Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fun & Games, Pt. 4

We've spent our fair share of this series considering games from a design perspective, and where games big and small, lauded and loathed, have betrayed their narrative-heavy stylizations. But what about "fun"? Can a game be judged on it as a criteria? What do people really mean when they talk about it? Are in we in need of some kind of system to categorize different "fun types" and determine how a particular video game delivers each?

Fun, in the most general sense, is enjoyment. When someone tells you a game is "fun", they are articulating their appreciation of the overall experience, even if they cannot particularly put their finger on or elucidate why. It could be they are engrossed by the plotline and cutscene; it could be the draw of visually and audially rendered splendor; it could even (perish the thought) be the mechanics and interactions of the game itself. What's certain is that the word, for all its value as a common term, is useless when trying to operate critically, analytically, or descriptively. The number of times I've seen "it's just fun" as the beginning and end of someone's defense of a game is just staggering, to the point where I have to assume that people who use it are, at least some of the time, avoiding having to admit they like a video game for its shiny colors and/or pulpy romance subplots.

You know... for kids!
This is nothing new, of course; people not wanting to think about what might be wrong with something they like is as old as humanity. Of course, take that irrational impulse, multiply by $60 and create an entire industry dependent on almost tribal devotions to these fairly high-ticket leisure items and things get problematic quickly. Admitting faults with the video game immediately become faults with you for liking it, and there's no room for measured praise. 

Another thing to be sure to avoid is others taking offense to you marginalizing their special flavor of derived "fun" from a game. Again, a lack of critical thinking skills in the general audience means problems analyzing design choices being successful or poor; they become interpreted and misconstrued as dictated denials that anyone can find pleasure from that game. On paper, of course it sounds like a silly overreaction... but then, I don't know how long you in particular have been at this "Internet" thing, but histrionics over laughably simple misunderstandings is stock and trade around these parts.

File photo of you mid-debate about that thing you like.

Mark LeBlanc chooses to subdivide "fun" into eight divisions: sensory stimulation, social interaction, fantastic escapism, exploration & discovery, narrative engrossment (!), expressive space, submissive "brain-off" relaxation, and challenge. For argument's sake, it seems a fairly comprehensive catalog of the sources of most enjoyment from games and other pastimes. While trying to create an absolute system of valuing one kind of fun versus another is clearly useless, we can take what we've come to see as the strengths of a game, often in video game form, versus other medium. Games seem a more obvious source of fun via challenge than movies, much as narrative strength is more inherent to passive forms that interactive ones. It seems strange to spend years coding lifelike semblances of people and recording their voices for a video game if filming real ones for a movie gets you the same narrative "fun", doesn't it? 

The purpose of video games, according to top-level developers who work on million-selling games, is primarily to remodel the physical universe and write massive conditional scripts for characters with little to no bearing on the plot they want to wholly control. They use the medium of computer-created rulesets to simulate worlds and march you through them to get the same kinds of "fun" you could get from film or literature, at much less cost to creators and audience alike. Variants of "fun" like challenge or discovery or socialization are discarded almost completely by modern video game developers in one of the mediums best equipped to facilitate them: a game.

Is this a bragging point or a sign something might be amiss?

If the makers of a game want to try and create a semblance of a world, then certainly I applaud them dependent on their level of success. But if the writers have a strict story to tell, then what good is that world but a fancy, over-elaborate film soundstage? Seems like a lot of work just to get around giving people SAG cards. If only they still trusted the player as a participant instead of an intruder. There's only so long you can treat the audience that way before it becomes self-fulfilling.