What is a “Video Game?” Looking at Gone Home and Meow Wolf

What is a “Video Game?” Looking at Gone Home and Meow Wolf


Hello, everyone! Sorry about the long delay between videos. The year has been a bit hectic. Today I want us to talk about something a
little different than a lot of my previous videos- video games. Specifically: what IS a video game, how do
we define them, and how do they overlap with things like puzzles and art? Even more specifically, we’re going to be
talking about Gone Home and Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return. So, a little background. I’m not a HUGE gamer. I tend to stick to Nintendo games, especially
Pokemon and party games, games that are heavily story based, like Mass Effect, and weird little
indie titles like Tacoma and Firewatch. So, I have a pretty…loose definition about
what makes a video game a video game compared to more serious gamers. – Let’s talk definitions real fast. In the broadest terms, a game is a structured
form of play. It is a form of play that has some kind of
rules to it. So while playing with your stuffed animals
is just play (there’s no incorrect way to do it), things like hide and seek and checkers
ARE games, as there are simple rules that govern HOW you play. This can get tricky with things like puzzles,
since there are…technically ways in which you could interact with a puzzle incorrectly. Throwing all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle
on the ground isn’t correct, but most of us wouldn’t consider it a GAME regardless. In a related point, sports are an even more
structured form of games- they are games that involve competition and physical activity
(mostly? E-sports makes this iffy) Video games are most broadly defined as GAMES
that use electronic and visual interfaces to function. They can be on consoles, computers, arcade
cabinets, even phones. – Now, of course, not ALL electronic-visual
interfaces are games. Microsoft Word isn’t a game. Facebook isn’t a game. Youtube isn’t a game. But, what about something like Gone Home? (Note, I’m gona talk about Gone Home for
a little bit and I will do my best to describe it without many spoilers) Released in 2013, and set in 1995, Gone Home
is a first person exploration “game” (put a pin in the word game. We’ll come back to it.) Your character has been studying overseas
for a year. While you were gone, your family has moved
into a new house, one that your great uncle used to own before he died. When you arrive in the middle of the night,
no one is home. You then explore the house, reading journals
and letters, looking at objects, trying to piece together what has happened. In some truly first rate environmental storytelling,
you piece together what has happened in the year you were gone, and why your family isn’t
home now. – Is this a game? In a lot of ways, it doesn’t FEEL like a
game. There’s no real puzzles to solve, no bad
guys, no monsters, no platforming, or story decisions. You just walk around a house, look at stuff,
and do some inferencing. You “finish” the game when you’ve been
through the whole house and found the final “clues.” But there’s nothing to track your progress,
no achievements or collectibles. The only thing forcing SOME linear structure
on the experience is a few padlock codes you have to find to move deeper into the house. So, is Gone Home structured enough for us
to call it a video game? A video game rather than a puzzle or art or
like…interactive story experience? I think most people would say yes, though
it’s kind of an odd artsy video game. The fact that you have to obey the programming,
that you are interacting with the world in the ways the programmers allow is A structure,
though a fairly weak one, compared to most video games, all things considered. You can’t like, leave the house, or fly,
or start hunting ghosts. You can only “finish” the game by working
through the whole story. Most people would look at they keyboard or
controller interface, and say “Oh, yeah, this is a video game.” Wikipedia even refers to this as an “Exploration
Video Game” and categorizes it as a subset of “Adventure Games” for whatever that’s
worth. – However, this brings me to a weird point of
comparison- Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return. Background: Meow Wolf is an art collective
of 200 artists based in Sante Fe, New Mexico. In 2016, with funding provided primarily by
Game of Thrones Author GRR Martin, they created what is called The House of Eternal Return
in Sante Fe. It’s a permanent art installation experience
(put a pin in that description, we’ll come back to it.) How it works is simple. After you pay (and definitely throw down the
extra dollar for the color enhancing glasses) You watch a short video about how the people
in the house you are about to enter disappeared. Very spooky. You go through a door, and there is a whole
house inside this giant space. Inside the house, things seem pretty normal
at first. There is a story hidden in the objects though. Journals, emails, books, diaries, letters
pinned to the fridge, videos on the TV all piece together what happened to this family
and where they have gone. In as few spoilers as possible, the Grandfather,
uncle, and young son of the family have been experimenting with portals to other dimensions
and stuff. It goes poorly. The full story is much more complicated and
interesting, but it’s more fun to discover it on your own. As you move through the house, there are places
where you seemingly can “enter” these portals. A secret garden under the stairs, a passage
through the fire place, a hallway inside the fridge, a slide out of the washer. Beyond the house is a twisting, trippy maze
of electronic art that you can spend hours in (this is where those color enhancing glasses
are really worth it.) – So, when my husband and I went into The House
of Eternal Return, we quickly thought “Holy crumbs, this is like…a real life version
of Gone Home.” The environmental storytelling, piecing together
the events of a missing family by finding clues left in the house, the very loose and
mostly nonlinear structure of how you can discover the clues. All of it. So….if Gone Home is a video game….is Meow
Wolf’s House of Eternal Return….a game? Like…chess or hide and seek or D&D? This is where it breaks down for me a little. My first instinct is to call this installation
art, but its similarities to Gone Home are really strong. I would argue that Meow Wolf has far less
structure on this experience here though. While ALL you can really do in Gone Home is
move around the space to discover the story because of the programming, in Meow Wolf,
discovering the story is far more optional. Many of the other people there, especially
the ones with small children, seemed to move through the house itself very quickly, not
stopping and inspecting letters and emails and journals, so they and their children could
play in the electronic “portals” section (which is super fun.) But they didn’t spend any time figuring
out the story the way that you would in Gone Home. Is it a game, but the game aspect is optional? Is it a game, and those people and their 3
year olds are just playing it wrong? Is it not a game at all, but just weird, trippy
art with a loose narrative so all the pieces fit together? And does our evaluation of Meow Wolf make
us re-evaluate how we feel about Gone Home, and other games like it (such as Tacoma, Firewatch,
and the Stanley Parable?) Maybe? I don’t particularly have an answer to that,
so I’m actually excited to hear all of yalls thoughts down in the comments! Thanks for listening to this queer millennial
feminist rant about things I like for a few minutes. If you want to be notified when I make more
of these, you know the drill, subscribe! And let me know what you think about this
question of games and video games vs art and experiences down in the comments

