Does a game have to be fun? What constitutes a game, anyway? And what's a nongame?
These questions are more weighed after finishing Jordan Magnuson's The Killer (play it here). About a minute in, I died. A mine had killed me, something I had no control over. It's one of three endings to The Killer, an interactive...experience? The pixel artwork will remind you of a video game, and you are a controlling a character from left to right, but it's...well...
The Killer isn't about defeating an alien menace or terrorists or resurrected Nazi zombies. Set in Cambodia, The Killer involves a lot of walking. I'd recommend you just go play it, actually. I'll wait.
"I was lying in bed one night listening to Jonsi's 'Tornado' when the idea for The Killer came to me," explained Magnuson, writing to me over email as he makes his way through Europe. "I was traveling in Cambodia at the time, reading about the Khmer Rouge, and I had just been to visit Toul Sleng: a prison camp in Phnom Penh where 10,000 people were killed between 1977 and 1979. As I listened to Jonsi's lyrics, and those haunting vocals, I imagined myself marching someone to the field where I would shoot them, or bludgeon their head in (as was more typical). Imagined getting to the field, and having that simple choice to make, of whether to carry out my purpose...or not. Once anything is in my head that way, it's only half a step to my imagining it as some kind of computer game, or notgame."
Magnuson has no problem with the term "notgame." When you say "game," that saddles certain expectations. Games have an ever-expanding history, compounded by a struggle with the very term of "video game," and having definitions is problematic.
I touched on this idea when writing about L.A. Noire a few weeks back, asking for game experiences that better reflected the broader range of human emotion. As someone who is paid to play and write about video games, however, I often wonder whether my colleagues and I are the only ones who'd like to see more of this. When you're exposed to a random violent military shooter number for the thousandth time (like this year's E3), you crave more. For the vast majority of players who use video games as escapism, the exhilaration of the power fantasy may be enough. Even if that's true, why limit the medium?
But I digress. Magnuson puts it much better, anyway.
"The Killer, as far as I see it, is something like a short interactive poem, and it doesn't intend to be anything more," he said. "I call it a notgame to try and spark a little bit of realization that not everything interactive has to be a game, and also to try and prepare the player for encountering something that won't be fun."
It's best to know as little about The Killer before playing it. The surprise, especially if you encounter the random element that is the mine, has an exponentially greater impact. And the point of game vs. nongame may be moot, as The Killer is simply using the interactive possibilities of software to make a point, and having barrels of fun while making a point is not required.
"In some ways it's an experience to be 'endured' rather than 'enjoyed,'" admitted Magnsun, "which some people may find odd or objectionable, as the idea of 'interactive experience' outside of the realm of software tools has become conflated with entertainment for most of us."
There are three ways The Killer may end: encountering a mine, choosing to kill the person or firing into the sky, not killing them. The epilogue, explaining how the game was inspired by the horrors faced by the Cambodian people past and present, is the same no matter what.
Magnuson has made nongames in the past (play them all here), but The Killer's one part of a more ambitious, world-spanning project called Gametrekking, whose mission statement is to make games influenced by seeing the world. The Killer is just one example. Following the same path as so many others these days with a concept they're hoping people will love, he funded the idea through Kickstarter. He's been "trekking" for months now, moving through Taiwan, Vietnam, and others.
As mentioned, The Killer was inspired by Magnuson's stay in Cambodia.
"GameTrekking project is not about attempting some objective presentation of Cambodia, or any other place that I've been to," he said, "but rather about my trying to express something of my own particular encounters with places as I travel in the twenty-first century. [...] It was because of this project that I was studying the Khmer Rouge, and it was because I was in Cambodia that I saw how much its past history is still affecting the country today. I strongly doubt that I ever would have had the particular idea that turned into The Killer if I had not been able to actually visit Toul Sleng and the Cheong Ek killing fields."
I've spoken to Magnuson before, as part of a piece for EGM, not long before he hit the road. He's a man who takes the potential of games very seriously, frustrated by today's most popular games (read: Call of Duty) coming to define the medium for a great many people.
We're in agreement there, even if I understand the precarious balance, as ultimately games need to make money. It comes back to this notion of fun for me, and whether fun is part of the equation that makes up an experience, game--or nongame.
Playing with this notion can lead to extreme reactions, as the comments on The Killer at Newgrounds underscore. Magnuson said most of the ratings are either one or ten, basically a love or hate reaction.
Take this one, for example.
"I came here to play a game, not wasting my time with this sentimental sob story crap," said a user named xzibition8612, not pulling any punches. "Who gives a shit what happens in cambodia? I don't care what happens there as long as they keep making my shoes and sushi. Don't waste everybody's time under the pretense of a game."
It doesn't phase Magnuson, but he worries about what it means.
"I think if we're afraid of 'losing fun,' we're going to severely limit our potential for exploration where this medium is concerned, and that would be a shame," he said. "Games are going to be around forever...I don't think we have to worry that our grandchildren are going to end up in some kind of grayscale world where they're forced to play boring notgames all day long. So my feeling is, let's not worry about it 'working.' Let's experiment, and see what's outside the box. I think there's plenty of room for all varieties of fun and emotion and meaning to exist together, and side by side."