In the chapter entitled “Video Games and the Classic Game Model” from Jesper Juul’s Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, Juul provides a taxonomical framework for delineating games as game, borderline games, and not games. Juul creates a definition for game as:
a rule based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable. (36)
Using Fl0w, a game developed by Jenova Chen, as a subject for analysis, I have found Juul’s definition of games to be a useful tool for seeing what pieces of visually interactive software actually can be classified as a game or something else. In order to test if Fl0w is a game, I will address each category individually to see how Fl0w squares up.
Beginning with rules, Juul says “games have to be sufficiently well defined that they can be either programmed on a computer or that players do not have to argue about them every time they play” (37). I find that Fl0w meets this criterion well enough, given that you are given a certain simulated life form, that life form has certain abilities and skills, and the enemies have clear defined ways of movement that are relatively unchanging. While your goal is not clearly defined, you naturally learn that eating objects increases your ability to complete the level; hence, you move to complete the level on impulse in order to progress the game. The rules are static: you move your character in a plane, you eat objects, and you move between levels. Fl0w satisfies this category well enough.
Second, Juul proposes that games have a variable, quantifiable outcome, saying that “the rules of the game must provide different possible outcomes” (38). Essentially, this means that games must have a variety of ending game states, or at least a ending game state that is not entirely static. Fl0w, however, does not have a variety of game states; rather, the player continues through the stages towards the boss, or they do not. The player either reaches the second character, or they close down the Flash client in boredom. Also, there is no “lose” state: all that can happen to the player is that they ascend a level and collect some life to continue the stage. In this way, Fl0w breaks from Juul’s classic game model.
Third, Juul explains that the game must have “some of the possible outcomes of the game that better than others” (40). Juul elaborates, saying that “positive outcomes are usually harder to reach than negative outcomes—this is what makes a game challenging” (40). Unfortunately, there is only one positive outcome that can come from Fl0w on PC, that being reaching the second character. The only positive outcome of Fl0w is that the player is interested long enough to play through the stages: to eat all the enemies, kill the large boss enemies, and unlock the sphere organism. This makes the game playing experience very narrow in scope, and the player knows exactly what to expect when they start the game client.
Fourth, and related to the third, Juul includes player effort as a category for a game. Juul states that “player effort is another way stating that games are challenging, or that games contain a conflict” (40). On his website, Jenova Chen explains that Fl0w utilizes an “ embedded design of active DDA (dynamic difficulty adjustment), players with differing skill levels can intuitively customize their experiences in the zone and enjoy the game at their own pace.” In my own experience playing this game, I never noticed a shred of difficulty, nor did I see where difficulty could be variably adjusted to the player’s skill level. I simply moved through the levels, eating all objects in my sight, as I moved towards the second character that I knew was ahead. Even if your character loses all its lives, you are still able to return to the stage and complete it with no trouble. This DDA seems like an interesting mechanic, but my play experience did not illuminate where it was implemented. Fl0w seemingly fails in this category as well.
Fifth, Juul adds that the “emotional attachment of the player to the outcome is a psychological feature of the game activity” (40). While there were moments near the beginning where I was exhilarated as I rushed towards large enemies, gobbling up their life cells, it quickly became repetitive and the amusement was lost. Really, the only emotion I experience as I played the game near the end of my play session was yearning for the next character, something to break up the monotony of playing through the same levels time and again. This is probably an issue exclusive to the PC, Flash iteration, as the other versions have a variety of character options.
Sixth, Juul proposes that “a game is characterized by the fact that it can optionally be assigned real-life consequences” (41). This translates to placing bets, wagers, and creating artificial, real-life consequences for what happens in the sphere of gaming. In my journal, I indicate that an artificial way of making the game more challenging would be to speed-run the game: essentially where the player plays against the clock, in order to beat out the times of previous competitors. This, however, is the only way that I could conceive a means of assigning Fl0w these negotiable consequences. In this way, I think Fl0w meets the requirement about half way.
Overall, I feel that Fl0w is in the “borderline cases” area of the classic game model chart. While it is, at one level, an interactive, digital platform where the player has to mediate between choices, there is no valorization of these choices, nor is there any rush of adrenaline after completing or level. In this way, Fl0w is an subject for Juul’s classic game model, as it falls in the liminal spaces of borderline cases, rather than on the polar ends of ‘game’ and ‘not game.’ The poorly drawn red box points to where I believe Fl0w falls in Juul’s model: