Fun, Video Games, and Constants

So I commended pleasure, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to be merry, and this will stand by him in his toils throughout the days of his life which God has given him under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 8:15

Do video games need to be “fun”? That the current directors of the Assassin’s Creed franchise ask this question, and then answer in the negative, says a great deal of how we think of “meaning”. Meaning must be serious, must come in a form that is slightly offensive, shocking, or otherwise. I don’t tend to believe that.

Let me take myself as a case study example. The problem with me and games based on narrative often comes down to my emotional investment with video games: that is to say, none. I don’t emotionally identify with the character I play at all, or even NPCs. At best, I’m controlling a doll/action figure, and it does what I want it to do. So in that sense, “player-character” is a really strange concept to me. I’m projecting myself through that character and interacting with the game, sure, but I am not actually THAT character. That would be foolish, in the same way that you and the protagonist of a novel are the same person.

Now, can you project yourself onto the character and feel empathy for their plight, or perhaps grow familiar with them? Absolutely! That doesn’t mean this particular experience is necessary, though. We develop emotional connections with many things that aren’t human, from animals to childhood toys. You don’t need a narrative, long-winded cutscenes, or whatever to make that comparison apparent. When someone spends an entire year dedicated to their MMO avatar, there’s a connection there whether the game presents a story to the player or not.

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Hopefully not like this?

In other words, developers create the space for that connection to happen, and it’s up to the player, if they so desire, to foster an emotional connection. Even then, your emotion for the player character will not often be empathy. You can’t feel much empathy for yourself; that’s sorta difficult, don’t you think? Still, that doesn’t mean the game isn’t fun; it still means something for me, whether the effort I put in, the delight of illumination (i.e., figuring out an optimal strategy all by my lonesome), or some other element an entire development team could not possibly imagine.

The problem often arrives when the developers, in their seeming wisdom, think that we can’t handle the emotional part of the equation. “That’s ok”, they say,”Just press the buttons when we tell you, and I will make the characters come alive.” When video game characters suddenly emerge as something different than we imagined, independent of our actions, it turns the game into a movie – a rather unsuccessful attempt at film-making, I might add. I could plug many games into this category, Western and Eastern alike, but think of some examples from your own experience.

The problem in this meaning often comes down to presentation. It’s often understood that, for whatever reason, “meaning” and “fun” cannot come together. That misnomer leads us into this situation where we must actively make a game “less than fun” to prove a point. Some aesthetic element, like an ultra-serious tale about Objectivism’s folly, or racism in the Caribbean, takes precedence over the fun parts. One wonders why they think that, if we get bashed over the head with messages, that will somehow keep us engaged. Sorry, my friends: most gamers like what they call “gameplay”. If that’s not engaging, then no amount of artistic expression will keep them playing.

I don’t think “fun” is quite the right word to be condemning. Most every good game ever made is fun in some sense, from messing around with self-defined achievements (think Minecraft building) to finally getting a victory (think boss fight or sports point). Games aren’t well-equipped to disempowerment as we usually think of it, not because of convention but as a constant of how they work.

Disempowerment often comes in a form that prevents engagement and fun. It makes the game unfair on some level, and a player must feel it is fair in order for most of them (other than a niche audience that likes that sort of thing) to continue playing. If it’s merely aesthetic (as in an NPC death or something), then that’s part of a character arc; a player knows they can’t control that. But if it is, say, people dying regardless of what you do, you often wonder why you should bother. When the game’s playing itself, that’s a problem.

Of course, there’s certainly a way to make a game fun while also disempowering, and the Souls series certainly does that well. It makes you feel inadequate both through its unfriendliness, atmosphere (very, very lonely and dark), subtly told environmental storytelling (you need to look REAL hard to figure out what happened, and the mysteriousness of the threats make them all the more frightening), harsh punishment for mistakes and the seeming inadequacy of your tools (compared to other action-RPG games). Still, you can rise above and succeed even with these tools because the developer designed it so, while tough, it’s also very fair if you’re playing with full knowledge of the rules and systems at play. A constant doesn’t need to prevent AAA developers from making something wonderful even in the constraints of a medium.

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Yep. You died.

