Have you ever watched two cats tussle? Or dogs play tug of war with each other? As Huizinga discusses, animals have been taking part in games long before the first man walked the earth. It then stands to reason that games have had time to develop and refine, to become a steady and symbolic part of existence. Games have now become so heavily engrained in human activity that it is sometimes hard to discern what is play and what is not. And, of course, games have also found themselves a comfortable and profitable place in today’s economically driven society. This essay will analyze a modern game in terms of its mechanics and formal elements under multiple definitions.
The video game Cave Story has built quite a name for itself. This freeware creation by solo developer Daisuke Amaya (artist alias Studio Pixel) has shown that independent and noncommercial game development is not only possible, but it has the potential to lead to great, polished, and, most importantly, fun games. Cave Story is a 2-D sidescroller action/adventure a la Metroid or Castlevania created in 2004. It stars Quote, an amnesic robot that awakens in a cave sewer and must find his way out. His soon-to-be enemy the Doctor, in all his bipedal temerity, has plotted to capture the native Mimigas of the caves in order to turn them into unstoppable killing machines. Quote must, through a mix of keen puzzle solving and simple brute force, rescue the Mimigas from the Doctor’s evil plans. This is a plot like many others and it sets up a game that plays similar many others.
But repetition does not make for a bad game. In fact, it is the repeating of a familiar formula that makes Cave Story such a successful and engaging game. Huizinga describes play as an activity that exists outside ordinary life and its seriousness, yet allows us to become completely immersed in the experience. It has sets rules and goals within the experience to allow the player guidance and to give a sense of accomplishment. In order to rip someone utterly out of reality, it is necessary to create a scenario that is out of current world we occupy. Cave Story, like so many other games before it, has built a world where you are the hero, yielding weapons, saving the helpless, defeating the evil. It establishes situations that we can allow ourselves to believe during the course of the game in order to truly play the game.
But Caillois says that Huizinga’s definition has a few critical oversights. According to Caillois, the definition is “too broad and too narrow” at the same time, allowing for many types of in depth scenarios to fall into the category of games but excluding “bets and games of chance… which, for better or worse, occupy an important part in the economy and daily life of various cultures.” He also mentions that games do not necessarily need to have definitive goals to be considered games. So, what elements of Cave Story would be considered play under this broadened definition? In other words, which aspects can you remove from the game while it still remaining just that? Cave Story is about a hero trying to save a people group. But in this game you do not need that goal to play. The world itself is so massive that simply exploring, finding new items, and destroying random enemies in your path is enough to keep a playing occupied and having fun. So, with only a few simple rules (i.e. running, jumping, shooting, collision, etc.) Cave Story still remains a game after being stripped down to adjust to a new definition.
A third definition by Suits describes a game as being an activity that an individual or individuals choose to take part in where they are pitted against arbitrary challenges and tasks. Or, in Suits’ own words; “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” This very simple yet very effective definition pulls many instances under the umbrella of play, but perhaps this is all the better, for a definition heavy with words and attached strings seem counterintuitive to what a game means to us as humans. And, like so many video games and more material games before it, Cave Story presents plenty of “unnecessary obstacles” for the player to overcome and falls into this categorization of a game. Video games are very specific instances of play, so it is not all that surprising that Cave Story or games like would meet the requirements of three separate definitions of what a game is, but analyzing its elements under these filters allows for interesting aspects of the game to stand out, and even for emergent game play to surface through the intended goals of the Amaya’s game.
Caillois, Roger. "The definition of play and the classification of games." The Game Design Reader. Ed. Salen and Zimmerman. 122-155.
Huizinga, Johan. "Nature and significance of play as a cultural phenomenon." The Game Design Reader. Ed. Salen and Zimmerman. Boston: MIT, 2006. 96-119.Suits, Bernard. "Construction of a Definition." The Game Design Reader. Ed. Salen and Zimmerman. 173-191.