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You Gotta Play To Be A Game

What makes a video game? Is it something that you play and interact with or a moveable story? Either way, what makes a video game good? Is it the interactivity or the story?

The is the debate surrounding Variable State’s recently released Virgnia, a game about an FBI agent whose investigation goes awry, leaving much of her work in the air. The game got a bloated rave review from leading gaming site Polygon but has left a clear divide between critics and fans.

Why? Virginia questions what a game is. This is a good thing. Is it interactive or just a story? In Virginia‘s case, you play along the tracks of story. You can wander the world, yes, but nothing is of consequence unless it directly relates to the storyline. If you walk up to the person you must interact with and stand on their desk, no mentioning of the ill-advised act occurs. There are no consequences. Everything is limited to the story.

The debate surrounding Virginia and gaming has exploded into a culture war that Select/All’s Jesse Singal has attempted to decode. It’s a long rumination on what makes a game but here’s the beef—

Who thinks “games are exactly art”? What does that even mean? Who is arguing that it is useful to judge the original Super Mario Bros. on its literary/artistic merits in exactly the same ways one might judge Firewatch? Again: This is an entirely different reality from the one most of us inhabit.

These questions are where gaming culture is divided. Yes, games can be art and many stand as proof—but are these two separate fields or a difference in taste or genre? That is to be defined.

Preferences aside, there is something about Virginia—something not good. Games like Virginia are good for questioning what a game can be but this particular game skirts around empathy games, which intend to relay a life to help players understand through experience. Yet, they are still playable. For example: Gone Home explored coming out by way of an empty home; Life Is Strange explored mental illness and teen psychology through time manipulation; Unravel explored aging through sentient yarn; and Firewatch explored guilt, love, and accountability in regards to aging relationships via park rangers. All games were about the message, not the gameplay, but they still had gameplay. They had exploration. They had things to unlock. They are interactive—not moving stories.

That is where Virginia differs. Great story, sure, told without words and from the point of view of a woman of color. Twin Peaks evocative, yes, but that is it. Polygon can defend itself all it wants but that doesn’t escape Virginia‘s central flaw: it isn’t interactive. It’s a moving story. You are set on a path, like an amusement park ride, and you cannot deviate. There is no sense of exploration. You simply push a button to move scenes.

Therein lies the break between the two, which is clear by the opening of the game: Virginia aspires to be a movie—not a game. Thus, a question: is an interactive movie a good game? As Kill Screen says, no, that is not a game and the resulting game should go back to film school. Sure, Virginia is compelling enough. It’s a steal for just $10 and a little over an hour of play. But, only pushing buttons to advance story instead of actually being able to push buttons to explore a story stands in the way of this being a good game. Experimental, yes, but not a good game.

Maybe the fault all lies on the development, which feels rushed given it took less than two years to come out. Instead of being given a truly playable game or story or whatever you want to call it, Virginia offers a movie with simplistic buttons. Perhaps this is an example of something that could have benefitted from VR? Regardless, you—as a gamer—sitting on a couch playing a game where you walk into offices with the push of a button does not make a good game.

Virginia is divisive because it’s unknown if it is actually a game or not. But does that matter? Yes, because you gotta be something to play in order to truly be a game. Question the structure of games, sure, and marvel at story but boring is boring is boring.

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