24 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I think honestly the great thing about video games (while yes most of them do have structure like mass effect, dragon age, etc.) is that they're as much about story-telling and art like any other form or media is. the only difference is, unlike television or reading a book, you can interact with things virtually. I think the great thing about some of these new games is that it gives us a new perspective on things, and like any art it's up for interpretation- like with irl "art installation" that had essentially a similar premise to Gone Home. It can honestly be any of the things you mentioned, and in my opinion I think it can be all these things at the exact same time. It's as much of a game as it is art, as it is about story-telling (since I just mentioned games can combine these things like any media), but it does it in a way that sort or separates these elements of interacting with it as well? It's sort of cyclical when you think about it. Games can be art, games can tell stories. Art can be a game, art can tell stories, and so on and so forth. Honestly, that's really interesting and I think that's kind of the beauty of it.

    (Also, I would say Gone Home is a video game, just for the fact that I can play it on a PC or other console – in the most literal sense.)

  2. I feel like there's a bit of "the medium is the message" going on here. People play gone home "thoroughly" precisely because they're at home, on a computer, whereas the other thing is experienced more like a theme park? So you make more of a beeline for "the good stuff"?

    There is a lot of crossover between theme park and video game design though, like the use of "weenies" (bad name I know) to guide people through the space.

    Shrug

  3. Okay. I heard you mention Gone Home and was excited. I heard you mentioned House of Eternal Return, and I actually shrieked. I lived in Santa Fe for my college years, and House of Eternal Return and Meow Wolf was literally all of our favorite thing in town because it so clearly showed us how all of our individual disciplines could be utilized to create something amazing. Outdoor Vision Fest was another similarly interactive art installation event we all loved. I’m still processing you just shouted out HoER, which is literally the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

    To your question, I consider the key difference between Gone Home and HoER is those rules the game developers have put in Gone Home to restrict it and create a “correct” way to move through the game. Where as HoER has no rules (frankly, I didn’t even know there was supposed to be a narrative there until my first visit), Gone Home has a few tiny rules that nonetheless create a correct way to solve it.

