Monday, September 20, 2010

Do games need to be fun?

One problem fundamental to games as art revolves around the idea of fun; that is, are games just technologically advanced toys and passing fancies meant to kill time, or are they a legitimate medium that not just can be, but should be interpreted in the same way that we interpret other artistic media?  Fun is often integral to our enjoyment of a game - as much as we're pulled in by the space opera narrative of Mass Effect, we wouldn't keep playing if it wasn't for the fact that we found some method of interacting with the game enjoyable.  It's rare to find gamers that are willing to suffer through poor gameplay and frustration simply for the eventual (and potential) payoff that we expect a good story to provide.  And yet, there are plenty examples of games which aren't packed to the brim with fun - in fact, we could describe that playing them is not at all an enjoyable experience.  What I hope to do in this article is explore what constitutes "fun" in games, our relationship towards that fun, and how much of it, if any, is necessary for our enjoyment and/or appreciation of a given game.

The first thing we need to do in understanding whether a game has to be fun or not is figure out precisely what "fun" is, at least with respect to games.  Fun, I'd like to posit, is something that elicits joy, satisfaction, happiness and accomplishment in the player.  This should be fairly plain to anyone who's played a game.  However, fun isn't a constant state - it's something that we take away from a stream of events which we piece together as interrelated.  In Super Mario Bros., every second of the game isn't fun to play, but instead it is punctuated by small sections and segments of gameplay which we enjoy, cumulating in all of the above emotions.  Furthermore, the proportions of these different emotions vary from game to game and individual to individual, and even within a game itself.  I might derive a great deal of satisfaction from stomping on a goomba's head, but for a friend, it might be utterly tame or boring; indeed, the more I do it, I might find too that the fun wears off, as it were, and it becomes simply a task to complete for the sake of a greater goal.  That greater goal, of course, is the promise of more fun down the road: "if I can complete just one more level, I'll get to fight the final boss!" is an easy example.

Fun, however, is also mired in context and expectation.  Continuing from the example of fighting the boss, we might find that the actual boss fight itself is a let-down, not necessarily for any mechanical deficiencies in the boss fight itself, but rather, because of the fact that it's positioned poorly in the game as a whole.  For instance, maybe the level before the boss featured a lengthy build-up, and the boss itself did not fit in with the expected tone of the game; alternately, maybe the boss came after a pedestrian segment of gameplay, and was itself extremely difficult to defeat because the player had been lulled into a false sense of security.  These individual instances of gameplay work fine on their own, but when put next to others, it completely changes the feel of the game and the player's reaction to it.  Of course, this doesn't have to be just gameplay: story is also important to our enjoyment of a game.  Maybe a boss battle is mechanically sound, but the boss' theme or aesthetic is so out of sync with the game up until that point that we are left bewildered and confused; of course, some games revel in this sort of thing (No More Heroes), so again, this depends entirely on the game.

The bleak, haunting tone of Silent Hill is almost wholly
divorced from fun, despite what this playground might suggest.

And, building off of this, tone is itself extremely important in deciding precisely what is fun for a given game.  The ultimate example would be a horror game like Silent Hill.  While admittedly my experience playing the series is extremely limited, I know enough to wager that the standards for "fun" in Silent Hill are colossally different than those of Halo.  While Silent Hill is built upon the slow discovery of clues, building towards a payoff at the end of the game as all pieces of the story's mystery come together, Halo is instead geared towards short 60-second segments of fun delivered regularly through combat, exploration and story - in fact, in examining the better parts from all the Halo titles, it's clear that Bungie have pacing in games nearly down to a science, both when it comes to those individual instances of fun and the fun that comes from completing objectives, levels and the game as a whole.  It's worth noting that neither game is better or worse than the other because of the way that the fun is delivered, regardless of our personal preferences towards what's fun and what isn't.

Despite all of these distinctions, though, it's quite clear that some games provide "more" fun than others.  Halo and Borderlands are both largely first-person shooter games, for example, but much of Borderlands revolves around traversing a largely empty environment with little in the way of companionship.  Despite its role-playing framework and the sense of accomplishment one achieves from levelling up his or her character, it's clear that Halo provides much more fun, at least if we boil that fun down to the individual instances or happenings where it's delivered.  Does this mean that Halo is a more enjoyable game overall?  That is a colossally hard question to answer, and one which speaks directly to the subjectivity we all carry with us in approaching the world.  Game reviewers might say that Borderlands has a more distinct visual style, or that Halo's sweeping orchestral themes are more moving, but in the end it comes down to personal preference; I'd say "no, it doesn't", but for someone less concerned with aesthetics and more with "raw" gameplay, the answer might be the opposite.

 The gameplay of Borderlands is more focused on exploration
than most official media outlets would have you believe.

