What defines a game? That’s a question I rarely ask myself because I love nature. Who needs video games? That’s what I would say if I was the proud owner of a 1999 Subaru Outback, but the truth is, I hate nature. I hate everything about the outdoors; from the flowers and trees, to the birds and the gaggles of urine drenched homelessmen. If it weren’t for my fiancé egging me to exercise, my La-Z-Boy and I would have impressed and disgusted many Genetic Engineers these past few years. Sure, I could hold my parents accountable for my aversion to the outside world, claiming that their ignorant child-raising techniques are responsible for my flaws, but the truth is, Satoshi Tajiri is to blame.
It all started in 1998 with the release of Pokemon Red and Blue. I was young, and still hopeful about my future; ever so eager to sink my teeth in to a morsel of Japanese goodness. Not the 12 year old with pink hair kind, but rather the kind that swiped those pesky boredom filled minutes and replaced them with joyous bouts of escapism. I was stupid; I still believed sports was more than a game genre with yearly identical iterations. How could a small piece of plastic lift the banalities of my young life, easing the weight of self-consciousness and replacing the anguish with contentment and exultant adventure? I was no longer that chubby kid with buck teeth; I was on my way to becoming a Pokemon Master, something I was programmed to desire by clever marketing campaigns and compellingly cute drawings. I was the Shepard to a flock of battling animal-slaves, and it was glorious.
Pokemon was my first real introduction to the power of blissful ignorance; mental diversions I would from that point onward associate with happiness, and while many games came before and after, Pokemon was the first title I truly connected with on an emotional level. I understood that I was escaping life through that tiny, colorless screen, but that form of escapism felt very safe and controlled. I was in charge of my destiny for once; not my parents, teachers, friends or bullies; just me, that chubby kid with buck teeth. So I ask you again, what defines a game?
This month we discuss the definition of games and escapism with Matthew Ritter, creator of Boon Hill, a unique open-ended title with no objectives or clear purpose to speak of.
[Hardcore Gamer] Boon Hill clearly isn’t a traditional gaming experience. How would you define a game as a developer of such a title?
[Matthew Ritter] A game… that’s a hard one. Gaming theorists have argued about things like this for years. Comedians have claimed that there are games and sports, and that sports involve balls. Some say that a game has to have a clear winner, or even just a loser. I might argue that a game is simply something that can be ‘played’, but of course, what that means is all up to ambiguity. So, something you play. That’s what I will go with.
Do you feel that an interactive experience such as Boon Hill, one with no real objectives or goals, can be considered a true form of escapism?
Escapism is just that, escaping. To escape from ones current situation in some way. Yes, of course it can be escapism, but that isn’t a bad thing. We all need to escape once in a while from where we are and who we are and how we are. If we didn’t, we’d go insane. That’s the beautiful thing about having imaginations and a willing suspension of disbelief, it lets us for brief moments be somehow else.
In a market dominated by continually repetitive sequels, do you feel that these interactive experiences have a place on consoles or the wider-market in general?
Your question does bring up the classic conundrum: should one make something that feels a bit whitewashed, to appeal to as many people as possible, but hopefully many will like it. Or, make something very small and niche, so that it will appeal greatly to a small section of the population, but most people won’t like it or won’t understand it. The difficult tight rope that all who wish for the general public to consider and appropriate what they create must walk. As for the real question’s answer, a place, sure. Though, I doubt it’ll ever have a huge place. Its a small intimate game with a very specific idea and emotional impact attempting to be portrayed. Some might consider it pretentious, artsy, boring, and in many ways they would be right. It isn’t that I don’t think games like this one shouldn’t be experienced by as many people as possible, I just understand that it is not for everyone. If someone did not think they were going to get much out of it after hearing about it, I would not try to force it upon them. I don’t think it’ll take the world by storm and change the way storytelling is done. Hopefully, those that end up wanting to experience it will, and they won’t be disappointed. That is at the end of it all the best I can hope for. It is perhaps the best outcome of any work. To give it to those that want it, and have it found satisfactory. The game is of course made for humanity at large. I just don’t think it’s what most people are looking for.
How would you describe Boon Hill to a hardcore gamer that primarily enjoys massive worlds, or cinematic experiences?
Ever wanted to be that super creepy goth kid that likes hanging out in graveyards? No? Well, you can! Here’s how! Play this game when it is done! Seriously, I’m not even sure. Tell them about the game? How it’s about the narrative experience of epitaphs and reading about the way people’s lives can interweave through each others and the way not knowing can lead to interesting places for the mind to explore. Its a game with no real goal, more of a place to exist in, explore, and just be.
Do you believe the human imagination can rival such cinematic experiences through titles such as Boon Hill, Journey, Flower, etc.?
Of course, the human mind is the only way we can experience the world. We are each insular creatures trapped in our own brains. The imagination is a part of that mind, and so any experience we can have can at least be simulated, and so many more we’ll never have, by our imaginations. For some people the ASCII graphics of an old school rouge like become a symbolic array of dragons and caves. I myself, actually prefer pen and paper role playing, to video games. Sitting around a table, just describing stuff to one another, using dice for random number generators, that kind of stuff. Shooting people in the face is nice too. I personally just like the real freedom something like pen and paper role playing gives. where I can set up any adventure I want, I don’t have to play other people’s pre-packaged adventures… though some of those are super sweet. Shooting people in the face, blowing stuff up, puzzle games, etc.
At its core, would you consider Boon Hill the ultimate escapist game due to its lack of rules or formative restrictions?
I’d say the ultimate escapist game would be something with a bit more interactivity. Something like Minecraft where you can imprint yourself so fully because of how customizable everything is. MMOs where you can create whole other lives and worlds. Boon Hill is escapism sure, but I don’t think it comes near to many of the ultimates. Though, each person’s ultimate escapism is different.
What was the inspiration behind such a unique premise?
A book called Spoon River Anthology. It’s a great book I think. It’s a collection of poetry written as if poetry from beyond the grave. It was very moving to me. I thought about the way that might be done as a game. Though its changed some, as the dead in my game don’t get nearly as direct. I originally thought about how to make the game more traditional, such as having a treasure hunt in the graveyard, but I decided to just go full artsy. A lot more people seemed interested in the idea than I originally planned. So that’s good! I strive to not let them down.
According to Matthew, “the team is working hard on the game, and we’re amazed at the support we’ve already gotten, and of course, we’d love more. The Kickstarter Tiers are still able to be acquired through donating with PayPal in August on the official Boon Hill webpage.”