    Also, the original narrative of HoER has shifted ever so slightly since its opening, so I think they keep purposely changing it so that it remains as open as possible even for people who “finished the game” already.

  4. Video games ,in my opinion, border on art all the time.
    They can tell a story like a book or movie/tv show(which is technically an art form). They can offer crazy fun and complicated puzzles. They can let you play a sport you otherwise couldn't, either cause it doesn't actually exit(ala rocket league) or because they're professional sports, like NFL or WWE. They can be like Gone Home. Art can technically be anything and video games can also be so much.
    As someone who grew up with video games(mostly horror titles and platforms) its so nice to see that the medium is really expanding its self to even be able to ask questions like these.

  5. Personally, I'd argue that Gone Home is definitely a video game, but the Meow Wolf house isn't a game — if I had to label it, I'd say it's more like a theme park attraction with a puzzle/story element. I think the reason that I intuit it that way goes something like this:
    • Video games have a much broader definition than other games, I think in part due to people just filing a very large range of games under the same label. Basically, I'd say nearly any digital work that has substantial input from the player would qualify as a video game. Besides, Gone Home has a definitive purpose that gives the player a goal to work towards — if nothing else, that absolutely cements it as "a video game" to me.
    • The House of Eternal Return, by contrast, doesn't actually seem to directly give its audience a goal — and more centrally, it doesn't say it has one. It also doesn't require people to engage with the story/puzzle element at all, (unlike, say, an escape room, which I'd definitely qualify as a game) neither is it the sole attraction. From what I can tell, it doesn't have any set rules either (unlike video games, where the programming itself is an inherent set of rules, in a sense).

    This actually reminds me of how Mark Rosewater, the Head Designer for Magic: the Gathering, has often said that Candyland (the board game) isn't actually a game, since it lacks any actual input from the players. In the same vein, I remember seeing a title on Steam that was apparently a visual novel, except without any actual choices to be made by the player — by the same logic, I'd say it also doesn't count as a game (more like a virtual story).

    It took a lot of reflecting to come to a conclusion on this, but I guess in summary, I think something needs three things to qualify as a game:
    1) A set of rules (though they sometimes can, of course, be flexible by nature and/or modified to suit the players' needs)
    2) A goal (which, again, doesn't need to be set in stone — there's plenty of room for self-imposed challenges and such, but there still needs to be a goal)
    3) Meaningful player input (in other words, something beyond just obeying the rules and random outcomes)

  6. I was surprised to hear you say that Gone Home isn't linear, mostly because I've heard a lot of "hardcore" gamers complain that it's too linear, that there isn't enough freedom for it to be considered a game.
    I think the core difference between the two, Gone Home and House of Eternal Return, is part of that linear-ity… that when playing Gone Home you have to complete some things to access the following, but for House of Eternal Return, it's purely exploratory and there is no goal, finish line, or end scene. Even if there is a story that ties the elements together, it isn't a necessary element to the intended experience, but feels more like an easter egg, for those who enjoy looking deeper/closer. Of course I'm not sure, this is just pondering.

  7. It could be both? Like Gone Home is a game based around discovering a story through exploration, which is the same as the Meow Wolf House, so maybe there's a gaming element there. You have a goal to work towards (discovering the story and solving a mystery) and a set of loose weave rules about getting there (looking at objects and reading the available narrative). But at the same time, like other people have said, the medium separates them a bit. Gone Home is a game in that it is intended to be a video game and it uses the mechanics and environments of one, where the MWH is more like an interactive art experience. So maybe they're both a bit of art and a bit of a game at the same time.

