“Fun isn’t enough. It’s paramount!”
I take the above quote from a rant Destructoid blogger Jim Sterling made in a recent episode of his topical webshow and hullabaloo magnet: The Jimquisition. In the video, Sterling presents a counter argument to what he feels is the uppity pretensions of indie-game makers who assert that games should aim to be more than just fun — that fun is a secondary concern to the flowery, high-art ideals that many indies aspire to. He claims that fun is not just enough but absolutely essential to the integrity and purpose of a game.
Rather than having a go at Sterling, I want to use his comments to interrogate this notion that games (at their fundamental core) are about escapism and entertainment. That anything else — philosophical inquiry, political commentary, artistic experimentation — is, in essence, decorative. Pleasant and acceptable only so much as to not invalidate the game's primary purpose, which is to engage the audience’s attentions and amuse them for the duration of the experience.
Now this isn’t a totally ridiculous or outrageous position to take. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that (from my own personal experience) this is a fairly common attitude among gamers.
I do think, though, that Sterling's proclamation is just as suffocating and limiting as its opposing notion: that all games should aspire to be high-minded affairs. And to illustrate my thoughts on this I’m going to briefly elope from the untamed wilds of gaming to the well-worn cobblestone of literature to talk about a work that’s very dear to me: Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
The Metamorphosis is not a lot of fun.
It’s a dreary and achingly miserable story about a salesman who transforms into a giant insect and the damage this does to him and his family. It’s slow paced, it’s occasionally tedious, and aspects of Kafka’s writing style are awkward and fiddly. I’m not ashamed to admit that when reading it as part of a University course, there were times I really just wanted to put it down and forget about it.
But you know what? There is one thing that makes The Metamorphosis redeemable. Not only redeemable but brilliant and special and an absolute must-read.
It’s packed with great ideas. Revolutionary ideas. Depressing ideas. Ideas about writing. Ideas about society. Wise and wonderful and heartbreaking ideas.
Long after I closed the book and slid it back on to my dusty oft neglected shelf…long after the frustrations I endured to reach its climax had dissipated, The Metamorphosis’s ideas stayed with me. They have lingered in my brain like some brood of helpful, parasitic worms. Inspiring me to write. Informing my worldview and my tastes. Providing useful trivia for internet forums. You get the idea.
Now, dragging this unruly argument caravan back into untamed wilds of gaming, let’s talk about a little indie title Sterling singled out as particularly offensive to his sensibilities: Passage.
I played it. I didn’t find it fun. But it certainly got me thinking.
And while it wasn’t really my thing, I could see how for a young would-be designer this game might his their Metamorphosis: A game that’s a little droll but whose ideas bewitch and motivate him. And if that is indeed the case — if Passage inspires even just one person to become a game designer or even just think about the medium in a more sophisticated way, then its existence is justified.
Who are we to question Passage's integrity or the integrity of the people who appreciate it? It’s one thing to dislike a game because it’s not your kind of thing. It’s another entirely to suggest that a type of game has no place because it does not fit in with your criteria of what constitutes a valid gaming experience.
But allow me to say — hypocritically, mind you — that there really is too much bibble-babble on this topic. Too many vague, reductionist hypotheses on what a game should or shouldn’t be. Too many arguments that attempt to pin cage-like definitions on an emerging and diverse multimedia art form that has the potential to take on so many wild and varied shapes.
Some games just want to be brainless fun. Some games just want to tell excellent stories. Some games want to convey deep, meaningful messages and concepts. Some games want to challenge conventions. Some ambitious games want to work on a variety of levels — i.e., do a little bit of everything. Some just want to do one thing well and nothing else.
And all those approaches are (and should be considered) valid because each game is its own machine seeking its own separate optimization. We should evaluate them in that context.
Complaining that Passage isn’t "fun" is as misguided and redundant as complaining that Gears of War isn’t deep.