Does fun belong in “serious” video games?

I don’t know if I’ve seen an upcoming release as controversial as The Last of Us Part II in a while. It’s received almost entirely excellent reviews from the professional game press, who are declaring it a triumph of storytelling and a deep, affecting experience. Meanwhile, consumer opinion seems to be split — people are somehow already bitterly arguing about the game’s quality even though the damn thing isn’t out for another week. Granted, we have the first game to compare it to, but it still seems hasty to call the sequel a piece of shit on that basis, or even to call it a masterpiece based merely on the word of a bunch of professional reviewers.

I won’t be playing TLOU2. Not because I hate Naughty Dog or anything; I don’t care about them one way or the other, and I don’t really have it out for any game developer at all for that matter. Based on what I’ve seen, the game just doesn’t interest me. However, there is a question raised by all the back and forth fighting over TLOU2 that I do find interesting, and one that I was already thinking about before this controversy blew up — should a good game be fun to play? The reviews of this game I’ve read pretty consistently describe a miserable experience fighting through and hiding from both undead and living human threats and requiring the player to make potentially morally uncomfortable decisions. Yet those reviews also declare TLOU2 a triumph, with one guy comparing it to Schindler’s List and causing yet another uproar for it.

It goes on in this fashion

Setting aside Mr. Cannata’s weirdly narrow definition of “everything” being John Wick when it comes to games (I’m currently playing a game about a princess who makes items with alchemy, beats up dragons, and eats pie with her friends and it’s not much like John Wick1) I find his view interesting. The game wasn’t “fun” at all, but it was still an amazing experience. This isn’t a new take on video games, either. See this 2015 piece from Vice titled “The Value of Video Games That Aren’t ‘Fun'” that expresses a very similar view. The idea seems to be that a work of art that puts the player through hell as Cannata writes of TLOU2 can be inspiring and profound, and that such a game’s lack of fun elements can even work in its favor in that sense.

I don’t want to completely dismiss this idea. If video games are an artistic medium, and I think they are, then they can certainly affect the player emotionally and challenge their views of the world just as some of the great novels, plays, films, and music out there have done. To pull an example straight out of that Vice article, 1984 was a very depressing novel to read, but I thought it also totally achieved its goals in getting the reader to really care about a few people living in this unbelievably oppressive society. If a novel like that weren’t kind of hard to read, it would defeat the purpose. The same goes for Schindler’s List for that matter — a film about trying to save people during the Holocaust can’t really be called “fun” either, but it is profound, emotionally affecting, and very worth watching. So then why can’t a game also be depressing and hard to play, therefore making it way more profound and effective in challenging the player’s views of the world?

I see a few problems with the views expressed by these critics and writers. One is that they seem to be ignoring interactivity, an element of video games that isn’t shared by older media. When you sit down to watch a movie or read a book, you don’t expect to take an active part in it; you’re just taking in a story. With a game, however, unless it’s a visual novel or something similar [edit: and one without much player input either, like a kinetic novel] there’s an expectation that you’re going to get to interact and have some gameplay elements. So if you’re making a game an absolute misery to get through, you’re not just asking for the audience to passively sit and watch or read — you’re asking them to take an active part in struggling through a difficult mess for the payoff. That’s quite a bit more to ask.

A game can’t put a player in a rough situation and also be fun, it’s never been done before

Even that can make for a good game when done right, however. The Silent Hill games gave you pretty much normal-strength humans to control while fighting through and often hiding from vicious monsters. Plowing through enemies would be a lot easier and maybe more fun in some sense, but that’s not the sort of experience those games were meant to deliver. And despite all that, the Silent Hill series is widely beloved (up through Silent Hill 3 at least.) Even though they didn’t quite empower their player characters, putting them in extremely dangerous situations with scant protection and pretty average fighting ability, they also let you work out alternative ways to get through those situations when brute force was not going to work so well. A challenge like that can be fun in itself, and I’d argue the good Silent Hill games achieved that balance.

However, there’s another problem stacked on top of the first. If a game is going to put the player through any kind of hell at all, it has to deliver a payoff at the end that’s worth the effort spent to get there. Otherwise, it’s probably going to leave a rightly frustrated and annoyed player. If a game has something truly profound to say about humanity or life that’s worth the effort it takes to make it through its challenges, then it certainly could be worth playing, just as I think a book like 1984 is worth reading or a film like Schindler’s List is worth watching. If the payoff ends up being some trite message that most every person on Earth over the age of five already knows, however, then by contrast it won’t be worth playing unless the gameplay’s fun on some level. At that point, I’m far better off instead playing a game that’s fun and has no message at all.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t responsible for whatever this is.