  8. I think the problem with saying the people who rush through the house as playing wrong. All possible forms of play is intended play. In same way any way you can interact with a video games is an intended form of play. For example you can gather all pick up able items in Gone Home and throw them on one floor in a room. It's doable therefore intended even if it's not expected. Rushing through to the portal section of the house is an intended form of play with the house. Yet finding the story would enrich it. Same as optional readable parts of Gone Home. It's a game, in a sense. It's an interactive art installation as well. Definitions are tricky lol.

  9. You know, it is kinda funny, because I wouldn't hesitate to call Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return a game. Or, specifically, the environmental story part a game. An optional game, as you said, and part of a large art exhibition, but a game nonetheless. I do call a good mystery book (like any Agatha Christie book) a game, though, so that might colors my opinion. I do consider pretty all puzzles games as well, and see you don't seem to yourself was actually very confusing to me.

    That all said, I came to the confusion that this question is not actually relevant to defining video-games, as contradictory as it seems. I think the term have come to mean more than "games on video". For example, take Visual Novels, there is a subgenre called "Kinetic Novels" that removes all iteration the player have, making them pretty much just illustrated books with sound. I would find hard to call them "games", but I do call them 'video games'. It is easier to describe them as such, I feel. In that sense, I don't think there is much of well defined definition of the term, but I do feel it is not strictly tied to the word "game" anymore.

  10. What does a person define “a game” as? I had no idea man children were this upset about there being Female Gamers that we have to pick apart what a videoGame, boardGame, and pcGames are even. Are they really this mad a Woman owns and plays a PS2 slim, a classic Sega Genesis, Nintendo Wii and a PS4?! Are they mad at me for playing and owning the old HandHeld Tiger Electronic ( Jurassic Park and Beauty and the Beast ) Gameboy and GameGear games? What you describe in your video are videogames ( or pc games even ), whether the man children like it or not, that’s what those are in your video. The one you go in depth about reminds me of Ico. Silent Hill. Resident Evil. Alone in the dark. A story you piece together by exploring the environment and the items you pick up along the way ( just without the enemies you battle to advance in the games I named ); as you said it’s like a puzzle. I find the term “serious gamer” to be the one of the many dumbest terms coined. You don’t need to be serious to enjoy playing a game. A puzzle. A videoGame. A boardGame. A PCGame. They’re nothing more than a simulation to help feed that part of your mind that releases that thing we know as enjoyment.

  11. eSports makes it iffy on sports involving physical activity? I'd argue snooker, darts, and F1 were making it iffy long before eSports came along. But anyway…

    Sure, I'd describe Meow Wolf is a game (Most of these interactive theater works have some game elements to them, from the explicit such as 2.8 Hours Later to the implicit such as how you describe Meow Wolf). Real life implementation of a genre of video games, in this case narrative exploration games – An Escape Room without the solving a puzzle box from the inside aspect, essentially.

    It's a game with multiple goals and multiple ways of playing, with different rewards for each way of playing. Exploring the house enough to get to the portal section? The portal section is the reward – the prize – for going through the house. Exploring the house enough to get the story and then doing the portal section? The narrative is the prize for that, and the portal section is the prize for going through the house.

  12. I feel like Gone Homes and other titles like it are visual novels that use the videogame format to better tell their stories. Since the creators chose that format, I feel like categorizing it as a videogame is the way to go. Now the Santa Fe house I feel like is more of an art installation than a game per se since it feels like a puzzle that you can choose to solve or not while steel experiencing the art. Kind of how like some people can enjoy seeing the Mona Lisa while a bunch of other people can debate and argue about her mysterious smile or even if she is a woman at all. Thank you for the video, it is very thought provoking and nicely done!

  13. When I first found your channel, I was excited to watch some of your videos just based off the titles. I did NOT expect to binge literally every single one until midnight. I love your content so much and I hope you keep making them!!

  14. I'd definitely call that 'instalation' a game! After all, you wouldn't stop calling Skyrim a game because you can go throw cabbages at stuff and ignore the main story altogether, would you? 😀 I also want to go to that house so bad now!

  15. Welcome back!
    I just subscribed and I hope to see more content from you .
    FYI you should try to launch a Petreon account too.

  16. Personally, I'd say "game" works less as a category of experiences, and more as a category of categories. Unfortunately, I haven't had much time to work much through the implications of that quite yet.

