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Is It Still a Game If You Don’t Play It?

Tim Poon | 31 May 2012 09:00
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Do you know what you are? Perhaps more importantly, do you know who you are?

By asking yourself these questions, you've taken the first steps towards becoming the smartest guy in the room. Well, maybe not smartest, but perhaps the most enlightened, as these questions are the basis of the philosophical concept of identity, or the relation of an object to itself. It's a question that spans a great breadth of quandaries and rather intense posturing once you understand its underlying meaning.

Plutarch wondered if a ship remained the same ship if it was restored and had all of its wooden parts replaced.

Consider, for instance, the Ship of Theseus, or Theseus' paradox. Originally posed by Greek philosopher Plutarch in Life of Theseus, an entry into his Parallel Lives series of biographies of real and mythical historical figures, who wondered if a ship remained the same ship if it was restored and had all of its wooden parts replaced. It may still be called the same name and might even look the part, but its sails will never catch the wind the same way, its hull will crash against the waves differently from before, and its mast will never stand against a storm like it used to. So is the self of the ship still there?

And though an effective example, this topic is not limited to just wooden ships from Ancient Greece. Passing through the hands of the likes of Socrates, Plato, and John Locke, this divisive debate has yielded variations on the same theme with patched socks, worn knives, and interchangeable parts to a carriage and remains an unresolved matter. Consider, then, Asura's Wrath , a third-person action game from CyberConnect2 and Capcom. It's a fairly straightforward piece about a demigod who, prior to being framed for killing the emperor, was in charge of managing the Department of Wrath at the Shinkoku Trastrium capitol house, but it forces the player to ask one simple and yet deeply profound question: When does a game stop being a game?

Asura's Wrath is structured much like any other videogame in that you control a character through increasingly difficult combat scenarios and story-progressing cutscenes on the way to the end of a (mostly) monomythic journey. From this alone you can discern two discrete and obvious parts to a videogame: the parts you play and the parts you don't. It's hard to tell you a story while you're focusing on sticking absurdly large swords into equally absurd and large enemies, so games traditionally take downtime to tell you a narrative and give you a break from hacking, slashing, or some combination of the two.

The inquisitive mind then might ask which part of the game came first. More astutely, you might inquire as to which half acts in service of the other. Sometimes a game's mechanics exist simply for the story and sometimes it's the other way around. In Asura's Wrath's case, it is definitely the former with rudimentary hand-to-six-arms combat and less-than-desirable Space Harrier shooting sections existing simply to bring you absolutely bonkers cutscenes and a delectably incomprehensible storyline. A rough estimate would say that for every five minutes of controllable action, there are about 25 minutes of quick time event-laden cinematics.

Some would say that this balance is not ideal. Some would say this does not make it fun. Some would say this does not make it a game.

This is a criticism leveled against most games of this ilk (where story trumps gameplay), but these are the identities of such games. Asura's Wrath was created purposefully and shaped deliberately and does what it does for a very specific reason. It exists as it does now because of each individual component coming together as a gestalt of Japanese insanity and anime non sequiturs.

The solution, so to say, is most patently obvious: Flip the balance. Imagine instead that every scene with a quick time event is gutted and replaced with a controllable action sequence. Instead of hammering on the X button to push back on the Moon-sized thumb of a Jupiter-sized god with your galaxy-sized rage, you used your fighting combos to repeatedly beat away said thumb until an arbitrary timer or health bar ran out. Does this by default make for a better game or qualify it more as a game? Perhaps more importantly, does this even result in the same game?

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