Finally, there’s the problem of player agency. If a game’s going to take me to task for making the player character do something it perceives as wrong, it had damn well better give me options. Even though it doesn’t tie into its plot, I remember the old Thief games doing a good job of this: on higher difficulties the games usually forbade you from killing enemies in favor of knocking them out with your blackjack or with sleeping gas devices, the idea being that the protagonist Garrett is a professional thief, not a murderer. This was more difficult but always possible to achieve, and it made a no-kill run of a mission very satisfying to pull off on the harder levels. I think this element of player choice leading to a rewarding feeling was also a big part of why the indie RPG Undertale did so well.

However, a game that essentially forces the player to do something it deems bad only to chew them out for it afterward causes a disconnect between game and player. A game can’t simply make the protagonist do whatever it wants in the same way and with the same consequences as a novel, film, or other non-interactive work can. If I’m being put on rails and shoved down a track, you can’t make me feel bad for whatever happens as a result.2

Again, I don’t have any particular feelings about The Last of Us or Naughty Dog; I can’t and don’t plan on making any judgment of the game, and it’s no skin off my back if it ends up doing well or poorly. And after all, the market has room for all kinds of games. Some of those kinds I don’t especially care for, but why should that bother me? The same is true of every artistic medium on Earth. I just find some of the views expressed by professional reviewers who are praising it to be not very well-considered. By suggesting that this game is both profound and emotionally affecting and “not fun” and really emphasizing that “not fun” aspect, there seems to be an implication that a fun game can’t also be profound and emotionally affecting in the same way, and that doesn’t make a god damn bit of sense to me. đ’€­

1 It’s Atelier Meruru DX for the PS4, and now I’ve totally ruined the surprise when I post my review of it soon.

2 I recently bought a massive bundle of over a thousand games on itch.io. The deal is still on for a couple of days so check it out; the $5 minimum goes to the NAACP and a bunch of bail funds, which I think are pretty damn good causes. Anyway, one of the games included is 2064: Read Only Memories, a game that’s been sharply criticized for doing just this sort of obnoxious “railroad the player and then try to make them feel bad” thing. I might just have to see that for myself since I own it now. I did find the demo pretty irritating, but I shouldn’t judge it based on that alone.

However, the bundle also contains Dreaming Sarah and OneShot last I checked, and I know for a fact that those are both well worth playing.

20 thoughts on “Does fun belong in “serious” video games?

  1. “Nothing else even comes close”? Okay, so Jeff Cannata has obviously never played Undertale. Or OneShot. Or Zero Escape. Or Ace Attorney. Or Planescape: Torment. Or Rakuen. Or Earthbound. Or Breath of the Wild. Or Dark Souls. Or Majora’s Mask. Or Persona 4. Or Metal Gear Solid 3. Or… Uh, anyway, The main problem I had with how the original The Last of Us was received is that it was fairly obvious that both the press and fans decided it was the best game ever made before it was released. Considering that the medium still had serious self-esteem issues at the time, partially in part to Roger Ebert’s infamous “video games can never be art” declaration”, it’s easy to conclude they were looking for anything that would prove that wrong. If The Last of Us wasn’t a masterpiece, then video games would get knocked back to square one. So, I can buy that some people who weren’t enthralled by it forced themselves to like it for the sake of preserving the medium’s dignity.

    However, there was a degree of earnestness to the overwhelming praise – even if one person inanely called it gaming’s Citizen Kane moment (still don’t know what that means). I don’t get that same vibe this time around. I find I cannot take any of the critics’ overwhelming praise of The Last of Us: Part II at face value because the current critical climate has made them very untrustworthy. Once those leaks occurred, many people were outraged, and there was significant overlap between those who vocally criticized The Last Jedi – a faction the press sought to demonize. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them praised The Last of Us: Part II solely to spite the detractors. If so, it is very unfortunate that so many professional critics can’t be bothered to enjoy things on their own terms; they have to have other people tell them what’s right to like or not. And yes, the backlash against The Last of Us: Part II was partly fueled by transphobia, but plenty of people disliked it because of how poor the writing in those leaks were. Indeed, I really dislike how Western filmmakers (whom Naughty Dog take great strives to emulate) craft their work in a way that allows the press to strawman those who aren’t on board with it. To improve themselves and earn praise through legitimate talent is apparently too much to ask for.

    I do think that a game can be good without being fun, and as you mentioned, OneShot is an excellent example of that (Planescape: Torment is another one of my own go-to examples). However, I think unless you have some serious top-tier talent on your team, actively making a game unfun shouldn’t be your first inclination. It’s like subversive storytelling in general; you’re venturing out into uncharted territory, and if you mess up badly enough, you’ll just make your audience long for the clichés you’re subverting. It’s the writing equivalent of playing a game on the highest difficulty setting.

    As it stands, the Naughty Dog staff has always struck me as journeyman-level talent. They can write decent dialogue and get good performances out of their voice actors, but that care and attention seldom translates to polished gameplay. They’re kind of the game developer equivalent of A24 in that their best ideas come across as happy accidents whereas their purposeful attempts to challenge the status quo invariably results in their worst material.

    Also, isn’t John Wick a good film? Why would he be using it in such a pejorative manner?

    • I’d never even heard of this Cannata guy until today, so either he just made a name for himself or I’m pretty disconnected from the professional game reviewer scene. He sure doesn’t seem to know games that well though. There have certainly been plenty of games with great, engrossing plots and characters and emotional impact. It’s not even like they’re obscure or very new; this has been going on for a while, even before Ebert wrote that damn piece. If he hadn’t made the game press so insecure with it, maybe things would have been a little different, though I don’t think I can even blame him for that.

      I haven’t read the TLOU leaks, but I’ve heard almost entirely bad things about the story. It does seem like it could be yet another Ghostbusters remake/Last Jedi situation, where there’s a relatively small group of bigoted assholes who hate the work because it has prominent women, minority, or LGBT characters. Then when many other people point out how the work is bad for regular, non-bigoted reasons, the studio/developer/publisher gets to claim all the detractors are alt-right MRA NEETs. I hope Naughty Dog would have the integrity to stand by their work as it is without resorting to that, but I’ve seen too much nonsense written by some of the supposed professional reviewers and journalists to think they would hold back.

      The stupid thing is that, as you say, as a result of all this the audience largely can’t trust the word of these professional reviewers anymore. There are a few I think are pretty honest and straightforward, but most of these sites and reviewers have a style that puts me off. Maybe it’s all the clickbait articles. I know that’s just how business goes for them, but it still dilutes the value of anything legitimate they might have to say about a game. The fact that OneShot, an indie game that outdid so many AAA ones in terms of storytelling, passed them by for so long says a lot.

      And yeah, John Wick is good. He could have easily found a crap action movie to compare other games to instead. Those Transformers movies still work for that.

      • Yeah, it’s really sad that the only time I ever hear of these critics is either A) when they’ve made an absolute fool of themselves or B) they write an article that deservedly receives a backlash. Like I had never heard of Dean Takahashi despite him having an eighteen-year career of reviewing games until he made that Cuphead video while I had never heard of Owen Gleiberman until he wrote that piece whining about people not liking Hereditary – and he had been writing about films for at least three decades by then. But no, from what I’ve briefly read of Mr. Cannata, he is very much one of those people who cannot appreciate the medium for what it is, which is one of the biggest problems with the gaming critical circle. Still, I’m glad that indie developers and non-American AAA developers aren’t hanging on the critics’ every word because that is a fast track to the kind of artistic conservatism present-day filmmakers hang their hat on. Though I do agree that Ebert isn’t fully to blame for the medium’s lack of self-confidence; he just happened to be the voice that was the most difficult to dismiss.

        And yes, that is exactly how the leaks panned out. Those idiot alt-righters reacted like they do and now suddenly, nobody is allowed to dislike the game. In the face of that, it is very difficult to accept the critical consensus at face value. And I don’t really expect Naughty Dog to stand by their work normally considering that they already made an achievement in Uncharted 4 mocking the most common criticism lodged towards their games – their inability to make the gameplay sync up with the story. They called it “Ludonarrative Dissonance”, and you unlock it by killing a high number of enemies. They were versed in the art of being unable to take criticism long before it was cool, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they double down.

        And too I consider their inability to recognize OneShot to be a serious oversight. It really demonstrates that, when push comes to shove, they aren’t as knowledgeable as they like to think they are.

        I know, right? That’s the reference I would’ve used myself. This is what happens when you don’t think through your comparisons.

      • I didn’t know about that Uncharted 4 achievement, but yeah, I guess that says it all. It seems like a bad look for an artist to be that defensive about their work no matter the medium, but then people are still using the term “hater” unironically for people who express negative criticism so what the hell do I know. I do have to blame those alt-rightists as well, though. I still feel sites like ResetEra and One Angry Gamer are two sides of the same coin, that coin being crazy fringe political opinions mixed with gaming. I don’t know if you got to see OAG’s “traitor list” but it’s pretty weird.

        The fact that indie and non-US AAA developers don’t prostrate themselves to these critics might be part of why their work is almost everything I play and write about here. That’s aside from older US AAA games, from back when this toxic environment didn’t exist. I’m very happy that we have such great access to indie stuff and to localized imports these days, because it means that I don’t have to care too much about the games I look forward to being compromised in stupid ways. Or to having too much paid DLC and microtransactions shoved down my throat.

        I also thought of that Dean Takahashi Cuphead video. It was amazing; still have no idea how that happened.

