Now here’s a funny thing: this article has absolutely nothing to do with what I’d originally planned. But this is a situation where the story changes in telling, rather than an editor telling you to change the story. In a nutshell, this month’s Culture Clash column for the International Game Developers Association was meant to talk about the portrayal of sexual violence in literary media, using the two movies I mention below as a basis.
But the piece just wasn’t working. I have strong opinions on the subject but despite knowing a great many words, my strong opinions weren’t coming out the way I wanted them to. So I took a walk, and as so often happens, a completely different concept with the same building blocks popped into my head. That’s what you see here. I hope it’s more than just another article about the debate over “fun,” or at least another way of framing it, but I leave that to your judgment. Enjoy!
Something I’ll Never Do Again
By Matthew Sakey
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
By sheer accident I recently saw two movies I had no plans to ever see again: Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. I first saw them in film school, in 1994 or ’95, and once was enough for both. They’re examples of truly masterful cinema, but they’re also two of the most disturbing movies I’ve seen, haunting me ever since.
Then there I was a while ago, idly clicking through cable channels late at night, and lo! Repulsion. I did my natural instinctive shiver and prepared to move on, but the Dumbass Lobe in my brain – the same part that once convinced the rest of my brain to watch The Human Centipede; the same part that convinced the rest of my brain to jump off a parking deck to impress a girl – convinced me not to change the channel.
Repulsion is the story of a young woman who is going mad, and it is profoundly upsetting. Right after it ended, in a sort of double feature from hell, what should come on but The Virgin Spring, the movie that inspired Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left.
After it was all over and I’d uncoiled myself from the cringing, wide-eyed fetal horror-ball into which I’d reflexively constricted, I was able to reaffirm that they’re impeccable examples of filmmaking, despite being so distressing that watching them isn’t at all enjoyable. But it had been worthwhile, not just the first time 17 years ago but the second as well. I had eaten the cinematic equivalent of my vegetables and was healthier for it; unhappy during the experience but aware of the value in what I was doing, even to the point of gleaning more value with still-unenjoyed seconds. That’s quite different from not enjoying a movie and not wanting to see it again because it’s bad.
Games have much less leeway in this area. I mean come on, that pitch? A game so disturbing it’ll stay with players for years after they finish, that they’ll not really enjoy playing in any traditional sense, and that most will elect never to play again.
It does happen, though – with commercial games, not just weird Belgian indies. Just last month I observed that Max Payne 3’s unbelievably bleak experience is a sign of evolution in what developers feel they can try thematically. In the end I think Max Payne 3 was a great game, but play it again? I doubt it.
We can’t ignore nuances. If you held up a copy of Dragon’s Dogma and a copy of Max Payne 3 and asked me if I enjoyed either one, or expected to play either again, the answer would be “no” across the board. I’d even concede that I didn’t have fun playing either of those games.
This calls into question the argument that games must be “fun.” I think it’s an incredibly short-sighted, unnecessarily restrictive, and inherently invalid view, for two reasons:
- No game is all fun. Loading screens aren’t fun. Keymapping isn’t fun. The fourth time you face the same boss usually isn’t fun. Repeated failure isn’t fun. Thus while games should strive to include bursts of “fun” around experiential scaffolding, the implication that games be fun and nothing else is over-general.
- One person’s fun is another’s misery, and trying to whack every fun mole leads to insipid, homogenized products satisfying only to Bobby Kotick.
I don’t want to get into a semantic debate, because intelligent people understand “fun” has different meanings. I didn’t have fun playing Max Payne 3 because it made me sad; it was emotionally arduous. Max Payne 3 is Repulsion or The Virgin Spring – not fun at all, but worth it even so.
I didn’t have fun playing Dragon’s Dogma because I felt nothing while playing. Nothing deep or shallow; neither moment to moment satisfaction or any sense that there was more impact to be found. Dragon’s Dogma is The Watch or Supercapitalist – neither fun nor possessed of any quality sufficient to offset the absence of fun.
Whenever I talk to aspiring designers, one of the first things I tell them is to be careful about rigidity. Worry less about “fun” and more about creating games that consistently engage the player, whatever emotion that engagement may manifest. Remember that you’re building a game and not a movie, but don’t over-limit your perception of what a game can or should be. And if you’re gonna make a game that’s not fun, make a game that’s not fun in the right way.
4A Games’ Metro 2033 is based on a novel, and if you’ve actually read Dmitry Glukhovksy’s book, you know that it’s mostly internal self-reflection and philosophical debate. I wouldn’t call it slow, exactly, but it’s talky and measured, with little action and a very specific, complex message.
With that in mind, 4A Games went out and made Metro 2033: not perfect, but a fine game. Its real triumph was how it balances itself, offering just the type of engagement we expect in a video game while remaining faithful to the novel’s structure, plot, and message. Much of Metro 2033 isn’t fun – some design decisions hinder it, but mostly it’s not a “fun” game because it’s not a “fun” environment; it’s nihilistic and desperate and goes out of its way to emphasize that not only do you have no chance against the antagonist, maybe you shouldn’t have a chance against them. You finish Metro 2033 and you’re not likely to rush back. If you’re me, it even took several tries to really get into the game, because at first you (ahem) weren’t having enough fun. Let that go, however, and you’ll see a really innovative game that can teach us a lot about how to convert messages across media and remind us that fun is only one small ingredient.
Done right, Repulsion or The Virgin Spring could be compelling video games. Done right, those are games I’d buy and play and probably never want to play again, and never regret any instant of the experience – after I released my body from the cowering rictus of dread into which I’d ratcheted it.
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