This article was inspired by the thoughts I had after writing a Kickstarter update on the gameplay of Pathologic.
There is a method of setting high-level concepts and goals for software development called “User stories”. It’s quite simple really: all you have to do is describe your future project in short sentences on behalf of its “end user”. For example: “As a user, I want my text-editor to be accessible from all of my devices”. Nice and easy and not controversial at all, right?
Now lets try to implement this method into video games. First thing that might come to mind is “As a player, I want to have fun”. Sounds good? “Fun” is always good, after all that is what games are about… or are they?
Imagine for a second other mediums having a “Fun” sticker everywhere. “The Godfather—a family-friendly fun story about a family business!” or “Crime and Punishment—a quirky story about a young man and an old grumpy lady in a funny situation!” or even “Ok Computer—fun lighthearted tunes that will turn your frown upside down!”. Doesn't make much sense, does it?
And yes, fun can be found anywhere if you put enough effort into it, but is it really the most important thing to look for in everything you experience?
I believe that “the cult of Fun” stems from the belief that the absence of fun equals boredom. How else do you engage “an average player”? Everybody loves Fun! Let’s make everything Fun! A game about a creepy creature hunting you in the woods? Gosh, that’s going to spawn lots of letsplays that are so much Fun to watch! A game about surviving in a harsh world of a zombie apocalypse? Let’s have some Fun running around naked with a hatchet, chopping random unarmed people to death!
There are lots of emotional states and hooks. So why is it fun that has become a “trademark” and a “badge of honor” for games?
What is the most important characteristic that differentiates video games from any other medium? Obviously, it’s interactivity. And why do most people engage in active pastimes? For fun! So it’s only fair that fun is the first association with the medium which requires ones activity.
But is it all there is to it? Wasn’t your first session of Slenderman genuinely terrifying (if you had the luxury of playing the game unspoiled)? Was it fun? Weren’t your long walks in the woods of Chernarus relaxing, but at the same time filled with the thrill of losing everything you’ve got? Was it fun? Was Kentucky Route Zero fun? Was Papers, Please? I remember Silent Hill 2 was so much fun that I couldn’t sleep for a couple of nights after I was introduced to it—that’s how much fun I had.
Sometimes fun can even take away from an experience. The best examples here would be most open-world games that try to immerse the player into a serious and dramatic story. One moment you are standing by the grave of a murdered sibling in a well-directed emotional cutscene, and the next moment you blow up cars on the parking lot with a bazooka because you can and because it’s fun. After that the situation with your dead in-game sibling doesn't look so serious and dramatic at all, does it?
I’m not saying fun is the evil of video games (some of the my favourite games are all about fun). What I’m trying to say is the medium has already proved that you can have an engaging experience without omnipresent fun.
When we wrote “user stories” for the new Pathologic game, we realised that there is simply no place for “fun” in any of the statements we were making. No place that wouldn’t break the whole idea of the game anyway. What we came up with was more about an empathic bond between the player and the game rather than sheer “fun” or even “enjoyment“. “As a player, I want to feel the “physicality” of the items in my inventory.” “As a player, I want to feel that I have a “home” that I can go back to.” “As a player, I want to relate to the pain and the hardships my character is going through”... You can check out the whole list here and see that nothing there has anything to do with fun. But… at the same time I, as a player, really want to play the game described there and I hope that I am not alone.
Of course I am by far not the first person to raise the issue. There’s been a lot of discussion about a long-awaited “Citizen Kane” of video games that would finally “officially” turn them into art (as if it hasn’t happened already). Currently the game industry (at large) tries to address that with games that have a great script and directing, touch upon “mature themes” (whatever that is), and are produced with high-quality cutscenes and voice acting. And I personally think that that is a great recipe… for a movie. (But that’s a completely different subject.)
In my opinion, empathy AND meaningful interactivity are the two most crucial aspects for crafting an engaging experience. An experience that wouldn’t be all about giggling at pedestrian ragdolls you hit while playing as yet another “vigilante” type of character. So if fun stands in the way of empathy and immersion... maybe sometimes it should be left out. But stripping the game of ways to interact with the world in meaningful ways, in my opinion, is also a waste of the medium’s potential (but you can still create a great experience this way—just look at Dear Esther and Gone Home, for example).
I think we’ve only recently stepped on the road of mastering what the medium can do. The recent rise of interest towards “experimental” hardcore games showed us that people are ready for unusual experiences that go beyond “instant fun dispensers” or logic puzzles. We did our first steps, so let’s move on further. Please, don’t let us “set a camp” where we are now for another 10 years or—god forbid—go backwards.
As a player, I want games to engage my personality, not just my reflexes or wits.
As a player, I want games to change me as any form of art does.
As a player, I don't want to have fun every single time I play.
As an author of this post, I should add pictures to make it more fun to read.
p.s. By "Fun" in this post I meant actually "funny" and "grin provoking" fun, not fun as having a good time in general.