  2. The definition for “game” is an activity one engages in for… fun. Which makes me laugh a little that someone would decide video games are now a form of… I don’t even know what? Because you’d think that even a well told story via the video game medium would still be fun. Games like Heavy Rain exist that do just that. Is that person insinuating that TLOU2 literally isn’t fun, that it’s just a gritty, unenjoyable (but “bold”) story?

    Plenty of games tell stories very well while still being fun. But then when I see a blue checkmark I assume the person has probably never played a video game before, and then never even heard of things such as visual novels in addition to that.

    • Yeah, apparently all you need is a gritty story now, which makes me wonder why Cannata and these other critics like him don’t just dive into movie or literature reviews instead. It really sounds like these people want a sort of slightly interactive movie. So what’s even the point of having gameplay then?

      That blue checkmark really is too often an indication of someone who doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about. And VNs may as well not exist as far as they’re concerned.

      • Haha that’s a good point. These reviewers are so desperate to put out articles and takes on the internet in a timely fashion that they don’t actually want to play anything. It’s actually bewildering how the games review “industry” reached that point. But then, money ruins everything, like the games industry itself haha (EA, Blizzard, microtransactions and all that garbage).

      • Yeah, there is a weird kind of situation where they all have to race to review games, in this case falling over each other in praise of it. How are you supposed to trust any of that?

        And I have some things to say about EA and what they did to SimCity, those bastards. I still can’t forgive them for that.

  3. I was totally unaware of the situation surrounding the new The Last of Us, but – like you – I was baffled by the critical reaction you mentioned.

    • It’s certainly weird to see critics talking about how miserable a game was to play and then giving it a 9 or 10/10. I look forward to hearing about the game from regular consumers like us.

  4. I’d jump on the box and say that games absolutely don’t have to be fun to be good. I played through Amnesia not too long ago, and felt a great deal of tension, and revulsion, a bit of that good old sympathetic horror. Not an inch of fun. Had a great time with it. Also played Ori and the Blind Forest recently. My emotions ran the gamut from “Ooooh, look at all the pretty art!” to “Wow, this music is awesome” to “this game is balls hard and I will not stop until I’ve overcome it” to “Yes! Move over Yu-Gi-Oh, I’m the King of Games now!” I can’t say I had fun. Its particular challenges were things to overcome, not to enjoy. Yet I had a very worthwhile time with it all the same. So yeah. Like any other medium, fun is just one of the emotions games can elicit.

    It’s still a very worthwhile one, though. And honestly, a lot of games can deliver their content better by being fun along with it. Papers, Please brought you face to face with dystopia and all that entails, and it was also a blast to play as you got there. If it wasn’t, all the atmosphere and story beats would have gotten overpowering, focus would wane, and the deeper meanings wouldn’t have been absorbed as well. Similarly to Red Metal’s Undertale example, as well. The atmosphere of the game, the structure of its subversion of typical game tropes, and its plot wouldn’t have had the same impact if it was fun to play.

    So yeah, games don’t have to be fun. And there’s lots of games out there that are great without it. Hell, as you expressed, Silent Hill and the whole horror genre in general thrives on not being fun and delivering another sensation in its place. But a lot of games still do the artsy fartsy deal while also being fun, and do it a lot better because they’re fun.

    • I think challenge can definitely give a game a lot of extra meaning. Being able to figure out a challenge after racking your brain or getting a particular move or pattern down in a boss battle, that sort of thing can be very rewarding. One of my favorite games is SMT3 and that damn game beat the hell out of me my first time through, but there was something about it that made me keep going to the very end, trying to uncover all its secrets.

      When a game deals with a heavy subject like Papers, Please does, I think that addition of a fun element, or maybe a lot of dark comedy, can work really well. There are a few other game I’ve played that make you deal with harsh realities but keep things interesting and fun at the same time. I’ve found what I really can’t stand is if a game beats you over the head with it or feels more like a series of lectures. Maybe a lot of it just has to do with how it tells its story. I’m getting into a couple of different games from that bundle I bought now and the one so far that has a story — well, it has issues so far, but I’m going to stick with it as long as I can.

    • My understanding is that it’s a combination. I guess the game is meant to drive home how ugly and terrible violence is by making the player do terrible things in the context of a tragic story, or at least that’s what I’ve read about it.

      • My mind is reminiscing over playing Doom Eternal and all those glory kills, and I’m feeling prematurely guilty before I’ve even picked up The Last of Us Pt. 2

        Guess I enjoy the John Wick aspect of gaming as much as the Schindler’s List part of it. (That is a very strange comparison.)

      • I’ve also gone on way too many rampages to count in games. I guess almost all of us are guilty of that.

        And yeah, that is definitely a strange comparison. I think I get what he was going for with it, but he could have used better examples.

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