Tale of Tales, the Belgian couple behind experimental games like Endless Forest, The Graveyard, The Path and now Bientôt l'été, are known for their artistic, dreamlike games. In August 2011, they helped curate a small exhibition accompanying the Cologne Games Lab. The show included games experiments like Dear Esther, Kairo, Trauma as well as Amnesia and Tale of Tales' own titles and offered a unique glimpse into a creative games underground.
The motto and title of the exhibition, and of the games shown in it, was "notgames". And that's a problem.
"notgames" is a concept put forward by Tale of Tales’ Michaël Samyn in 2010. notgames.org was meant "as a gathering place for developers who wish to explore the potential of videogames as a creative medium, beyond the confines of conventional game design". The sites' tagline reads:
"This is an exploration of what’s moving and enchanting and fascinating in software applications, videogames and procedural arts, beyond the amusement offered by obeying rules and receiving rewards."
The term "notgames" robs the whole medium of its avantgarde.
It's an understandable notion: Games, in their audience's minds as well as in those of the general public, are entertainment first and foremost. Their most important goal is in offering "fun" to their players, and the mainstream's triple-A titles go to great lengths to provide that "fun" by creating enjoyable challenges, in recent years more and more often by opening up to casual gamers, by removing barriers, by concentrating on the tried and true formulas known to work and rake in the dollars.
By coining a definition like "notgames", Tale of Tales - and many likeminded games creators - distanced themselves from this commercial, mainstream world of games as pure entertainment products. The games collected in the exhibition are different, that's for sure: They concentrate on atmosphere, explore new areas in narration and gameplay and experiment with aesthetics rarely used in the rest of the medium.
But - and that's the reason for my rejection of the term - by claiming that these games, these bold experiments, are by their very definition not part of the medium games anymore, the proponents of the term "notgames" rob their whole medium of its avantgarde and effectively turn their backs in resignation. That's a strange and premature surrender, given that the medium itself is young and in constant transformation, and, even worse, it doesn't help in changing gaming's struggle with adolescence.
It's easy to see where this resignation came from. Mainstream gamers and their notoriously vocal trolling community must surely have dismissed many of the games on the "notgames" list as just that: not games. No achievements, no multiplayer, no thrilling escapism and, most importantly, no "fun", that basic ingredient all mainstream gamers feel entitled to in their games. If these people can't be convinced to reconsider their set notions of what a game is allowed to be like, why not just defiantly accept their ignorance and stick with their judgment?
Of course, there's another, completely different crowd involved in the self-inflicted exclusion of "notgames" from games in general, and it's safe to say that their opinions mattered just as much in this regard: The art crowd - traditional and multimedia artists, art critics, academics, curators and art lovers - is still notoriously unconvinced of gaming's potential to even be art, even if the MoMA's recent inclusion of games into its collection should remedy some of that. By ostentatiously excluding themselves from games, "notgames'" creators can claim a respectable distance to a medium that's generally perceived as inferior to most respected arts.
It's a route that's completely opposed to other great experimental artists' approach to the exact same dilemma.
So there's the two frontlines that experimental gamesmakers like Tale of Tales face: On the one hand, a mainstream audience familiar with the medium, but unconvinced of or unprepared to cope with these experiments' merits; and an art crowd, unfamiliar with and sceptical of gaming but charmed by this "new" way of making interactive art.
Of course, it's both these crowds that are addressed by calling these experimental, lovely games "notgames". Unfortunately, it's also a slightly cowardly route to take, and in addition: It's a route that's completely opposed to other great experimental artists' approach to the exact same dilemma, who realized that inclusion, not exclusion, was the way to go forward.
When John Cage confronted his audience with four and a half minutes of silence in his seminal piece "4.33", he boldly challenged his contemporaries' idea of music as a whole. Of course he didn't claim to be making "notmusic"; it was the very inclusion of this experiment into contemporary music that made an impact.
When Marcel Duchamp insisted that his famous sculpture "Fountain" - a porcelain urinal hung upside down and signed with a mock name - be included in an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, he helped in revolutionizing modern art and art theory.
When James Joyce and William Burroughs, both experimental authors of exquisite boldness, published their revolutionary work, they matter-of-factly insisted that their works were "novels", i.e. within the limits of literature, even though their work revolutionized and cannibalized most of the novels that had come before.
The titles collected under the term "notgames" are not "notgames". They are games.
The list goes on. Experimental artists in every field were constantly challenged by conservative nay-sayers claiming that this or that piece of experimental art is "not music", "not art", "not literature"; by self-confidently claiming their spaces inside of their respective media, these artists helped expand the boundaries of their art and of art as a whole.
In all of these cases, the creators defended their works' obvious right to be part of their media, to be included, no matter how experimental their approach. By using the term "notgames" for an experimental avantgarde, the rest of games is automatically judged and damned to artistic stagnation. I don't want that.
To be clear: I am in no way questioning these "notgames'" relevance, but an unfortunate, defensive and resignative terminology. The titles collected under the term "notgames" are not "notgames". They are games. I'd even say they are among the most important games, games that expand our understanding of what games can be, of what might be in store for gaming as an art and as an entertainment.
Games evolve, and that's why they desperately need "notgames" to be games, as part of a rich and varied medium. It's time to come out of the defense.
Other Englsih articles on VGT can be found here.