In the early days of gaming, not much thought was given to what was or wasn't a game. Some games required a special controller while others revolved around text commands, but it didn't matter how they were played. People just enjoyed them.
These days, things aren't so simple. Gaming is bigger than ever, and the gaming world has gotten a lot more complicated. Games are categorized as "casual" or "hardcore", as are the people who play them. Titles like The Fullbright Company's Gone Home are lauded as game of the year by some, while others don't see them as games at all.
It's easy to see why Gone Home's game designation is so shaky. While it plays similarly to classic point and click adventures, it doesn't give you puzzles to solve or obstacles to overcome. There's no way to lose, and beating the game doesn't really feel like a win. You just walk through an empty house, look at things, and walk around some more.
Fullbright refers to their title as a "story exploration" game, which is a fair summation of the Gone Home experience. Many have described the title as a visual novel, but it's less about reading and more about investigating the titular home. As you examine the letters, music, and books the home's residents have left behind, you piece together their stories. There's a narrator to fill in some of the blanks, but several of the game's tales are woven through objects alone.
It's hard not to see parallels between Gone Home and Dear Esther, which was released to similar acclaim in 2012. Dear Esther asks even less from players than Gone Home does. There are no objects to interact with and no locked doors to open. At its core, it's a walking simulator, albeit an incredibly atmospheric one. Without the narrator, there's no story to Dear Esther at all. It's simply you walking through various beautiful locations.
Still, although the gameplay in both titles is extremely limited, it's hard not to see playing them as an essential part of the experience. Gone Home's story is simple, but the way it's told is masterful. A few lines on a crumpled of piece of notebook paper manage to say more than paragraphs worth of story. In many ways, it would be stronger if it scrapped the narration entirely. There's something very special about getting to know a cast of characters through the things they've left behind. It's a method of storytelling that doesn't suit any other medium.
It's easier to picture Dear Esther as a short film or a gripping piece of metafiction, but traveling through the world yourself makes it uniquely engrossing. Even though things will end the same way every time, you can discover something new each time you play. There are new locations to find, more narrations to unlock, and oddities to uncover. Merely walking in a different direction can make one playthrough of Dear Esther feel fundamentally different than the last.
That extra layer of interaction is what defines games. No matter how stunning they might look, movies can't actually make us fight monsters. The most exquisitely written stories can't give us the chance to explore a strange world on our own. Even when all a game asks us to do is walk from one place to the next, they're asking us to play a role in the story that no other medium could.
For many, that won't be enough. They'll need their games to have controls beyond WASD, and challenges beyond figuring out which way to go next. Gone Home, Dear Esther, and similar titles will never be games to them, and that's fine. There's something about these titles that allows me and many others to think of them as games, and ultimately, that's enough. Exploration games will never be games to everyone, but they'll always be games to someone.