Controlling the Rapids: Comparisons Between Real-World and On-Screen Fun
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
The driver of the van peers out through the windshield as they race over the narrow dirt road, nervous with anticipation. They continue to press on as a fog descends around them, misting all but the closest trees. They hear a howling in the distance as they close in on their destination: a clearing at the end of the road leading to a walking track.
The situation: 8:30pm on a Friday night, it is pitch black, and five twenty-somethings are doing a final check on their packs before they begin their descent. The mission: to get down the canyon, down the river and up the other side alive. The stakes have never been higher: Tropfest (a short film festival) is on the Sunday night, and they would rather like to go... if they aren't too tired. They also have work on Monday.
A few months ago, I went on a hiking trip with four mates. When I say hiking, I mean it in the loosest possible term: what we actually did was to walk down a god-awfully steep hill to a river, paddle/float/hold-on-for-dear-life down the river on inflatable mattresses (a.k.a lilos), and then walk back up a slightly less god-awfully steep hill.
Spoilers: we survived.
The question I found myself while floating down the river was "Why have I chosen to do this?" The answer: "because it is fun". "Why is it fun? Is it more fun than playing, say, Mass Effect 2, which you've wanted to play for ages, and finally have both the game and a computer without ridiculous overheating problems for?" "Yes." "Why?"
And just like that, this article was born.
It's still Friday night, and we're walking down the hill towards our first campsite. It's pitch black and the hill is steep. Loose rocks threaten to topple overburdened bodies over and down the hill. We each hold a paddle in one hand. They're a mixed blessing: either being a great walking stick or a great pain in the ass when better handholds are around. As we inch our way down a winding ramp of loose dirt and rocks, I hear a rock fall above me, then a crash. I swivel round to find a flurry of movement as a miniature landslide of rocks, dirt, a fellow hiker and a paddle tumble towards me, knocking me off my feet. I manage to grab onto a rock and halt my fall. My paddle follows his down the hill. James, who has fallen, gets to his feet shakily. He is covered in dirt, cuts and scratches. His torch has split in three, and it takes almost a quarter of an hour to find the pieces and retrieve the paddles before we move on.
So what makes hiking and lilo-ing more fun than your average game? What's the difference between real-world fun and video-game fun? And can we learn from these to make better games?
In this article I'll be going through four aspects of fun which highlight these differences. First up: uniqueness.
There are two types of uniqueness at play here, which I'll call lifetime uniqueness and crowd uniqueness. Lifetime uniqueness is doing something you've never done before: a completely new experience. I, for instance, had never hiked in the dark, let alone hiked down a stupidly steep hill in the dark. It was a completely new experience, not unlike using a portal gun, doing a level with reversed time or playing as Batman. Your body thrives on new experiences: up goes the adrenaline, end before you know it: BOOM! Endorphins. BAM! Fun.
The problem is, of course, that most games rehash familiar gameplay: uniqueness is an attribute game developers often aspire to, but rarely achieve. Unless a person has never played a specific genre of game, its unlikely that the uniqueness of the experience will ever match that incredibly slow yet rewarding descent in the depths of the night, nor the liloing that was to follow.
Crowd uniqueness, on the other hand, is doing something that you alone (or only a small select group) have done. This is where our trip succeeds and games often fail: unless you get advanced copies or are simply quicker at finishing games than others, the experience is not crowd-unique. Even if you do finish the game quickly, the crowd-uniqueness tends to disappear fairly quickly. What is left is the ability to find a unique micro-experience: something that you, and you alone, have done. This is where people who like to break games or do speed runs find their endorphin hit, while the rest of us (who, lets face it, are too 'lazy' to do all that work in-game) can only really hope to hit upon that uniqueness by chance.
It's Saturday, and we're floating down the Colo River with our packs on our lilos. We've spent the morning finding the best configuration of pack, lilo and person to prevent said packs from falling off said lilo at every passing rapid. A pack on a lilo is about as stable as a psychopath, and the rapids are very adept at pushing us directly into rocks. The result is often a dislodged pack, free-floating paddle and/or a person scrambling to right an upside-down lilo while avoiding the rocks they're hurtling towards. The river has already claimed a pair of thongs and a paddle.
It's now just after lunch, and we're drifting towards a new set of rapids. By now, we know the drill: when you get to the rapids you suss it out to see if it's traversable. If they think it is, they go down. Otherwise, they get out and walk around. Those of us who follow make a similar judgement, though I usually just follow whoever's ahead.
I'm a fair way behind coming into this rapid, though not at the back of the group, and all I've seen is the familiar red and blue of a fellow traveler heading down the left side. I paddle towards the left, anticipating the tough job of maneuvering through the rapids with tiring arms. As I get close, I see that these rapids have three main sections, the second of which is a sizable drop in the centre. I take a breath. It'll take a bit of paddling to get into the drop cleanly, and both the rocks and the current are against me. I line up the first drop, and ready myself.
