I happened upon a blog post this morning that suggests Perplex City isn't a game, because it isn't interactive. This is based on a pretty famous essay that Greg Costikyan of Manifesto Games wrote way back in 1994.
Putting aside the question of whether one should accept the tenets laid out in that essay, a subject for another debate entirely, I've wondered myself whether Perplex City (and ARGs in general) would qualify as games under that set of criteria. As I'm faced with someone who says no, I'm inclined toward a resounding 'yes,' and here's why:
- Perplex City is not just a puzzle. Saying that Perplex City isn't interactive is like saying Starbucks doesn't have coffee, and I am assuming the original blogger who suggested this simply isn't familiar with the deeper structure of the game. Sure, it's possible to participate on a puzzles-only level, but that ignores a dynamic and very significant part of the intended play experience. Perplex City has demanded role-playing via phone, IM and email -- even in person. There is a whole world to explore, and players can affect that world in ways large and small: writing columns and letters for the city newspaper, tattling to the authorities about a character's indiscretions (or, in many cases, not doing so!), or even saving the life of a suicidal character. If you ask someone in Perplex City what her favorite color is, she might tell you. You can't get that depth of interaction from the Master Chief in Halo.
Indeed, this kind of game is far more interactive than your run-of-the-mill video game; rather than being limited to a handful of pre-programmed decisions, the players can choose any course of action they can dream up. It's very common for mid-stream rewrites to happen in an ARG, which allow the designers to react effectively to an unanticipated decision on the part of the players. No matter how much you might want to, though, you can't convince Street Fighter II's Ryu and Ken to go out for a beer together.
- Perplex City is not just a toy. In Perplex City, there are objectives large and small, set both internally and externally. The large objective, the victory condition, if you will, is to find the missing Receda Cube. But other interim goals have ranged from finding a scroll in a wacky multi-player interactive fiction game, all the way to writing an entire collaborative book to help a character gain access to reference materials.
- Perplex City is not just a story. This one is perhaps the trickiest point, because I do feel that in some ways, game design as an art form is about telling stories. Still, suggesting that Perplex City is simply a linear story with no decision points on the part of the players is ridiculous for the same reasons as suggesting it's not interactive. Players have ample decision points, and take advantage of them. Sometimes they make the wrong decisions, too, or don't make the right ones in time, with meaningful consequences for the rest of the game.
- Perplex City demands participation. While it's possible to sit back and watch events unfold in Perplex City, as with other ARGs, it's also possible to sit back and watch someone else play Mortal Kombat. That doesn't qualify you as a player. If you aren't trying to work out passwords and writing persuasive emails, you probably aren't getting the fullest enjoyment out of the game, and you certainly aren't getting the play experience we as designers intend for you. Or, to put it another way: You're not going to witness a daring escape in a black helicopter by staying at home.
I can go on a little more about the traits that do make up a game, according to these rules; but Perplex City has 'em in spades. Opposition? Check. Resources? Check. Tokens? Check. And so, Mr. Shocho, I humbly suggest you reconsider Perplex City's status as a game, and I'd like to invite you to jump down the rabbit hole into a much deeper, more compelling game experience.