But, even when the game is very difficult, I still can still define it and stick it in a box - this is a puzzle game, that's a sports game, this one is a horror-RTS with RPG elements, and so on.
That was until this year's Gamescom and a game called Alt-Minds, a game that would turn my preconceived notions on their head. I was invited into a barren, sterile room hidden away in the back of a busy business booth. There's usually at least some amount of promotional materials, posters, visual aids or the likes, but in this cubicle there was just a table, five chairs, a computer and an iPad.
Djamil Kemal from french studio Lexis Numérique began with a lengthy description of his product: an iPad app that allowed access to a long list of information. It looked like a big news feed aggregator, something that reminded me of Google News. Shortly after, I was shown a video: the developers put it in pause, magnified it and show some details in high definition by tapping the screen to filter out the pixelation - very CSI. It's a remarkable trick, but I didn't understand the context.
For the first ten minutes, I was in the dark. I couldn't quite understand what the hell they're talking about. Is it a game? A news aggregator? An interactive novel? A tool for video editing? That there's a representative from Orange in the room as well adds to the mounting questions.
"If you have any questions, please interrupt me," Kemal says, kickstarting a flood of them, and, finally, an understanding of what Alt-Minds actually is.
The developer calls it an "interactive thriller", a definition which - intentionally - avoids the word "game". Nevertheless, there's a game in there, but it's something different from what we would expect.
Normally, the plot of a game is determined by its creator and the player: the developer decides Mario will save the princess, but the player can do so in multiple different ways (run through levels or use warp zones). In Alt-Minds, the player has no control over the plot: every day the game gives access to a new piece of story, and you have to play catch up by studying this new piece of info and use it to solve an ever-widening mystery.
Each piece of the story is told through the sending of new information, which can be done either through the appropriate app for your tablet, but also through unusual media (for the world of video games), including e-mails and SMS. Each fragment of the plot is accompanied by a question. The game is to correctly answer this question as soon as possible, in order to rank up in an online leaderboard.
The question, of course, refers to the fragment of the story that has been sent. To answer, however, the player must turn themselves into an investigator and must be able to retrieve the information in every possible way. Or, rather, with every possible medium. It is here that Alt-Minds becomes a unique game: the player, in fact, must follow some clues in the text or in its attached files (images or videos), and look for the possible answers through Google, by visiting websites, or watching Youtube videos.
The developers gave a short example, using the video scanner demoed earlier. I'm shown a short video in which there's a man - and the goal is to identify him. The developer pauses the video on a truck, and uses the HD scanner to zoom in and clean the frozen image so we can read its licence plate. The plate registration's entered into Google, and it directs us to a website talking about the same vehicle. The quest expands from there.
The developers have built a long list of fake websites in order to contribute to the success of the game. But there's a blurring of fiction and reality: in some cases, information needs to be sourced from real websites, and content created for the game can be found on credible websites.
The developer demoed a video that was filmed on university grounds and posted in that university's official forums, and showed us articles created specifically for the game on reputable news websites (including the Huffington Post).
The project seems enormous, and the players are constantly forced to wonder if what they are reading is true or it's pure fiction. Throughout the presentation we're peppered with information and then asked by the producer whether we think said information is true or false. Such as an article that explains the results of scientific research on the possibility of creating an invisibility cloak. It was clear that, after a few minutes of Alt-Minds, fact and fiction began to merge in a way that I've never seen before.
The game is also designed to be enjoyed everywhere and in every way. Tablets, mobile phones, and desktop computers allow you to follow the story in any place, and to test you skills continuously.
There's a problem, though: if I'm away for a day, how do I follow the story? The producers tell me it is possible to watch a "previously on Alt-Minds", which allows players to always understand at what point the story is at. Alt-Minds, in fact, can be followed in a completely passive way: in the (unlikely) case you don't want to play, you can simply enjoy the story by reading a new piece of it, every day.
I'm overwhelmed. My head is spinning and I feel I haven't understood everything. Alt-Minds has been a real surprise in this Gamescom, and it's certainly one of the "experimental" games that I'm willing to try. The developers told me that the game will be open to all (even to non-subscribers of Orange), and that it'll be sold in weekly episodes at around a few quid each.
The success or failure of this game, at the moment, remains a mystery. With a concept so difficult to explain, it won't be easy to conquer large portions of the public. But Alt-Minds is something so different that it can gain an important niche in a market that often risks little and repeats itself a lot.