By Shaun Quaintance – Is it fun? A question asked by both gamers and game designers alike. Gamers often gauge their purchases on whether a game is considered ‘fun’ or not whereas game designers work themselves into a zombie like state until they feel that their game is ‘fun’ enough. However, I feel like putting this illusive word high up on a pedestal, like we oh so often do, can lead to great games being overlooked or falsely labelled as a bad game as well as great core designs being butchered all because they weren’t considered fun enough. It can also result in people denying themselves some awesome video game experiences.
That’s why, as I sit here at god knows what time at night, eyes streaming from tiredness as I clutch my cup of coffee like my life depends on it, I propose that we look for an alternative term that allows gamers to know if a game achieves what it sets out to do whilst also providing game designers something to aim for whilst they do their thang. That term, I believe, is immersive. To explain why I think this I’ll first try and explain why fun became such an important word in describing and designing a game, I’ll then ramble through why I believe fun is no longer the be-all and end-all and why immersive better suits both description and design of a game. Now, if you’ll excuse me for a quick second I need to run and grab some more coffee before I fall asleep on the keyboard and the rest of this article becomes gibberish from where my head was turning over during my slumber.
WHY FUN CAME TO BE
Before I was born, because believe it or not I’m not a grumpy old coot just yet, gaming took place in these mysterious locations known as arcades. In said arcades, gamers were able to play a wide range of video games. However, there was a catch. In order to play these video games people had to use another mysterious thing to me called money, one game would cost you however much it charged, if you ran out of lives then it was game over and you had to spend even more of that sweet sweet coin.
So, how do you make as much money as possible from these arcade machines? Simple, through the designs of the game. Mechanics such as lives and timers ensured that the majority of games wouldn’t go on for too long off of the same money. That’s all well and good getting someone to spend their money before quickly dispatching them but you also want to try and get gamers to keep coming back to your game to spend even more of their money, other mechanics such as scores and leaderboards helped retain people’s interest but one thing was often seen as the key, the holy grail, the…um…philosopher’s stone to getting those coins inserted over and over again. That thing was fun.
You see, it turns out if you’re having fun doing something then you’re more likely to do it again, why do you think people continue to do drugs? (Quick note for any kids reading, drugs are NOT fun! I repeat, drugs are NOT fun!). If people found your game fun then they would want to play again and again and again, if it wasn’t fun then they would go give their money to some other machine (another reason why fun was more important than mechanics like scores and leaderboards, while they could help retain a player, if the game still wasn’t ‘fun’ then they were as pointless as me attending a Minecraft convention with a false look of enthusiasm).
WHY FUN IS NO LONGER RELEVANT
So, why should fun no longer be the big machismo? Well, there’s multiple reasons but a good way to summarise them is that the games industry has evolved so much since the arcade days. Video games transitioned to the sitting room and with that new mechanics and design philosophies came into existence. Rare is one of the best examples of the shift in game styles, they realised that games were no longer about the score central gameplay but rather about the adventure, about the experience.
All the mechanics I mentioned before, whilst still having their own place in certain games and genres, are far less important in today’s games industry. High scores and leaderboards have been mainly moved to online gaming or small sections of single player games where developers have created a mode designed to provide some form of replayability after the main campaign. Timers are now often seen as a pain in the ass as they remove the player’s ability to play the game at their own pace and lives…well lets just say if I ran out of lives playing the latest Ratchet and Clank and had to start from the very beginning again then Insomniac would be getting a bill for one Dualshock 4 controller. So if all of these mechanics from arcade times have evolved and found their own places within games today…why hasn’t fun?
A vast amount of games no longer aim to necessarily provide fun but instead aim to provide an experience, to solicit a certain range of emotions and responses from the player. So why do we still often base a game’s value on how fun it is like back in the arcade days? Allow me to provide a few quick examples of fairly recent games that weren’t necessarily fun for me but are still great games that managed to immerse me into their worlds.
