Maya at Very Very Gaming made a post about Braid recently. But let’s forget about Braid for a second. I certainly do. In it, Maya points out the mentality some take that for a game to take the form of High Art and deliver all the EMOTIONS! and ATMOSPHERE! and FEELINGS! that so many developers, players, and supersexy games bloggers are looking for, they shouldn’t be fun. The games as art discussion has been around the interbutts for a good long while, and this is not a new idea. I’ve seen it said plenty of times by plenty of people who don’t know what they’re talking about, that a game’s nature as a game precludes it from delivering all the things art is supposed to.
There are good arguments against the ‘games as art’ idea. This one isn’t one of them. The thought that something should be an ‘interactive experience’ rather than a ‘video game’ to deliver the artsy stuff is just as much complete bullhonky as all the ‘art is not interactive!’ arguments out there. Maya hit it right on the head that ‘games can be both enjoyable AND deep and meaningful.’
That’s like two paragraphs to get me to the actual point of this post, but that phrase there got me thinking. Nearly all video games out there are intended to be fun. Some aren’t. Like Braid. And a few other games I’ll be talking about here. So, does a video game have to be fun to be worth playing?
I know, I know, it’s tempting to get into the traditional definition of ‘game’ here, but honestly, the medium of video games has grown beyond that. Video games as we have them know have grown to include as much a variety of styles and experiences as most any other medium. Yeah, it’s plenty immature compared to most other types of creative works, but that doesn’t really mean anything as it pertains to the medium’s potential.
And yeah, the vast majority of games are meant to be fun. And that’s a good thing. Even for the lofty, complicated, and plot-based game. Red Metal had made a very good point recently that Papers, Please and Undertale were big, deep, thoughtful experiences, but they did a lot better at delivering the lofty ideals behind them because they are fun. And there’s good reason for that. Being entertained by something drives engagement, and through that, makes you more open to exploring the more conceptual aspects the game’s trying to deliver, and, even just working on a subconscious level, opens the door for the more intangible aspects of a game to get ingrained in you. People have been using games as learning experiences for at least as long as I’ve been alive, and it runs off of the same concept. Entertainment leads us to internalize things, and that’s where a lot of these game stories really thrive.
I’ve had plenty of these ‘deep’ experiences that never gained root with me because I just never enjoyed the experience enough to really get into it. Braid’s a great example of that. The developer put a lot of thought into the story, but I didn’t have a good time with the gameplay, so I just didn’t bother with that. The Path is another strong example there. That’s one of the earliest ‘art games’ I came across. And it’s clear the developers wanted it to be a deep, thoughtful experience. Basically, to illustrate that game, you’re one of six versions of Little Red Riding Hood, set to go to Grandma’s house. If you just follow the path there, you get there safely and uneventfully, and the game ends without anything happening. If you leave the path, you actually explore the forest, come across your metaphorical wolf, have a bad time, then make it to grandma’s house with your life a little more ruined. It’s all wrapped up in themes of childhood, and growing up, and moving through bad life experiences, and is the kind of thing that’s really interesting on paper. In practice, though, it’s a really weak experience, and that’s largely because the gameplay aspects of it are absolutely worthless, only there as filler for the few brief moments of the game where they are delivering something, bringing you neither fun nor any real experience in the interim. And that it the weakness that absolutely ruins The Path. If the gameplay parts of it had some actual gameplay, you may have been able to use that to bring more experience and reinforce the themes and moments they were actually going for there.
Fun is important. Even when a game is more about the plot than the fun factor, having that entertainment there goes a long way towards carrying the rest of it through.
And yet. And yet. Always an and yet. Let’s think back to the games that were all the rage before I started realizing how much I love the sound of my own voice and stopped listening to everyone else. You remember how big everyone was going on about Spec Ops: The Line? That game was a big emotional tour de force, that I didn’t really like, but that was more due to the content itself rather than its delivery. Plenty of people loved it. And its message wasn’t really harmed by its lame gameplay. In fact, many said it was enhanced by the poor shootbanging.
You remember before the Telltale formula became the Telltale formula, before all the best writers bailed off the ship, and the Walking Dead, Season 1 came out and blew everybody’s minds? There is not a single part of that game that is actually ‘fun’. Yet it was still the storytelling experience of the year in games.
For that matter, think back to any horror game you particularly liked. Not action horror, because that’s going for a completely different feel, but good old classic survival horror, or spook horror, or just plain scary scary game. Chances are, if it left that impression on you, it was never fun. Video games do horror very, very well, possibly better than any other medium, but horror games are very rarely fun. And that’s deliberate. Horror video games are geared towards delivering a very specific feeling and experience. And fun would interfere with that. Scary video games don’t deliver the rollercoaster type scariness where you can mix that with the fun, video games, and most other spooky artistic mediums, reach into your brain and twist the mental fear out of it. They get your mind working against itself. If your mind is having fun, it won’t be able to settle on the fear. Fun would be a complete distraction, a big mood killer, in this experience.
For that matter, I brought up exactly this point when I was talking about my adventures with Zelda II. I played the game. I beat the game. I was so fulfilled by that. Yet I never, ever had fun with it. I had some similar experiences with Dark Souls. You all watched me repeatedly wear my well-built rear end as a hat in fighting against the likes of Manus, Artorias, Ornstein and Smough, et al. Overall, I did have fun with Dark Souls, but that fun didn’t come from running up against the same challenges and failing over and over again. And even so, I still felt fulfilled by overcoming the challenge, although the time I spent doing that was not traditionally ‘fun’.
So where does the line fall? What makes the Walking Dead, Season 1 a good experience, and the Path not?
I think it’s a pretty simple dichotomy. The games that aren’t fun, but still make it work replace the fun with something else. The likes of the Path and, as Maya pointed out, Braid, do not. Dark Souls fills the unfun parts of it with a lot of opportunity for that oh-so-satisfying personal skill growth. Walking Dead used the unfun gameplay bits to keep the plot moving forward. They get use out of the gameplay. Games that screw up the fun and end up the worse for it don’t gain from their gameplay sections, by and large. They end up as mostly movies making you wonder why they were even released at all. Games that aren’t fun but are still good experiences are those that still use the interactivity to deliver something to the player in service of whatever experience they’re going for.
Does this make these games worthwhile experiences, however? To be honest, as wise and charming and always right as I am, that is completely up to you. You’re the one charged with making the most of your time, and if what you’re looking for is something fun, nobody can hold that against you. Usually, when I pull out the controller, that’s what I’m looking for. But I’ve had plenty of great times, and have grown my sphere a bit, playing through games that aren’t traditionally fun.