Over the last decade, video games have begun to evolve in various new directions, some of which are still familiar and resemble the kinds of games we’ve all loved and enjoyed for decades, while others are closer to interactive films rather than traditional video games. But lately I’ve been seeing a lot of people ask: What does it mean to be a video game? Do games HAVE to be fun in order to be good? What makes a game a masterpiece?
These are questions I myself have pondered at times. I’m no stranger to loving games that are considered bad in some form. Games that aren’t considered to be fun to play and then people ask me how I managed to get through the entire game, sometimes multiple times over. And the answer is simple: The experience was unlike anything else and drove me to push through the bad or mediocre parts to see what the game truly had to offer. These are what I call “Games as an Experience” and while there is an obvious acronym I could use to shorten that, I will not and will instead refer to them as Experience Games(EG for short...er). For this article I’m simply going to talk about a few games that I feel fall into this category.
The first of which is...
The Nintendo Wii is a treasure trove of gems that fell under the radar. Fragile Dreams is one of those hidden gems and it’s a real shame. The story follows a young boy named Seto who is seemingly the sole survivor of an apocalypse that saw all of humanity vanish overnight. After the passing of his grandfather, the only other survivor he knew of, alone in the world, Seto sets out to try and find other survivors so he will never be alone again.
In terms of basic gameplay, Fragile Dreams is extremely clunky. Seto moves like a brick, attack animations are slow and it’s sometimes hard to hit what you’re aiming at. And then there’s Seto’s flashlight which is entirely bound to the motion of the Wiimote. To say this game is a chore to actually play is an understatement, and graphically it’s not much to look at. As a result, it’s not hard to see why so many people likely passed on the game when it released in 2009(JP) or 2010(US).
However, the combat and graphics really aren’t the selling point for the game as it’s what you experience while playing that truly makes it special. When I talk about this game I normally refer to it as the sole resident in the genre of loneliness. Why? Because it REALLY nails that feeling. The world is deliberately empty with barely any wildlife to speak of except for plants. Spirits are the primary residents of the world which is in total ruins. And it’s among these ruins that you find precious mementos which contain the memories of those long since gone. These collectibles tell emotional stories of their owners, and those stories are fully voice acted which helps sell the emotion of the tales.
And then there’s Seto himself who struggles with that loneliness. He finds friends along the way, but aside from the mysterious Ren, none of his friends are human, and their companionship is temporary. Never have I felt so alone while playing a video game than I did here. It took what would technically be considered a survival horror game and turned it into a character-driven drama that really hits you where it hurts. But it can’t do that unless you yourself play the game. Just watching someone play it will not convey the full effect.
Shadow of the Colossus is a prime example of games as a form of art. The story is almost entirely conveyed without dialogue. Save for some brief exposition from Wander, Dormin, and the Elder, the player is left to their own imagination. Wanders brings the lifeless body of a woman, implied to be a woman he cares for deeply, to the Forbidden Land, in order to perform an ancient and forbidden resurrection ritual. Dormin, the spirit who resides in these lands, tasks Wander with striking down the Colossi that wander these lands in order to resurrect Mono. And so he sets out to do just that.
As Wander, you ride, quietly, from the temple in the center of the valley to wherever the light guides you. The very first Colossi is entirely docile, merely wandering about minding its own business. It reacts to you, but only as something of a bug scrabbling around its feet. The moment you actually strike it however is when it becomes hostile. When you strike it down, the music that plays is not one of victory, but of sorrow. And each time Wander fells a Colossi, his visage grows darker and more demonic as he takes the part of Dormin’s soul that resides in the Colossi into himself. No matter the cost, no matter the consequence, he will revive her.
Shadow of the Colossus is a journey. The gameplay itself is nothing special. Aggro, your trusty steed, doesn’t control the best. The stamina meter can be a pain to deal with and the Colossi can only be hurt by stabbing specific spots on their bodies. Solving the puzzles of the Colossi is fun, and climbing them has its own charm, but all in all it isn’t the most complex game and the world is empty otherwise. But something drives you to follow Wanders journey, slaying the Colossi. If you’re simply watching, you may grow bored. If you’re playing it, you’re experiencing it, and that is the heart of this title.
I know what you’re thinking. “But Death Stranding just came out!” And you’re right, it did just come out. I’ve played a good 15 to 20 hours of it so far and it already strikes me as an EG. The divisive reviews also bring me to that conclusion. Why? The game in and of itself is not fun. The gameplay loop can be addicting for a time, but it does eventually wear thin. And the story is traditional Kojima, a lot of words get thrown around and there’s an attempt to connect them and turn them into something coherent. Not saying it’s bad mind you, the story has me on the line, but if I hear the term “connection” one more time...
Anyway, what makes this an EG is the cooperative nature of its multiplayer component. You never see these other players, these other porters, but you’ll see their structures, and you’ll be told when someone uses one of yours and if they left you any “likes.” Forging a path for others to follow, and knowing that others have used it and appreciate your trailblazing brings with it this sense of euphoria that I have never felt in any other game. I got so high on this feeling that I spent upwards of three to five hours constructing bridges, setting up generators, and finishing other players structures to cut down the time it takes to complete a time sensitive delivery from 30 minutes to less than 10 minutes. The delivery also had the bonus condition that you cannot submerge the package in water, and the bridges were completely intended to get me and other players across multiple rivers. When I finally completed the course and made my delivery, I felt great. And when you complete a delivery it tracks the path you took and creates a trail on the actual terrain for other players to follow. Many people used my trail to bypass the MULE’s, many people used my bridges to cross those rivers, and it brought with it a sense of satisfaction.