That doesn’t mean that all such games must be extremely difficult. Brothers also does a pretty good job of being fun with its unique dual analog control scheme as well as providing an aesthetic complement to its basic game ideas. When the game’s rules and systems themselves remains the focus, yet the overlay on top complements it, that’s when it works best. Even with that stuff on top, Brothers hit home with most critics because it implements the joy of winning while mastering fair (or at least the perception as such) game dynamics; the narrative stuff just works so well with it that it’s hard to tell the difference. It may be sad, but it is also fun!

Now, in AC, the problem is that this loss isn’t a real loss, and provides no greater consequence than a purely narrative-based one. It’s hard to make you feel much of anything due to the lack of impact. A game can’t really force players to feel anything (much like in any other medium), so just telegraphing “FEEL HERE” doesn’t work. They need to find a way to work with how most players play games (i.e., looking for optimal strategies for success) and providing a space for actual illumination and thought. To me, this just sounds like shock value without any real explanation behind it.

Video games aren’t fun because life itself is fun; if you got that out of these words, you misunderstand me. Video games do fun well because that constant of their design happens to produce the best video games. They’re not a limitless medium, just like artists of the past found the best constants in their medium. Perhaps fun will actually be a convention we all thought wrong, but I doubt it. The best artistic works function within those constants.

But “fun”, as it were, isn’t the constant of the universe. God is. And God gives that universe meaning merely by virtue of existing. God is happy (2 Cor. 11:31), and God is sad (John 11:35); God shows joy (Nehemiah 8:10), and God shows wrath (Romans 1:18-32). Human experience shows us reflections of that same variety through the ups and downs of our own personal experience. If we are Christian, the shifting circumstances of our life and the changing whims of our heart do not displace God as the constant among all the conventions of human life.

Also, you might want to enjoy yourself a little bit.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Joseph Quattlebaum

    I’ve often become very involved in the narrative of video games that i’ve played…referring to the gameplay as my own actions. this has been especially true of RPG’s where I identify with the main protagonist very closely.

    Having felt that I was in someway “living through” these characters (in true analogy to the name of the genre “role-playing game”), I often was dissapointed when a boss fight ended with them taking my entire party down to 1hp as a narrative element. I think you’ve hit something important in drawing attention to this lack of control over the events.

    We play video games because we don’t want to watch another movie or show…there is an element of projection of our own motivations and intentions onto the characters. This is why I think the Mass Effect ending was so volatile to so many. In some way, BioWare never could have come up with any combination of endings or choices to allow players to have that sense of control that they had throughout the entire series (not to mention, the “movie” ending that they did write was bad).

    It also reminds me of the original Wing Commander. If you failed a certain number of missions, then you would be put on the “losing” path with no way to redeem yourself to get back on the “winning” path, but there were a great many missions on the “losing” path. So if you dug yourself a hole too big, you still had to fly a dozen or so missions with no way to “beat” the game. It seems it would have been better at that point to simply say “game over” and allow you to start over….give control back to the player, as it were.

    • Zachery Oliver

      It’s very interesting, that. The more definition a designer gives to a protagonist, the more difficult it will be to cultivate a satisfying ending for them, no matter what the case.

      I believe that games function best when they take advantage of what makes them unique – interactivity. In the case of many RPGs for console and PC alike (at least nowadays), developers often try to straitjacket the player into a set narrative that twists and turns like a movie or film. Games just don’t do this well, because the projection of one’s self means you will inevitably fail at making some portion of the audience happy with the ending. Yeah, there’s the artist’s vision, but it will conflict with the gamer’s vision – we feel we have a part in it due to our active participation, and we get understandably mad when it doesn’t seem to line up.

      This is why Dark Souls is so amazing to me – it crafts a world, and then lets you play around in it (within the rules). If you want story, there’s plenty of it if you observe, read item descriptions, and piece together many tiny details. Video games excel at world-building, and they can dedicate the intense scrutiny and detail required to make them feel like a real place or the ruins of an ancient civilization. It’s much more interesting to let the player feel as if they found it all themselves (hence why people love the Souls series so much in an era where we aren’t allowed to do that very often).

      That Wing Commander concept sounds fascinating, though. I like the idea of real, permanent consequences in games (DS will let you kill important NPCs, for example, even if they provide a good/service). That example serves a narrative purpose, at least, and gives you an incentive to do well. Failure is good! At least it’s an incentive to see the true game, right? If they just sorta handed the “good” ending to you, it wouldn’t be worth anything.