Looking for a Good Time?

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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13 responses to “Looking for a Good Time?

  1. I played through that white phosphorus level in Spec Ops: The Line. Number of regrets: zero. It’s just as well considering the game doesn’t offer a meaningful alternative to this heinous action. If you try taking on the army without using the mortar, you have no hope of winning. So the only winning move is not to play. Why did they bother selling this game again?

    I don’t think playing through these artsy games provides the same emotional high I felt when I managed to beat Ornstein and Smough on my first try in Dark Souls. The AAA approach of turning games into films and the stereotypical indie approach of pursuing some nebulous high art standard aren’t so different at the end of the day. Both methods seem to be born from a resignation that in their current form, games can never be art and that the concept of amusement is holding it back. As an aside, I’m kind of amazed because it seems like there are lifelong gaming fans who seem to buy into it as well. I even remember one somewhat prominent reviewer referring them to as toys, which, to me, doesn’t show much respect for the medium or the creators. Ironically, I’d say what’s holding the medium back from pursuing more interesting avenues of storytelling is that very pursuit of high art. That’s why I think highly of games like Papers, Please and Undertale; they embrace the conventions of the medium while games such as Spec Ops: The Line and The Path do whatever they can to divorce themselves from them, and they’re almost always unenjoyable because of that. Luckily, I think most of those artsy gaming tropes are starting to run their course, and it’s a reason I finally started checking out indie titles.

    • Spec Ops is trying to make some points. I could see them having success at that, if they weren’t trying to target them at the player for doing things they had no choice but to do. Make it about the character rather than the player, or give the player the choice, and it would have worked. Undertale totally called the player out for acting evil, but it worked there, because that was by choice rather than developer fiat.

      But I think we’ve already talked about both of those before.

      The problem with the ‘this can’t be fun and still be art’ idea, or really a huge amount of the games as art discussion, is that it really hangs itself on the nebulous act of defining what ‘art’ really is. And not only does ‘art’ mean different things to different people, but the boundaries of what ‘art’ is are constantly changing, to the point where defining it is a pretty impractical exercise. And then when you define all the rules for what ‘art’ is supposed to be and then try and develop a game with the idea of it being ‘art’… well, I can almost guarantee the developers of Papers, Please and Undertale were never concerned with making sure their games were considered art, focusing instead on the experience they wanted to deliver, and they were naturally a lot better at delivering the artistic ideals because of it.

      • That really is the problem, and it’s a classic example of the writers trying to have their cake and eat it too. A lot of poor storytelling decisions seem to be born from that mentality. I’d say more, but I’m going to review Spec Ops next. Fun fact: it will be my 50th review!

        It seems like trying to make something with high art in mind can be an example of the Centipede’s Dilemma; it becomes more difficult to succeed when one is actively pursuing that standard.

        I think that’s exactly it; Lucas Pope and Toby Fox likely went into those projects with the intent of creating those experiences rather than being concerned about meeting the expectations of a hypothetical art critic.

  2. I recently gave a presentation about musical theater – of all things – and posed that art is successful if it makes you feel something or makes you think about something (hopefully, the point it’s trying to make). I think that idea could also be presented here regarding video games. If it’s making you have an emotional response (again, hopefully an intended one, not “OMG I hate this so much”) or makes you think about an underlying theme or point, it’s successful. As other media has shown, it’s possible for something to be enjoyable and still have a deep point it’s trying to make.

    In regards to enjoyment, having “fun” and enjoying something can be two different experiences (oh no, Athena’s back with her semantics… but bear with me!). If you are working hard on something, and you are functioning at the very peak of your abilities on a task that is ALMOST too hard but is existing “only” at the edge of your abilities, the activity is processed as “enjoyable.” This is where things like “flow” exist. When games promote flow, we enjoy them, even if it’s not conventionally “fun.” This is one of the reasons a series like Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls is so popular and people feel “good” when they succeed. This game, whose tag is “You will die,” is far from a generally accepted definition of what “fun” is. But you/your brain enjoys it because you’re asked to function at the peak of your abilities (and this enjoyment is why you keep going back even if you lose. You want to feel that “flow” again).

