Sorry I haven't responded to this for a few days. But don't think I don't have more to say on the matter! I enjoy a good debate. And so, here we go.
First of all, you do have an in-game choice: you can choose whether or not to actually kill the guy, which gives you two possible endings. Now I'm not going to pretend like this is an Earth-shattering design element, but I think the overarching question here is, "Would this work as well, if not better, in a different medium?"
I'm not sure why that should be the overarching question - the point we are disagreeing on is whether this not-game is "good", by which I mean "effective". I say that it lacks enough design to provide the desired effect. It would NOT work as well in another medium, but I think that's besides the point.
You mentioned that all you felt was "informed" after playing, but if this had been a Power Point presentation, or a lecture, would your experience have been the same? (Side note: the music has a lot to do with why this game strikes a chord with me, so if you don't like SIgur Ros then yeah, I can see why you're not enthralled). At least for me, the answer is no.
No, the experience would not have been the same. But it would have been quicker. I'm not sure why I had to walk for 5 minutes to the beach with absolutely nothing happening besides a change of scenery. It set the scene, certainly, but that time could have been better used, for instance by implicating me more in the role of this lieutenant using elements of ludo, that is, gameplay design. Boring me with a scenery crawl went a long way towards making me dislike the experience. My frustration manifested in a fast trigger finger during the end sequence, which skews the element of choice somewhat.
If the only meaningful part of this game comes at the end in the form of a binary choice, then why not cut straight to it? What is the purpose of the scenery crawl?
The whole point of these "not-games" as you call them is not, in my opinion, to avoid having to design a good game. Incidentally, many of this guy's games were made at Ludum Dare, which has always been about "proof-of-concept" rather than "fully implemented game design."
Firstly, the term "not-game" is not mine. I took that from the website you directed me to. The author himself described "The Killer" as a not-game. It's a term which tends to be used by developers of avant-garde minimalist games, in order to take emphasis off the "entertainment" side of videogames and put it on the "artistic" side of them. I neither approve nor disapprove of the term "not-game". I used it only because the game's author did.
I think that these smaller games can tell us a lot about what gaming as a whole is capable of - that they can provide an incredibly close and focused perspective on what it means to be a GAME, as opposed to a FILM or a NOVEL. Your concept (or Clint's concept, I forget which) of ludo-narrative resonance is fascinating, and while it puts many of my own gaming experiences in perspective, it is still very broad and (as you point out yourself) rather vague.
The idea of ludo-narrative resonance was mine, not Hocking's, and you're right, it is very vague at the moment. I hope to enhance it via debates such as these, and future essays.
I'll reiterate that my problem with this game is not that it is a game, but simply that it doesn't embrace "what it means to be a GAME" as much as it could. You referenced Ludum Dare, which is great, but the best Ludum Dare winners are much better designed than this game. For instance consider Beacon, which won a few years back. There was a game which was fully interactive, never boring, and yet which carried its themes of abandonment, trust, protection or whatever else through the ludo and the narrative. It was engaging, exciting, and most importantly it used the rules of the game - the ludo - to enforce what the narrative was telling us. And it lasted precisely as long as "The Killer" did. THAT was a game which showed us what gaming is capable of.
All the Killer does is ask us to hold the spacebar for no reason while the scenery moves past, and at the end offers a choice, apropos of nothing, to either kill someone or not kill someone. I don't believe that is the essence of good game design. It is so minimalist that it's empty.
Ask any film director (I should know this, I'm in film school) and they'll tell you that short films are the hardest to make, because the scope is so reduced that literally every frame of film counts. When people tell you how Ernest Hemingway once wrote a story using only 6 words - "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." - they expect you to be impressed. And you should be. Just as narrative is more than the meaning of each individual word, so gameplay is more than the effect of each individual design element. Ludo-narrative, in short, is more than just the sum of its parts - or at least it should be.
I also went to film school, and take no issue with the point you make here. Yes, minimalism is one of the hardest and most rewarding challenges an author can take on. But you said it yourself - "literally every frame of film counts". I believe 'Beacon' used every frame of gameplay to further its themes. But 'The Killer'? From the moment you consent at the beginning to press down the spacebar, to the moment at the end where pressing spacebar is no longer required, nothing actually happens. Some suggestions are made as to where you might be going, and if you let go the character stops, but this is not interaction. It is a cutscene which only plays when you hold down the spacebar. It is not interesting, and it performs no function. And most importantly, it wastes time.
And that's where I see games like The Killer or Dear Esther coming in. Short narrative? Yep. Easily implemented game design? You bet. Yet the experience of playing Dear Esther for the first time is so special. Of course, one cannot forget that this is all entirely subjective, and I know loads of people who didn't even make it through Dear Esther, they were so bored. Still, I will return to the fundamental question: what is it about these that make them games? And not novels, or films?
Interactivity is what separates them in my opinion. But again, I don't think that this is the "fundamental question". We disagree on whether The Killer is worthwhile, not on what makes games "games".
Dear Esther does not waste the player's time. Both games feature slowly moving scenery up to the end, but Dear Esther's scenery crawl is directed by the player. It is up to them which direction they go, which nooks to explore, how long to watch the tide come in for, and so on. The player is always in control of the character, even if that character moves slowly and can't jump. The same can't be said of The Killer.
Let me put this another way. What separates film from other mediums? What makes a film a film, and not a play, or a series of photographs? Is it the effortless and attractive nature of the camera? The ever-changing sets and costumes? The rapid and continuous process of editing? This is not about medium specificity, but rather about learning what it is that our medium does better than any other so that we can continue doing it and improving upon it.
Interactivity is what separates gaming from other mediums. It's the only aspect that other mediums don't have. So when games like The Killer reduce that interactivity to the point of non-existence (i.e. press the spacebar or don't) I feel that it is doing the opposite of what you are arguing that it does. I believe The Killer is rejecting the thing that makes games special.
And we haven't even begun to talk about games that actually create ludo-narrative resonance. I mean real games, awesome games, like Shadow of the Colossus, like Bastion, yes, even like Half-Life 2. Remember, Half-Life 2 (and the original to some extent) present you with a completely believable, meticulously thought-out universe without relying on cutscenes.
You're right, there's still loads to be said. Many essays to be written. All of those games are worthy of analysis. I have some grumblings about Half Life 2 and its supposedly cut-scene free world, but they're totally off topic here.
In any case, I think we do agree on almost every point save for one - I don't think The Killer is a prime or even decent example of what "not-games" can do. I think it uses a high-impact emotional message about auto-genocide to hide lazy game design. I think it could have used my 5 minutes more effectively.
But I don't disagree on the importance of minimalist games. Games like Passage or the later Gravity, or indeed Dear Esther or The Path are all games which are slow and tedious but are worthwhile because of it, which appear to frustrate but must do so in order to make their point. The Killer, on the other hand, frustrates and bores for no good reason.