Alien: Isolation is a horror game. Now, anyone that knows me knows that I am the last person to enjoy anything horror related, I tend to avoid them out of fear that my heart will finally give out. When anyone mentioned horror games I would say that I simply don’t find the fun in being scared and would pay no further attention to it. However, on one fateful EGX there was an Alien: Isolation booth that I agreed to participate in (whilst simultaneously bricking it thinking that I was about to piss myself in front of a rather large group). What followed was an experience that I wouldn’t call fun but instead immersive. Alien didn’t resort to cheap jump scares to get a scream out of me but instead drew me into the world, made me feel afraid and nervous within the game. Due to this experience I ended up buying the game on release and, despite my brain telling me I was a fool, I played through the whole thing. Did I have fun? Hell no! I was shitting myself the whole time, however, I had an experience that only a video game could provide and something that I’m glad I did. Alien: Isolation went on to be one of my games of the year and was a game I never would’ve touched again after EGX if I had based its value on whether I found it fun or not.
Papers, Please is another great example of a game that may not be viewed as fun but is instead extremely immersive. The game sees you take the role of an immigration officer at the border of the fictional country of Arstotzka. Your job is to review passports and other paperwork to see if they abide by the set of rules you’re given. Doesn’t sound too fun right? However, there’s something about Papers, Please that makes you keep playing, it sucks you into its world and immerses you into a character who has to make moral choices on whether to help citizens in tight situations despite their incorrect paperwork or look out for their own family in a time of civil unrest.
My final example is last year’s Firewatch (spoilers in this paragraph). I hadn’t played Firewatch when I started hearing people say how boring or tedious the gameplay was and how disappointing the ending was when the twist was that there…well…wasn’t a twist, that there was no overarching villain, no big conspiracy, no mystery, that the game just ends. This intrigued me into playing the game and while you may not find the ending fun (I personally love a good mystery and plot twist) it’s clear that was never the intentions of the developers and that the Firewatch story done exactly what it set out to. We often try to find meaning in things that have none, we also try and distract ourselves from our troubles in a determination not to confront them, that is exactly what Firewatch is about and intends to relay to the player.
WHY IMMERSIVE IS A BETTER TERM
None of the three games above are ones that I would’ve described as fun however they are all greatly designed games that immerse you into their world, provide you with a unique experience and excel at getting their intended reactions from the player. So, why should immersive be the word that replaces fun?
For a start, fun can be a very subjective word. There could be a game that I find fun that you find extremely dull and, as if often unfortunately the case, many people will instantly disregard a game no matter how well designed it is simply because it doesn’t look or feel fun. Alien: Isolation is a perfect example of this, I’m sure many people had fun playing that game, I personally didn’t but does that make it a bad game? No, in fact it is an incredibly well designed game that successfully immerses players into its world by invoking the emotions of fear and anxiety. Of course immersive can also be seen as a subjective term, some people may not feel fear whilst playing Alien: Isolation, however it is much easier to gauge the success of a games design on whether it manages to create the emotions and responses it aims for (immersive) rather than whether it creates the emotions and responses that you personally enjoy (fun).
This also trickles into the job of the game designer. Again if a game designer makes the aim of their game to be as fun as possible then there’s a greater chance of mechanics being implemented that don’t necessarily compliment the core of the game and end up creating an experience that feels mixed and off balance for the sake of trying to be fun. Instead, attempting to create a specific immersive experience in your game will often lead to tighter mechanics and a more overall solid experience. Sure you’re still not going to please everyone, that’s impossible, but hopefully more people will see the value in your product and the logic in your design.
Finally, I’m not saying that fun doesn’t have its place in games anymore, not by a long shot. I’m saying that fun shouldn’t be used to determine the quality of a game’s overall design, whether it be a game you’re playing or a game you’re designing. Instead, you should look towards how immersive it is, what emotions it aims and succeeds at producing. If you do that you may just end up coming out of the experience with a whole new appreciation for a genre you previously dismissed or with some new insight into the thought process behind modern game designs rather than sulking to yourself in a corner because you personally didn’t find it fun and therefore it is a bad game no matter what other people say.
Keep on gaming.