A bit later on in the game I was finally able to construct roads and suddenly that element of invisible cooperation REALLY hit home. I saw a section of road finish construction, but it was somewhat isolated. So I delivered resources to another nearby autopaver, and my delivery was just enough materials to complete construction. I saw that road go up and knew that I was one of many who contributed to the project. Suddenly I found myself completely ignoring the actual main story and merely increasing my available bandwidth and resources to construct more roads. I started the construction of one section, and while I was out gathering materials, it told me that multiple players had delivered materials and that the road had been finished. After many hours of painstaking work, an entire highway had been completed. Players could now completely avoid MULE territory and go from one end of the map to the other in less time than it would otherwise take. I felt connected to all these people I’ve never truly met, who helped me achieve my goals, and I in turn contributed to theirs. If Kojima’s true intent with this game was to bring people together to do spectacular things, he truly succeeded. The man and his game deserve credit where credit is due.
From the developers of Shadow of the Colossus comes yet another EG, one which is actually even more straightforward. What makes this an EG is its focus on building the players bond with Trico, the dog-bird thing. The story itself is straightforward, a young boy finds himself trapped in an ancient labyrinth after being abducted from his home by Trico. He is then forced to work with Trico in order to escape. The AI that Team ICO developed specifically for Trico is amazing since the beast actually acts like a real creature. It will ignore you at times, which also makes the game frustrating because Trico will not always do what you want it too. The gameplay itself is by no means perfect in any stretch of the imagination. However, the bond it manages to form between you and Trico is very real. You spend so much time with it, so much time playing this game, that you learn to work with Trico’s quirks, you learn to trust it when it feels like you really shouldn’t, and it makes the emotional punches stronger later in the game.
When I first started playing The Last Guardian, I got kind of bored, I got annoyed, and a part of me wanted to stop playing. And the curiously I began experimenting. It was like throwing a stick to see if the dog will chase it. Sometimes it will be disinterested and not chase the stick. Other times it will gladly run and get the stick. I started to play around with Trico to see what it would and wouldn’t do. Slowly I made more progress through the game and because I relied entirely on this creature for survival and progress, I had no choice, but to leap onto its back and remove enemies spears and help it clear the room so I could continue. This gameplay loop of experimenting with and helping Trico forced me to bond with it and come to care for it. And that was that, when I reached the end of the game and there was a great scene of Trico flying to the boys rescue, my heart soared. If I hadn’t persevered and pushed through the game myself, I had just watched it, I would never have had moments like this. The game itself is not fondly remembered, but the experiences it leaves with its players will last.
Shenmue is, without a doubt, one of the definitive EG’s. This series is effectively a kung fu saga turned into a video game rather than a film series. While the series has never been THAT popular, it obtained a cult following because as an experience it was unlike anything else at the time and even after it not many games really achieved that same feeling even then technology and the gaming industries standards continued to grow and evolve. I never got to play the original games in their prime, when when the remaster dropped last year I picked it up on day one and gave it a try. Even so many years later I fell in love with these games which just sucked me into their world. I felt compelled to follow Ryo’s journey from Japan to Hong Kong and to China.
In terms of gameplay, the combat system of the first two games was fantastic as the button combo’s required to perform techniques replicated the movements Ryo needed to make to actually perform the move. It was a novel experience and became easy to master through repeated practice and of course memorizing the necessary movements. The combat system of Shenmue III is vastly more simplified and as a result less engaging, however this is made up for by actually having to train to improve yourself. Horse Stance is an endurance test, both for Ryo to improve his health and for you the player to fight the boredom and tedium of it, and yet I felt myself drawn to it because “I needed to practice my horse stance and improve my endurance to defeat these thugs.” I got pulled into it despite my utter boredom. One Inch Punch training was a tad more entertaining because it was a timing minigame and as I improved the skill I also got better at my timing and was hitting more “Excellents” by the time I had fully trained it. As I got into the groove of the new combat system I suddenly started to get that old feeling back of being a kung fu master.
And then of course there was the world. I have yet to move beyond the quiet village of Bailu, but I’ve already fallen in love with the scenic countryside and mountains, the beauty of the village, and getting caught up in that mundane country life. Say what you want about the clay-faced villagers, but the world is at the very least gorgeous to behold. And all of these things combine to make Shenmue an experience that you won’t get from just watching it. You have to play it to understand, but not everyone will enjoy it or be able to push through to see what there is to be seen.
Asura’s Wrath is one of my all-time favorite games and I have played it countless times over. However, the gameplay is... pretty repetitive. You beat people up with the same combo over and over again, then fight mini-bosses and regular bosses which usually involve lots of QTE segments. However, these QTE’s are utilized perfectly for once. What truly elevates this game is its story of a fathers love for his daughter. A love so strong that he becomes quite literally too angry to die and his anger pushes him to newer and more powerful forms. The story, acting, and completely outrageous battles are propel this game into the stratosphere(Plus science-fiction plus Buddhism/Hinduism is not a combination I ever expected, but goddamn do I want more of it.). And that’s to say nothing of the amazing soundtrack.
However, the reason this game is an honorable mention rather than a true EG is because the experience is completely tied to the story. Nothing is truly conveyed through the gameplay. While the emotions can flow into the QTE sections and some gameplay segments, it doesn’t elevate it that much higher than you absolutely must play the game yourself to truly get it. You can pop on a Youtube playthrough of the entire game and you will get the vast majority of what you need to appreciate what the game does have to offer and the experience it offers.
There are likely many more games as an experience that I did not touch upon, but I feel that my point has been made. A game does not have to be conventionally fun to be a game, and there are experiences that only games can truly convey upon their players. It’s a kind of game that is not always appreciated, but will be remembered by its players for many years to come. It may even become a cult classic that lives far beyond its time. So now I want to hear about what games you feel fit into this category of video game, and to hear about your own experiences.