Back at the start of the summer, I hosted a week long symposium on play specifications, exploring different people's perspectives on nouns and verbs in the context of games. (I'm thinking of hosting another symposium in the Autumn, but still haven't chosen a suitable topic).
I've been internally digesting some of the discussions we had during the symposium since then, and one particular point has stuck with me. Jose Zagal raised this point in connection with first person shooter games:
[This] is a bit of rant I've had brewing since hearing Chris Crawford talk a few years ago, there is usually a lot of talk about how "weak" games are in terms of "verbs". I tend to agree on one level, and disagree on another. Chris Crawford describes first-person shooter games as games where you move, aim and fire. If he's feeling generous...add jump. It's a valid critique, but I think that he misses the point...
Jose goes on to suggest that these games should be understood in terms of the verbs that emerge from the gameplay, and this is certainly one approach. But the reason this point has stuck with me is precisely the opposite:
Why should a lack of verbs be a criticism of a game?
If one is working in a narrative context, then a lack of verbs may reflect a lack of agency, but for play in general one needs only move and an action verb to constitute play. Consider Tetris (move and rotate), Res (move and shoot) or even Katamari Damacy (just roll, essentially!) The number of verbs is not an adequate measure of the play of a game. Play with Fire was intentionally built on a design with minimal verbs - move, jump and burn - but the play of the game does not suffer from it.
We can even scale back to single verbs. Building a sandcastle is engaging despite only being based upon one action - building with sand - and a hedge maze is entertaining even though it is solved solely by movement (and thinking, but internal thought processes are an entirely seperate issue to the actions taken). The idea that a multitude of verbs are a requirement for engaging play appears to be entirely erroneous.
I have not yet heard Chris Crawford talk, so I don't know if this second hand account accurately captures his position, but as far as I can ascertain there is no reason that one should judge a game deficit on the basis of a small number of verbs.