to experience music they might already be familiar with, or exposing them to new music with the tantalizing promise of a fun game. Without music, these games are just about timing a certain color or shape with a certain button press. They're playable with the sound off, but they're not nearly as compelling.
In the past year or so, some game developers have started toying with applying this same approach to text.
Joystiq has a great set of screenshots and summaries of the finalists for the 2009 IndieCade Festival. Each one of these is a wonderful example of how a game can be so much more than a little diversion. Most of the finalists are games with something important to say or teach.
I've written a little bit before about games as art, but my previous examples have all been games that comment on some aspect of life or literature. This is not to imply that all art needs to make commentary, or that games written for the primary purpose of entertainment or education are not art. There are some people who say that games are never art, though personally I agree with the other side of the argument.
It is easier, however, to argue that games that do have something important to say are art. As a game designer I find it particularly interesting when games are used to comment on the nature of games.
I'm going to talk about three of these games, but you should probably play them first if you don't want my biased dissection of the games' messages to interfere with your personal experience of them. So play them first, and I'll put my commentary after the break.
In my career as an educational game designer, I mainly focus on the problem of getting a set of learning objectives that are met through gameplay. This approach works very well for teaching skills, but I don't think it's as strong an approach for teaching knowledge. There are just some things you can't learn by doing. Like the capitals of all the states, or the multiplication tables, or other things that are really more "memorization" than they are "learning".
Gray is a game that was designed to generate discussion, and it's been pretty successful at that. The game appears to be a commentary on polarized arguments, though the creators, Intuition Games, are being somewhat coy about any particular intended meaning beyond generating discussion. If you want to experience the game without any spoilers, you should try it out before reading any further.
Life is full of unspoken social rules. Don't talk in elevators. Leave an empty urinal between you and anyone else in the men's room. When someone says "how are you?" as a greeting, it's not an offer for free psychotherapy. These rules differ in different countries and situations, but apparently, in Stockholm, Sweden riding the train is a lot like riding the bus in Madison, WI.