That was the question posed by designer Randy Smith of Tiger Style Games (Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor) in a talk given at the Montreal International Game Summit, Smith, whose credits also include the Thief series and System Shock 2, firmly stated his belief that it possible to make games that deal with dark topics in a heavy way, while presenting an experience that is engaging, if not "fun" in the traditional sense.
"My thought is they don't need to be fun; they need to be engaging," the designer said.
Despite that sentiment, Smith's talk was more concerned with reflection and consideration of the topic than hard rules about so-called "not fun" games. "There's a chance that one of the only things I'll be able to do with this presentation is to get people to consider this question again," he admitted.
Many games deal with topics that are ostensibly dark, but they almost invariably treat them in a relatively light, "fun" way -- similar to action adventure films like those of the Indiana Jones series. When Indiana Jones takes out a Nazi on a motorcycle, "it was really fun that he dies," Smith pointed out.
But a film that treated that same subject matter with a heavy style might then cut to a distraught German child weeping at the gravestone of his father, who was killed by a rogue American archaologist. Most games do not saddle the player down with the weight of violence's implications, even if they don't necessarily play it off as comic relief.
Some have light topics with light treatment (Mario et al.), or dark topics with light treatments (most violent games), and it's generally impractical to do a heavy treatment of light subject matter in any medium, but few games attempt a dark treatment of dark material.
So could a game present dark material, without shrouding it in a layer of fun, but while still presenting an engaging and meaningful experience? Smith offered the hypothetical game Hospital Director, whose goal is to deal with the difficult realities of running a hospital. It would necessarily deal with numerous fairly grim themes: underfunding, illness, poverty, death, and "insurance companies who refuse to pay for stuff, because it's in the United States."
Structually, the game might play out closer to a choose-your-own-adventure book than the more traditional tycoon-style gameplay implied by the synopsis. Discrete stories and situations would be presented to the player, who would then have to make choices -- each with potentially positive and negative ramifications -- that would affect both those discrete events as well as the ongoing ecosystem of the hospital.
Unlike a choose-your-own-adventure book, however, these discrete scenarios would be the result of an underlying series of systems that weigh numerous variables, including the player's own actions -- similar to the likes of Civilization. And these discrete events would run underneath the larger overarching heartbeat of the hospital, including regularly scheduled tasks like board meetings, at which big-picture policy would be determined.
Ideally, the systems underpinning such a game could generate plausibly honest and meaningful stories about the NPC patients and staff who inhabit the hospital that the player would get attached to and invested in their lives. The believability of NPCs remains a weak point in games, but Smith believes it will continue to improve over time.
"There need to be game systems describing this stuff that are at the core of where the experience comes from," Smith reiterated. That core is what he calls the possibility space: "The possibility space is really the beating heart of this entire question."
The creation of honest and believable stories out of that possibility space is what would give such a game its engaging nature, even if the sobering realities of such a scenario would disqualify it from being described as "fun."
After all, said Smith, humans have an innate desire to see stories resolve. "Things that are just about to happen are really difficult for us to watch and not know what happens," he said. "If you're about to see a glass roll off the table, you really want to see it fall off so you know if it will break or not. Devoid of any other context, you're drawn to see actions complete. A story, whether it's happy or sad, manages to do this, to be compelling."
"This is the reason we watch so much Lost," he added. "They're always claiming things are going to resolve some day."
Some games succeed with "not fun" mechanics. Eric Chahi's Another World (Out of This World) requires the player to engage in a complex, finicky series of actions to save his friend; they aren't inherently fun, but they reflect the desperation one would feel in such a scenario, and it's relieving to succeed.
Smith also Positech's Democracy 2, which deals with the relatively not-fun topics of policy formulation and the passage of legislation. It demonstrates, however, a key potential stumbling point for "not fun" games: exposing so many of the systems' workings to the player that those systems can be "gamed" in a way that breaks through the intent of the game. "As the player, there's tons of stuff you can play with and tweak," Smith explained. "If Hospital Player was like this, it would totally fail, because you'd have the player zipping around this depressing environment and winning because they figured it out."
Perhaps surprisingly, Smith revealed that he himself might not even fall into the target market for Hospital Director: "I don't even like depressing media very much," he said. "It kind of depressed me just to work on this presentation. But the stuff I do like doesn't shy away from not-fun stuff, and that seems the most honest to what real life is like."
Honesty is the key, Smith said. Great stories aren't afraid of dark or uncomfortable subject matter, even if the story is not relentlessly dismal. The ideal, at least for Smith, boils down to "games that have their fun monents, but at appropriate moments hop over to experiences that aren't fun."
"I think this is really hard, but I don't think it's impossible," he concluded. "My honest guess, after being a game designer for 12 years, is that you could do this and it would work."