I'm Not Having Fun (But That's Okay)
2012 was the year that saw a shift in the landscape of videogames. Downloadable titles finally started becoming events as large as the market defining big budget game releases. Kickstarter moved developers and fans away from the traditional publisher model and into crowd-funding, with both successes and failures appearing within the same year. Steam Greenlight opened another avenue for indies to promote and eventually sell their games, and the digital distribution service itself moved into software territory as well. 2012 also saw controversy overtake the community, with a discussion of the sexism in both games and the industry and the place violence takes in the medium sparking heated discussion. That’s a longer discussion for another time, however.
What struck me most is the release of two games that stretched the definition of what we traditionally consider a “game”, Dear Esther and Thirty Flights of Loving. They inspired a mixed reaction in the community with some arguing that they they had no meaningful interaction, and that most of all they were simply boring. The former I can debate until the day I die, but the latter I’ll concede to. These are games that aren’t for everyone, and won’t be enjoyable at all for some. Simply put, they just aren’t fun. Let me let you in on a secret: they don’t have to be.
Dear Esther's lighthouse and TFoL's redhead became iconic images of those games.
For most lovers of the medium, videogames are an incredible force that they would like to see continually evolve and mature. We are always asking for more meaningful choices and interactions and new, more novel ways to interact with stories. The problem is that sometimes our idea of what those interactions involve can be narrow. When we ask for something meaningful, we almost always mean that we want more choices and more agency in the story. We want control. That’s why we hold up games such as Skyrim and Far Cry 3 as the zeniths of our medium. Personally, I immensely enjoyed Far Cry’s violent jungle sandbox of murder. If you asked me to pick a game that I had the most fun with last year it would be one of the top choices. However, if you put it up against Thirty Flights of Loving and asked me which game I’m going to remember years from now, what game I think is more worthy of praise, Thirty Flights of Loving would win every time. Hell, I’ve almost already forgotten about Far Cry 3, despite it coming out just a month ago and having its icon staring at me from my neglected desktop.
At this point feel free to leave if you don’t think this is a discussion worth having, or if you are set upon the idea that I simply have horrible taste in games. Go on, we can wait... Alright, still here? Well since I haven’t managed to scare you off with my pretentious opening and my condescending attitude, I think I can trust you to keep an open mind, yeah? So let me explain myself.
Imagine for a moment if every other artistic medium was defined only by “fun”. Instead of films such as Koyaanisquatsi, the Seventh Seal, and Eyes Wide Shut, we’d have a cinematic landscape dominated by movies like the Bourne series and Transformers. Instead of Hemingway and Murakami we’d have nothing but Tom Clancy and Nicholas Sparks. Most people would like to avoid that. Yet despite this, we see videogames, a developing artistic medium, dominated by large blockbuster titles largely driven by engines of violence, something I’ve discussed previously. We want games to continually mature and evolve, but this can’t happen unless we branch out from our definition of what a “game” is and make it clear that we will support games that dare to challenge our norms and cover material that we traditionally wouldn’t consider interesting material for videogames.
Interestingly enough, part of the community is beginning to do just that. Dear Esther in particular proved that there was a market for a more subdued, non-traditional game, becoming profitable within less than six hours of its release. No matter your opinions on the subject it’s clear that at the right price and presented in the right way, there is a potential audience and market for this sort of experience. Thirty Flights of Loving also made a splash around the net, spinning off a good amount of critical and analytical pieces. Finally, Spec Ops: The Line hit critical highs with its fiendish and subversive attack on videogame violence and our role in it, causing an explosive analytical reaction, one so incredible that one player even wrote an entire book about it. Fine, you say. Games need to be fun though--it’s in the definition of the word. Not only that, Dear Esther and TFoL can barely be considered games, and everyone will admit that Spec Ops isn’t a good example of a game, and isn’t fun at all.
Skyrim has to be experienced by getting lost.
Once again: games do not have to be fun.
