It’s been a crazy stressful couple of weeks, and as a result the only big game I’ve really had time to play has been Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and even then I’m only a few hours in. I don’t have any controversial opinions on it yet! So this week I’m going to focus on something different.
In between the horrible coughs wracking my lungs and the awkward introductions at last-minute family gatherings, I spent what little free time I had this week looking around itch.io. I didn’t expect to spend so much time on the gaming storefront, but I’d clicked on an ad for a charming hand-animated game called Later Alligator, and while I knew I’d have no time to buy and play through the game, I figured I had time to spare to add at least a few other games to my to-do list. It’s the responsible thing to do, as a bona fide Gaming Columnist, right? It’s not “avoiding responsibility” if it counts as research.
Anyways, I made an itch.io account and clicked around some of the site’s recommended games, expecting to see the same slew of survival games and MMORPGs you’d find on the Steam store. What I didn’t realize is that while Steam is like the Kindle Store, itch.io is more like Wattpad. Anyone can upload any little game they dream up, even if they only take one minute to beat — and there’s a surprising number of free tools available to do so. With Bitsy, people make little walking simulators and adventure games. With Twine, you can make text-based adventures and plan out dialogue trees with multiple branches. Flicksy has produced a number of colorful point-and-click games. Anyone can make a little game in just a day, and the site encourages its users to do so through “game jams,” little contests and groups hosted on itch.io where members commit to making a themed game in a short period of time.
Any fledgling game dev will tell you that making a full-fledged game, even a short one, is a long and arduous process. Developing and coding new and innovative gameplay mechanics is no easy feat. As a result, itch.io is filled with little games with very few mechanics and limited gameplay, often using the same free and browser-based tools. So what’s the point, then, if all of the game mechanics are the same, often taking the form of text-based adventures, point-and-click, and walking simulators? The answer is narrative.
I’ve never seen so many little narrative games as I saw on the itch.io store. In one game, I explored the cars of a train, talking to passengers about their homes while watching the landscape go by — and that was it! The game was over. In another, I watched as my player-character futilely radioed for help, stuck in a rain-battered house for weeks on end, slowly losing hope — and that was it. A third game was simply a poem, told by two 8×8 pixel avatars walking down monochromatic train tracks.
These aren’t the types of games we learned how to make in school, where the rule was very much “mechanics first, narrative later.” I remember hearing once a student proudly remark that he didn’t consider something a real game, it had too much narrative, not enough gameplay. Well, if that’s true, what have I been playing? These little stories that people have been uploading on itch.io … can I still call them games? Or do I have to use the painful term “interactive art?” Can something be art and a video game at the same time? Where’s the line?
I’m not the first person to be thrust into an existential crisis over the place of narrative in gaming. I see these comments a lot, even a few among the comments of Steam games. If a game’s main mechanic is simply walking through an environment, it’s called a “walking simulator,” a term often spoken with contempt. “Visual novels” are somehow apart from the rest of the gaming world, dismissed and lumped in with dating simulators the same way an avid bookworm might dismiss a trashy romance novel. No matter how engrossing the story, if the gameplay is lacking, it’s derided — after all, why not just make the story a book? If you make the choice to write a play instead of a book, you should have a reason to do so, something you can only express through theatre — and shouldn’t games be the same way?
Yes, but I’d also argue that most of these games, seemingly lacking in gameplay, do have a reason to exist in the form that they do. In every micro-game I played, I felt like I was driving the action, exploring the little worlds painstakingly crafted for me. It added a level of immersion, to be able to explore an art piece rather than simply view or read it. And many of these games, especially the text-based ones made in Twine or Ink, provide the most important part of a video game: choice. If players can choose how to interact with the virtual world, even by choosing not to proceed with a narrative and to linger in one area, I say it’s a game.
I was so glad to learn that a community like itch.io’s exists, where people feverishly create narrative games with the fervor of a teenager writing fanfiction for the first time. As the commercial game industry gets larger and more focus is pivoted to profiting off of premium-currency mobile games and aggravating loot boxes, it’s nice to see a population of devs focusing on art and narrative, especially as a creative writer and designer who’s more comfortable in CSS than C#. And this narrative boom isn’t exclusive to amateurish micro-games — I’ve seen so many beautiful and narrative-heavy indie games come out in the last year alone, and I’m excited to add them to my list— if ever I have the time to play them.
Olivia Bono is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On the Level runs alternating Tuesdays this semester.