I hit a rock at the lip of the rapids, grounding the front of the lilo. The back swings around as I push off the rock and I go over sideways. I manage to stay on, but my plan is ruined. The current pushes me towards the drop, but there's no time to turn the lilo around. I have only one option: to ride the drop backwards. With the weight of the pack on the back of the lilo, the current helps me to quickly re-orient, and I almost line it up perfectly.
Almost. The lilo snags on a rock for a second and spins around. I'm flung off the lilo sideways and fall into the churn. I'm buffeted by the current and brought over the third drop. Half of this time is spent underwater. By the time I surface, my pack, lilo and paddle are already downstream, and my glasses are gone.
For the next day and a half, I'm forced to continue the trip half-blind.
Unpredictability. It's a hallmark of interactive entertainment: that each time you play, something slightly different will happen. Even if the overall story of Half-Life 2 doesn't change, the way I deal with a strider will be slightly different to yours. Every game of minesweeper is different. And you never quite know which country will invent trebuchets in Civilization.
Yet for all of that, there is an inherent predictability to a lot of games that the real world simply doesn't have. This is an issue with many created works: narrative conventions become cliched and predictable, and twists become harder and harder to come by. Most of the time, the story will end well, the bad guys get their comeuppance, and it's the third guy you meet that did the crime. Games have an extra problem: to ensure that they are playable, games usually follow a fairly predictable learning curve.
Compare this to our trip: a river to raft down, with a series of rapids, separated by stretches of easy-to-traverse, calmer water. It almost sounds like a series of game levels, right? Except unlike a game, the rapids aren't arranged in an increasing order of difficulty, with a boss 'rapid' at the end. The toughest rapid actually appeared in the middle of the Sunday: a beastly thing with a full 5 metres in height difference between water levels at the start and at the end.
Needless to say, most of us walked around that one.
Let's rewind for a second: is unpredictability really out of reach of games? The biggest surprise of the weekend was the loss of a pair of glasses, and the 'gameplay' challenges that this created for the rest of the trip.
There's no reason that games can't create such gameplay challenges, yet how often does this really happen? When was the last time a game character lost his glasses, leaving the player having to complete the rest of the game in obscure blurriness? How often does gameplay change drastically and unpredictably midway through the game? And when it does, how often does it occur within the heart of the run-of-the-mill gameplay itself, rather than within a disembodied cutscene?
It's late on Saturday, and the light is beginning to dim. As fuzzy coloured splotches make way for fuzzy grey splotches, we stop and take stock on a steeply sloped sandbank. We haven't hit our planned camping spot as we lost a paddle earlier in the day, slowing us down considerably. I've been taking the last leg of swimming, and my muscles are horribly tired. With the falling light and my failing eyesight, the rapids have become treacherous. We decide to camp out for the night on the sandbank. It's steep and awfully sandy, and we'll need to get up stupidly early tomorrow if we hope to make it to the end in time.
We set up our tarps and tents in an exhausted haze. A few of the others build a fire to cook dinner: I make cold mash with tuna, lacking the energy to wait for my food. I get into my sleeping bag and sleep.
Physical effort produces endorphins, and endorphins are a chemical form of what we might term 'fun'. 'Nuff said. Whether games can properly incorporate this into a story-based medium is something we'll find out as the Wii and Kinect get a Move on (I'm truly sorry for that...). So far. I'd say the jury's out.
The other aspect of physicality is in the building of skills that are applicable in day-to-day life. As much as games do create certain skillsets that are useful in the modern world, there's a disconnect between the activity of playing and the actual skillset acquired. In comparison, the act of setting up tarps, learning how to navigate rapids and how to build a fire on a sandbank tap into a primal need to know how to survive a zombie apocalypse.
In which case, Left 4 dead is probably the best game ever in this capacity.
It's Sunday afternoon, and we've been rowing steadily since the crack of dawn. We've been making good time, and at long last, we round the final bend. We get to the sandbank that marks the track out and stop for a late lunch and a rest, before beginning the hard slog back up the to the ridge. Two hours later we're at the top of the hill, exhausted but satisfied. We've made it out, and we begin the long drive home.
We miss Tropfest.
There's something fun about being able to tell stories, something wired deep within the human consciousness. It's the reason story-based entertainment exists.
Uniqueness, which I talked about earlier in the article, is very important to this ability to tell stories. The more unique the experience, the more compelling the story. The more compelling, the more fun it is to tell.
How do games stack up here? Fairly well. Games allow us to tell two stories: the high-level, constructed story that is given to us, and low-level, play-by-play occurrences that make our experience unique. That's not even mentioning the huge scope for storytelling that comes with sandbox games.
While storytelling is similar in both real-world and game fun, it is one of the most compelling forms of fun in both aspects. And as I finish my story of our two-day adventure, I can't think of a better way to end this article than with a reflection of the sheer power of the story. People do crazy things for a good story: the only question is, how many of them involve a controller?