  17. I think both Gone Home and House of Eternal Return are games! With Gone Home, if you took the controller away and just played out the events in the game on screen it would be a pretty bad movie because all you'd see is a bunch of going through a house and looking at documents with the occasional voice over line when you come across the diaries. It would make for a pretty bad book too because it would be long passages of describing what happens in the game, "then she went to the laundry room. It was really dark until she found a light that lit up the room. In the room tucked away under the washer she found a document, a tax form about her dad's book. Line 1 of the document read…" The reason Gone Home can only work as a game is because it takes the player's activity into account. Instead of watching a girl go through a house, you are that girl, and you get to pay as much or as little attention to all the details of the space created as you want.

    That said, it's also a game where there's no real wrong way to play. There's speedruns of people finishing the game in less than a minute because they know exactly where to go. They miss out on the story and all the other stuff in the game but for them, they wanted to do that speedrun and the run is what's important to them. In a way it's sort of like the people that run through the House of Eternal Return house quickly to get to the part they like. For them, the other parts don't matter, but that part totally does. To say there's a wrong way to play those types of games is like saying there's a wrong way to play an RPG. If you want to intentionally give your character one really high stat at the detriment of all others, a good RPG will be receptive to that and have a playing style unique to your character.

    For House of Eternal Return, I think it's a game because it kind of falls in line with those escape rooms people really like. Except what it lacks in the puzzles escape rooms have, it makes up for with a MIND PUZZLE of piecing together the story and immersing yourself in the world.

  18. If there's a story to discover and your interactions bring you that story to a point of completion, even if it's a cliffhanger, then yes, it's a game.
    Also what's to say that the story part of the house and the techno-art walls can't be sperate games/different parts of a game.

    In some video games there are arcade machines in the world and if your character walks up to them and interacts with them they launch up a little arcade game.
    A re-skinned Pac-man or something.
    Does that mean they are two sperate games, or is it dictated that you have to complete the arcade game to complete the rest of the game?
    In most games, it's just an easter-egg.

    I, personally, believe as long as there's an obstacle to overcome through some kind of interaction, it's a game.
    Games don't need a story to be games if they are engaging through their gameplay, and they don't need advanced mechanics.
    The "game" can be to piece together a story and the "fail-state" can simply be to fail at piecing together said story.

    If however, all you do is hold down the W key and get fed a story without interactions, it's more of a narrative program than a game.
    Just because it has an .exe file, doesn't make it a game.

    Talking about "sports". A lot of people associate "sport" with "physical activity", but doing something "for sport" means you're playing with it, or make a game out of it.
    Pool, Darts, Chess, Poker; These are all sports.
    You could argue that Pool and Darts, especially, are quite physically demanding even it's more dexterity based than athleticism.
    You could also argue that e-sports are similarly physically demanding as you can easily get too old to competitively play e-sports just by the age of 24.
    E-sports require incredible reaction times, some that have been measured at less than 100 milliseconds, most games sit at about 180ms and up in reaction time.
    As you age these times increase and older gamers have to make up for the lack of speed with knowledge and strategy.
    Similarly, in games like StarCraft professional players have between 200 and 400 actions per minute (APM), each action representing an action/order sent to their virtual army.
    E-Sports are still very physically demanding, just not as much in the legs or arms, but rather in the hands, fingers, and brain as some games in e-sports require thousands of hours of training to accomplish what professional e-sport players are doing.

  19. That's a very interesting comparison! (And now I'm dying to see this installation in Santa Fe ahahah) I have the habit of calling this kind of "video games" interactive stories, and I guess I would call the installation a life art performance with a loose story you can interact with…

  20. My husband is getting a PhD in video games (extremely simplified). I love talking with him about walking simulators and whether or not they are games. Gone Home sparked a lot of debate and talk between us. Our opinion is that it is a game. Partly due to the puzzling one has to do to find some of the codes or secrets. But we also agree that Dear Esther, which has even less environment interaction (as in, basically none) is a game. Games have goals, and that goal can include finishing the story.

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