The Best Film Of The Year Didn’t Need Talking. Do Video Games Need Graphics?

Last night at the Academy Awards, a silent film won best picture. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, a biopic about film star George Valentin, was itself a classic silent film — for the most part, it has no sound effects or dialogue, just music and on-screen action.

Several new video games like the Move-enabled competitive game Johann Sebastian Joust and the audio-only shooter Swamp have eschewed graphics entirely. As The Artist reminded us, a film does not need spoken dialogue to qualify as a film. These new games raise a similar question: Despite the “video” in the moniker, do video games really need graphics?

Today at Kill Screen, Jason Johnson took a look at the all-audio video game Swamp. Swamp is an online co-op shooter designed to be playable by blind people — Johnson describes it as “Left 4 Dead for the blind.”

Johnson looks back at a number of audio-only games, including AudioQuake, a Quake mod designed to be playable by the blind.

Audio games have largely gone unnoticed by the gaming public, nestled away in small pockets of the internet-overlooked by not only by the sighted, but also by their intended audience. People don’t tend to talk about things that can’t be seen. The earliest written languages were cave paintings and pictographs-visual representations of feet and vaginas and buffalos that eventually were stylised into cuneiform. Even music reviews tend to focus on the visual. They are littered with metaphors, musicians’ personal histories, and cultural references. Simply put: If it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.

Last month, Kotaku ran a story about Rock Vibe, an experimental music game in the mode of Rock Band that was designed to be playable by sighted and non-sighted gamers alike. UC Santa Cruz MFA Rupinder Dhillon made it her goal to design a music game that could be played by everyone, and the game exceeded its Kickstarter goal of $US15,000.

In Rock Vibe, players wear a belt that vibrates along with the music, giving prompts as to which button they should press. Dhillon details the process at the game’s Kickstarter page:

Players wear the Rock Vibe wearable containing 4 to 5 vibrating motors. They launch the Rock Vibe software, load a song and level, and then respond to vibrations by pressing keys on the computer keyboard, Rock Band controller, or MIDI controller to make the song play properly.

Douglas Wilson’s GDC award-nominated Johann Sebastian Joust is perhaps the least “video gamey” of all of these games. In an in-depth feature at Vox Games, Griffin McElroy took a long look at Joust, which is in essence a music-cued jousting game that is played with PlayStation Move controllers (though the game itself lives on a PC).

In JS Joust, players move about one another, attempting to knock one another off balance… but there are no graphics, only music. (Can you guess the composer?)

McElroy describes JS Joust less as a video game and more as what he calls a “folk game”:

The actual magic of Joust, however, is that (unlike just about every other video game in existence) there’s only one rule hardwired into its barebones logic system: If you move your controller beyond the acceptable motion threshold, you lose.

The Mac-based game client reads the gyroscopic output of each players’ Move controllers, distributing a warning rumble to players who approach that threshold; or a deafening, game-ending boom to those who pass it. The meat of the game — the manner in which you jostle your opponents’ controllers while defending your own — is left purely to the invention and adjudication of its two-to-seven players. For example: Is kicking allowed? Shoving? Projectile weaponry?

Joust rides at the vanguard of a genre that’s as old as written language, but entirely new to video game culture. It’s part of a movement heralded by bands of independent game developers and digital artists searching for unexplored intersections between virtual mediums and physical interactions. Joust is, in the grand tradition of Tag, Hide and Go Seek and Red Rover before it, a folk game.

All three of these games sound very cool and like a lot of fun, and all three raise the same question: Does a video game need video to be a video game?

No one could argue that The Artist isn’t a film. Films don’t need sound to qualify as film — their essence is located somewhere else. I’m reminded of Far Cry 2 and Splinter Cell designer Clint Hocking’s excellent talk at the 2011 Game Developers Conference about “how games mean.” (David Carlton’s notes on the talk can be perused here.)

Games, Hocking said, find meaning through dynamics, through the way their systems react and change to player input.

Film, he said, finds meaning in one way: editing. It’s a visual medium, and it finds its meaning via editing together moving images. As an example, he cited a study in which an audience would watch a single film scene out of context and have an entirely different read on it than when they saw it along with the scenes that normally played adjacent to it. With editing, viewers could make a different kind of sense of what they were seeing.

Games, Hocking said, find meaning through dynamics, through the way their systems react and change to player input. By that definition, a game does not need to have visuals or graphics to have meaning — it only needs dynamics.

It’s a bit tricky, though, since in a sense we’re talking about games rather than video games. Can it be argued that Rock Vibe, J.S. Joust and Swamp should not be considered video games? Well, I’d say all three qualify, especially Swamp, but I could also imagine an argument going the other way. Regardless, all three are most certainly games.

Some of this is semantics. And that word, “semantics,” has become a bit loaded — it can sound like a casual dismissal (“Oh, now you’re just arguing semantics!”) even though it is indeed important to be clear about different words and what they mean.

It comes back to what role “Video” plays in a “Video Game.” A lot of gamers’ fondest gaming memories came from playing text-only computer games like Infocom’s Zork and The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. If those games are read aloud rather than viewed on a screen, does that fundamentally change their nature? If not, where do we draw the line?

I thought Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost got at the heart of the matter when addressing the discussion around whether to use the term “videogame” or “video game.”

I use the term “videogame” for rhetorical reasons. Separating the words, in my opinion, suggests that video games are merely games with some video screen or computer attached. But, I believe that video games are fundamentally a computational medium, not just the extension of a medium like board or role-playing games (although there is also a genealogy there). I think that closing the space, in part, helps consolidate this concept. Personally, I’m only interested in gaming as it relates to computation. That doesn’t mean I don’t think gambling or board games or whatnot are useful, it just means that they are not my primary focus.

As for the argument that “videogame” implies video display, as Patrick suggests above, I don’t really care. I’m more interested in common usage, and the fact is that people use “videogame” to refer to the kinds of artifacts I want to talk about. I think video qua television screen is a vestigial effect of the arcade era and nobody is really confused about it.

That makes sense to me. While I think it’s safe to say that video games do not, in fact, require a visual element, it’s OK that the answer isn’t always clear-cut. What do you think? Does a game need to have graphics in order to qualify as a video game? Has the term “video game” come to mean so many different things that it’s shed its screen-centric origin? Is there a way to do come up with a new definition without digressing into overly complex and often inaccurate terms like “interactive entertainment”?

And perhaps more vitally: Do you want to have a Johann Sebastian Joust party as much as I do?

Shining in the Darkness [Kill Screen]

Rock Vibe [Kickstarter]

Folk Lore: How Johann Sebastian Joust is defining a new genre [Vox Games]

(J.S. Joust photo by Natalie Seery

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