    • That’s actually a really common definition of art I’ve seen used, that it’s something along the lines of “a creative work that delivers some sort of feeling or thought.” Which is a pretty good working definition, all told. The most passionate artists I’ve known have never been sticklers for the definition of art, just simply creating whatever came to them. May lose some points for discussion, that way, but I feel it’s a stronger standpoint for creating art.

      There’s definitely a lot of ways to get enjoyment. Fun is probably the most popular for video games, but definitely not the only one. Just like movie, tv, everything else has different genres that all look to deliver different experiences, games are the same way. And you know what? That variety only makes the medium stronger.

  3. This was a really great post! I don’t think games need to be fun to be great in the same way movies don’t need to be fun to be great. As the industry evolves, video games will find new and different ways to make themselves worth playing without having to worry about being fun. I recently played through Everybody’s Gone to Rapture, and while it’s more or less a walking simulator with a story, I loved every second of it.

    • Thanks! That is one of the things I do find really interesting, even with games I don’t end up playing myself, seeing the different ways games go about delivering whatever experience they’re looking towards. It’s a medium that’s really rife for creativity.

  4. Interesting read! What are some examples of fun games? What makes them fun, as distinct from other kinds of gameplay? I agree, Braid just wasn’t fun for me and it’s point was lost because I didn’t play it very long. The gameplay didn’t have any redeeming quality for me to keep coming back. Call it fun, call it narrative completion, or vertigo or whatever. A game unplayed has made no point. I do love some of Johnathan Blow’s talks though.

    • Well, that’s most games. Most of the times games have gameplay, the enjoyment is intended to derive from the gameplay itself. That’s how I would define a ‘fun’ game. A game where the focus is on the enjoyment as produced by gameplay mechanics. That’s Shigeru Miyamoto’s prime design philosophy, he doesn’t much care for story, moodiness, or anything else in his games, so anything Nintendo’s put together under his guidance would be a good example of that.

      • Thanks for the clarification Aether. So, fun in video games for you is a quality of gameplay derived from its game mechanics, not the other stuff you mentioned like mood, story etc., right? I can follow that.

        I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the old defining games thing. Its a silly headache for almost everybody I’ve seen give a talk about it, but for some reason my mind likes to go in that direction. At the present moment, I can’t unsee most AAA video games as either linear obstacle courses with stories being overlayed (Last of Us), or non-linear theme parks with a variety of obstacle courses, like Skyrim. Probably will be my next bloggo post…

        Thinking of Braid, do you think games can teach or be art? I recently listened to a podcast featuring Ori Takemura (checkpoints podcast), actually I haven’t finished it. In that podcast he said he always thought of games as bubblegum for the brain, like great entertainment, but nonetheless just entertainment, and then he found Braid and realized that games could be ethical, teach things and such. But seeing how neither of us seemed to like Braid anyway, perhaps there might be a better example. Have you played “loved”? It was extremely moody which might make up for its lack of interesting gameplay mechanics…

        Alright have a great day

      • Absolutely, games can both teach and be art. There’s nothing that says that art can’t be entertaining. There’s a lot of really, really thoughtful works that are entertaining as well. A game doesn’t have to be entertaining to be smart and thoughtful, but at the same time, being entertaining doesn’t usually detract from the artistic ideals, either.

        I haven’t played Loved, so unfortunately, I can’t really speak to that. I’d think Shadow of the Colossus is a better example than Braid was of the ‘Braid’ idea there, that games can communicate ethics, as well. That was a game that never really called you out for it (well, until the ending), but it used a lot of really subtle moves to make you feel for the great beasts you were slaying, even as you were being driven to keep cutting them down. That’s a game that I think really does hit those ideals without going too far with it or with sacrificing (much) entertainment.

        And, in fact, games may be even better at teaching than other forms might. That’s something teachers have been using for decades. Get someone involved in something, and it’s all the more likely the concept will take hold.

  5. Just like movies or a book, games don’t have to be fun but they should be engaging in some way to make the time you spent with them feel worthwhile. If I only wanted fun from entertainment I would only watch comedies.

    Some people play multiplayer games even though they spend a bulk of the time cursing losses or their incompetent teammates. Even if Walking Dead was packed with heart wrenching moments people heralded it game of the year.

    Most of the time when I buy a game I want to have a good time, but variation is the spice of life. That’s why some artsy games stand out from the pack.

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