With increasing power available to game developers and the continually rising average age of gamers, is fun important? Recently the awesome Naughty Dog said The Last of Us Part 2 would be engaging instead of fun. So do games have to be fun in the modern console age?
For us, with The Last of Us specifically, we don’t use the word “fun,” We say “engaging,” and it might seem like a minor distinction, but it’s an important one for us. – Neil Druckman, Naughty Dog
Here’s the article if you are interested.
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Do Games have to be fun or are we now looking for something else?
Now we all love to have fun, who doesn’t? But is fun necessary to engage and entertain us? Schindlers List is a superb film, is it fun? No. Is it compelling, emotional and engaging? Hell Yes! Is George Orwell’s 1984 a fun read? No. Is it compelling, emotional and engaging? Hell yes!
So if other media can entertain us without being fun why shouldn’t games? Over the last 5 to 10 years storytelling in gaming has moved forward at an incredible pace. Larger budgets and more mainstream interest in gaming as a platform has allowed developers to push the boundaries of what games are. Yes, we all still love to blow stuff up but we are also more willing to be emotionally engaged with this genre.
Games for Grown Up’s
According to Venture Beat, the US-based Gaming Advocacy Group that runs E3, the average of gamers is 31. Here’s the report. The infographic to the right, from the same report, shows that the largest single demographic age range, at 39%, are over 36, a category I am 11 years into. Is it any wonder that content for games is getting more mature and emotionally intelligent? 71% of the gaming public is over 18.
At the BAFTA Game Awards this year there was even a new category celebrating Games Beyond Entertainment recognising games that tackled difficult issues through gaming. Hellblade was the big winner that night, a game that is certainly not fun to play. Do games have to be fun to win awards? No. Do games have to be fun to deal with complex issues? No.
To Hellblade and Back Again
Ninja’s Theories incredible game really espouses this entire argument. A game that deliberately made the player uncomfortable to help them understand the impact of mental illness. There’s a threat in the early stages of the game that your progress will be erased completely if Senua succumbs to her sickness. Binaural audio unsettles the player and gives them insight into the mind of someone suffering from psychosis. It has photo-realistic characters with superb performance capture, so every blow physical and emotional, is raw and brutal. And yet Hellblade, my game of 2017, has garnered acclaim from critics and players alike and sold well beyond Ninja Theories expectations. And yet it’s not fun.
Do games have to be fun to win awards? No. Do games have to be fun to deal with complex issues? No.
Games with Issues
So many games have attempted (with varied success) to tackle serious issues. Life is Strange, teenage suicide. Valiant Hearts, the futility of war. This Dragon Cancer, the death of a child. The Last of Us, loss, grief and redemption. The interactive nature of games and the agency they give you forces the player to connect with the situation far more powerfully than a film ever could. Some decision-based games will give different endings and outcome dependant on your choices. In Life is Strange your conversation choices and actions are the difference between talking a suicidal girl down from a roof or her leaping to her death. Film can’t do that.
Live with your Choices
Some games even make us responsible for our actions. Life is Strange in the last paragraph is a prime example. TellTale Games have been doing it for years with their many choice-based games. Two recent games have taken this to more extreme levels. The choices in Vampyr are irreversible. A lack of a manual save function and regular auto saves mean there is no way to undo a poor choice. Live with the choice or start again they are your only options. is it fun? No. does it make you consider and question your decisions before making them? Hell yes! A game forcing you to take responsibility for your actions! No that’s interesting.
Detriot Become Human took this choice based thing to a whole new level. Your choices, successes and failures have a profound effect on the game. My son’s playthrough was very different to mine with different endings and different characters alive or dead at the end. I watch a playthough by YouTuber Hannah Rutherford and her journey through the game was entirely different again. All three of us took the peaceful ethical route through Detroit but got totally different experiences. Although Detroit was sometimes a little heavy handed with its themes of Racism and intolerance, your agency in the lives or deaths of these characters made you connect with them all the more powerfully. You cared if they lived or died. You wanted the happy ending for them all and trust me some of the endings are far from happy if you’re not careful.
Is Fun a Requirement for a Good Game?
I think if all games were like Hellblade the industry would not survive long. For every Schindler’s List there needs to be an Incredibles 2, for every 1984 there needs to be a How to Train Your Dragon. And so with games, for every Hellblade there needs to be a Wolfenstein. Mindless fun is something we all need in our lives, to raise a smile, to de-stress, to be entertained. But every so often there’s nothing wrong with challenging our emotional intelligence and forcing ourselves to think about important issues. Do games have to be fun in this modern console age? Not all of them, but if they’re not fun they’d better have something important to say.
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