Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Do Games Need to be Fun at All Times?

Not long ago, a colleague of mine and I were having a discussion on whether or not games could truly be art. He felt like one of the biggest obstacles standing in their way was that there's an unwritten rule that all games must be fun, and that real art should run a wider gamut than that. Whether games are art or not is an entirely different argument altogether, and one that will rage on for eons to come (and mostly just depends on your definition of "art," so I'm not going to go into that here). But this did get me to thinking about how a lot of my favorite moments in videogames had me doing something that would not traditionally be called "fun," or at the very least, was not immediately gratifying.

Row, row, row your boat...

The first example that came to mind was sailing in the The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. The first time I played that game I thought it was a pretty good game that was almost undone by it's horrible, tedious sailing sections. Having to pull out your magical wind baton, play a song, then watch an unskippable cutscene every time you wanted to change direction more then 90 degrees was enough too drive me batty. It would have been okay had the islands been placed closer together, but as is, sitting around doing next to nothing as your boat slowly approaches an oncoming isle was just the opposite of engaging to me.

I later read Rob Fahey's wonderful review of the game at Eurogamer, where he gave it a 10, stating that as someone who happens to enjoy sailing, the sailing in Wind Waker was his favorite part of the game. It wasn't until years later that I went back and played through the game again, this time keeping that thought in the back of my head, and a funny thing happened; I began to really enjoy the sailing too.

In real sailing you don't have a motor, so you need to mind the wind at all times. Once I got into this mindset, that this is more or less what real sailing is like, I began to enjoy it on a whole new level. I found myself appreciating the wide range of weather effects from stormy nights, to the the glorious pink/pale dew of an early morning sunrise, to the changing ebb and flow of the waves. I felt at the mercy of the waters, and it it was a very good feeling. I made sure to explore every square on the map, going so far as to keep a notepad handy so as to record all the hints I could gather from each area's hint giving fish. In short, I felt like a true adventurer.

While I still say using the wind waker itself is a chore, the fact remains that had the boat controlled like most videogame boats, where you have full control of the vessel and don't need to muck about with the winds, the game would have been more conventionally fun. However, it would have lacked the peculiar atmosphere that only this control scheme could muster. Going into it as a conventional game as I did at first, may leave you cold. Buy into its unique systems, however, and the rewards are plentiful.

Giddy up!

Another, similar example involves a unique control scheme for transportation; the horse in Shadow of the Colossus. The horse is a pain to control at first. He doesn't go exactly where you want him to go, runs into walls, and stops in his tracks if you hit a rough patch. But then I realized that if I used minimal controller input, the horse would navigate these obstacles on his own. He has his own AI, and I was only having problems with it because I was fighting it.

Once I realized this, not only was the horse easier to control, but it made the game that much more immersive. It wasn't just me playing a game fighting a giant monster, but me and my sentient companion working together towards a common goal. My favorite battles in the game were the ones where you'd have to ride him while shooting arrows. You cannot aim your bow and arrow while steering, so you have to go back and forth between aiming your weapon, then kicking your horse to get him back up to a full gallop, readjusting his course, then going back to shooting. It's more complex than it needs to be, but it also does a better job of putting you in the moment than a more traditional control scheme that gives you more control of the situation.

The Force is with you... always

Another great moment in recent gaming was near the end of Metal Gear Solid 4, where Snake is running down a hallway towards his last stand. As he runs down a near endless corridor, the game plays snippets of dialogue from people he's known throughout his life, ala Obi-Wan's post-mortem declaration that Luke should in fact, use the force. It's a powerful moment, even though you're not actually doing much beyond holding forward on the analogue stick.

The scene following scene is even better where Snake must go through a tunnel full of microwaves that are literally burning him to death. The screen splits horizontally and the top half is comprised of cutcenes of supporting characters in their last stand, while the player controls Snake at the bottom. Again, all you're doing is holding forward on the analogue stick, and later mashing a button, things that shouldn't be fun, but are due to the wonderful production values surrounding the setpiece. This scene is however a little more manipulative than the similar sequence I mentioned above, because it relies half on cutscenes. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I didn't sign up for this...

Survival-horror games are a genre known for gimping their controls in order to make the player feel more vulnerable. Admittedly, the genre generally doesn't appeal to me that much, maybe because I feel the control limitations feel too restrictive in a way that doesn't compliment the situation. Not being able to see very well in the dark or peek around corners just feels false, as I'd be able to do these things in real life. While I may enjoy the games less because of this, and while the control limitations overcompensate for how weak you are, I do feel like they succeed in making you dread enemy encounters. In essence, I don't generally find games like Silent Hill to be fun, but I DO find them to be engaging, tense, and sometimes frightening, which is what they're aiming for.

I guess what I'm driving it is that games can be at their most engaging when they're not exactly "fun." By bucking convention and robbing the player of control, you can build up atmosphere in a way that wouldn't be possible by letting the player have too much freedom. People find entertainment in a variety of offbeat ways, like going to sad movies, for example. So in this regard, I do like my games to be entertaining, but I'm realizing that there are more and more unique ways of achieving this in games than I once thought. I'm curious what other people think on this topic. Agree? Disagree? Thoughts? Opinions?
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