What would the cited games above gain by being more “fun”? Dear Esther takes on a tone that would be disrupted if it was fun. TFoL could add more interaction but would arguably lose the impact, flair, and cinematic grace it defines itself by. Spec Ops would negate its entire message if it made killing a big spectacle. For Spec Ops to work it has to be unenjoyable. The lead dev even came out and said that the multiplayer was added just to be a checkbox on the game going so far to say that “it should not exist” and “sheds a negative light on all of the meaningful things we did in the single-player experience”.
I’d also like to argue that some of the games that we most enjoy aren’t fun all the time. Take fan favorite Skyrim for example. A majority of the time in the game is spent roaming from point A to point B heading to complete a task. Some players choose to even skip fast travel and walk the entire distance. The option to fast travel however reveals that travel itself can become a chore that players simply don’t want to deal with. Walking simply isn’t fun. What it is however is engaging. It sets us in a trance and inspires the same sort of emotions we experience watching a long panning shot in a Kubrick film. We can take in the environment, absorb the atmosphere and bask in the smaller details and thoughts. My favorite things to do in Arkane’s recent magnum opus Dishonored, for example, are reading the literature of the world and simply pointing the Heart at people and learning more about them. While not fun in the same sense that exploring its stealth mechanics and eluding or killing enemies is, it is engaging because it gives me insight into the mysteries of the world Arkane has crafted.
The best crafted games give us plenty of these moments which break up the time in between big set pieces or achievements. I’d even argue that MMOs are largely made up of tasks like these, filler that should immediately seem boring or pointless, but engage our reptilian brains on a primal level and get the cogs in our heads spinning just enough to keep us satisfied. The same applies to nearly every ARPG as well, which focuses on repetitive tasks that intersperse loot as a reward to keep us playing.
Something else to think about is that games branching out doesn’t necessarily mean that the “fun” games are going away. The creation of serious dramatic films hasn’t diminished the market of summer blockbusters and big franchise sequels. It has however, led to Hollywood releasing a slew of big serious films at the end of the season, what we here in the States like to call “Oscar Bait”, which could arguably be something videogames would actually do well to follow.
The Seventh Seal modern style.
A problem we do have is one of expectation. As previously stated the title “videogame” brings to mind a set of preconceived notions, among them one that games have to be fun. It’s built into the word itself and it wouldn’t be unfair to say that when someone talks about games they expect rules, win states and entertainment. However it’s clear that games such as Dear Esther, despite arguably not fitting into the traditional definition of a videogame is still recognizably using the same medium. The same technology is present, and it shares a common language and technique, similar to how experimental shorts like Stan Brackage’s Mothlight use the language of film for unconvential results. While both do not engage using the usual methods of their respective media, both engage on a visual and intellectual level that can possibly be as gratifying as the mechanical feedback given by task driven games. In this case it might be useful for the term videogames to move onto a new title, similar to how comics became graphic novels. The term “comics” - and its Japanese equivalent manga - itself is an outdated term, referring to the initially reproduced works of the medium which were usually humorous in tone. Despite this, comics tell a variety of stories, from cross US coming of age stories to time spanning stories of death and ressurection. The term comics of course still continues to be used to refer to the medium, but has more importantly seen a shift in popular consciousness about what they can encompass. Until videogames experience a similar change, they are unlikely to branch out as well.
This medium has begun to step out of the shadow of the film and comic book industries that many developers have aimed to mimic. However, in order to keep developing we must move beyond borrowing the techniques and attitudes of other media. Because of the interactive nature of the medium there is a method of storytelling exclusive to games that can affect players more deeply and intimately than any other. However, to fully harness this ability developers are going to have to look beyond “fun” and strive to explore more than swords and guns. Those “fun”, mindless action games will of course always be there, but if we want more, like we claim we do, we’ll have to be willing to look at the medium in a different way and show that we are willing to support more than our punchdrunk action heavy goodtimes.