A little while ago I wrote an article about Starseed Pilgrim, which sadly isn't archived anywhere on the Internet any longer, except in note form. Many of the points I made there seem to apply to Hohokum, and so I've wrestled my notes into a form where I can talk about that game instead.
When Hohokum begins, it tells you very little. You even discover for yourself that you've taken control, by a cautious wiggle of the thumbsticks. And from the start, it's not even obvious that there is a goal, beyond playful exploration. It's unclear what, if anything, constitutes a 'fail' state; it's unclear what 'success' looks like. All there are are a number of questions arising from pure playfulness: what exactly does brushing against this thing do? Why did that just happen? What's that thing over there?
Answering those and other questions becomes the driving motivation for the start of the game. And that's interesting.
Many have argued that in order for something to be called a game, it needs to have rules and win conditions. Some say that other things are needed too, but I just want to take a basic set of criteria, for now. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, I agreed rules and win conditions are necessary.
Now, a thought experiment. Given my criteria, then I could be playing Hohokum for a quite some time before discovering whether it's a game or not. That seems strange.
It'd be like Schrödinger's Game. For some time, I'm just playing, and I might be playing towards a win condition or not, with no way of really telling which is which (and not even necessarily caring). Until the waveform collapses into one of the possibilities, I'm playing both game and notgame.
But here's the thing: in both versions of reality, I played the thing for a while, and until discovering whether there are indeed win conditions or not, the experience was surely indistinguishable. That being the case, I have to wonder - why are win conditions part of my criteria?
Clearly the criteria are no good if I can play something for a deal of time and still be none the wiser whether it's a game or not. Surely, it would be simpler to acknowledge that I always experienced this as a game, even before I discovered or failed to discover anything like a win condition. That it wasn't Schroedinger's game at all, but simply a game with some unknown parameters.
Once you acknowlege that, it's easy to question other criteria, or whether any strict criteria (as opposed to what Wittgenstein would refer to as looser 'family resemblances') are useful at all. Because it seems that the natural ebb and flow of language, and our ever-evolving understanding of a changing medium has no time for these criteria. They're impotent border guards, while everything's getting through nothing-to-declare.