Examining horror games, we run into a more extreme problem, which is that some games have significantly less fun than others. Silent Hill, as I mentioned, is an extremely intense, scary, brooding, slow-paced experience, certainly much more so than its genre buddies like Resident Evil.  As I said, I don't want to speak too much about a game I have limited exposure to, but from all I gather, Silent Hill is not nearly as much fun on a minute-by-minute basis as Resident Evil, nor does it have the same sort of approach to narrative, level design, characters, gameplay, and so forth.  Frankly, most of the player's time spent playing Silent Hill is not going to be fun or even particularly enjoyable, if that player is anything like me; in fact, they'll probably be scared, or even terrified.  So why do they keep playing it?  There are a number of theories relating to why people enjoy horror, ranging from catharsis, to life-affirmation, to morbid indulgence, to boundary-crossing, to discussion of social problems and events, but I think that even a cursory glance should reveal that none of these touch upon fun at all; they all deal with that "something more" we get out of the work, not how much we enjoy the experience in any immediate way.  Clearly, fun has very little to do with why people play horror games like Silent Hill or Penumbra - if anything, they suffer through them because the draw of the greater story revelation is too compelling to ignore.

The eventual problem I reach in this discussion, though, is whether or not horror games and other niche genres constitute a partial exception to the rule.  Someone might suggest that simulator games don't provide fun, but I'd wager that's not true at all.  While simulators don't provide the instant gratification that many games do (and thus have a fairly niche market all to themselves), they do provide the ability to go places and do things that people would never be able to in their own lives, and through completion of objectives, either explicitly listed in the game or imagined, players are able to have fun via satisfaction and accomplishment.  While the burden of having fun shouldn't be on the player, at the same time, a good simulator will usually be arranged in such a way as to facilitate the player having fun - it might just take a little longer and a bit more effort on the part of the player to get there.  Even Bohemia Interactive's military simulator series ArmA is based upon a more content-rich but barebones product designed for actual military use, which suggests that they know how far you can push something in the direction of "sim" before it starts losing its appeal.

 Military simulator VBS2 was repackaged into ArmA II 
in order to satiate the needs of gamers.

In fact, the only games I can think of that are totally devoid of fun are medical training programs and similar; this is largely by design, of course.  Playing one of those isn't done for the purpose of recreation, enlightenment, etc. - it's as educational as operating on a plastic dummy or reading a textbook.  Any fun that might come from the procedure isn't directly built in, but rather must be brought in by those involved.  However, to call some of these pieces of software "games" could arguably be a misnomer to begin with - perhaps more accurately, we make games out of what's already there. 

In light of this discussion, the conclusion I'm going to have to draw is that fun, as I've defined it, is necessary for games - at least, in some proportion or other, which is highly sensitive to the particular game, including the goals of the game and the audience it intends to appeal to.  While certain serious games and extremely realistic simulators might be able to provide an incredible degree of accuracy, it's not that alone which renders them fun to play, and they simply don't have any use outside of training.  Working down the precise proportions of what makes things fun is no small task, to be sure, but that ball is in the court of game designers, and that's not quite what I intend to do with Critical Miss as a project, as much as I'd like to explore those ideas.

However, I'm not quite done yet with this this current discussion.  In my next article, I'd like to continue with the current train of thought regarding games and art, and move on to contemplating how fun relates to artistic intention and merit in the context of videogames.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Games and high art vs. low art

In my previous article, I discussed some of the criteria I consider necessary to consider when trying to determine if a given game is art.  At the core of my argument was that a game has to have a unified purpose, with gameplay, technology and narrative coming together to form a cohesive whole.  I realise that, in hindsight, this might have been a little presumptuous - after all, games aren't the product of a singular vision, but of a large team of individuals, and they often aren't created with any sort of artistic aspirations in mind (although this is certainly changing in the case of even some major developers).  In this series of follow-up articles, which I hope to finish within the next few days, I'll be looking at a few of the questions that arose from my article, both out of my own head as well as suggested by some of my readers (thanks guys!).

The primary concern that was brought forth was that my article allowed for some rather controversial interpretations.  More specifically, I suggested that Unreal Tournament, following my framework, could be viewed as art.  The obvious response?  "How could Unreal Tournament be art?  It has no story, no real characters, and is built entirely around game mechanics!"  This sort of statement instantly reveals a belief that many of us have when it comes to art: that for something to be art, it has to be intellectual, emotionally stirring, or otherwise "arty".  This could be explained more simply by the difference we see between art and craft; that is, a work by Monet might be interpreted as art, while a painting on the wall of a hotel is seen as a craft - we acknowledge the mechanical labour and skill that went in producing the piece, but there is an almost invisible understanding that the piece is not "meant" to be high art.

Applying this to video games, we see the same complaint can be made of Unreal Tournament, or even titles that I didn't discuss, like Nintendogs.  The way that many would respond is that while these games are well-made and well-designed, they are not artistic in the same way that a purpose-built piece of art might be.  Yet there are inherently some problems with this belief that have been the subject of debate within the art world for centuries.  Namely, does something have to be built or created as art for it to actually be art?  Shakespeare is considered today to be one of the finest playwrights in history, and yet during his life, his work was regarded as common entertainment and little else.  Similarly, beautiful pieces of architecture often serve the purpose of housing banks, offices, government buildings, and other decidedly "non-artistic" functions.

 Super Mario Bros., most would argue, is
art of a sort, but what makes it so special?

But what happens when we ask the same of games other than Unreal TournamentSuper Mario Bros.
is one of the most influential and well-known games of all time, possibly the most, and I think most people involved with games would consider it to be a piece of art.  Why is this?  Although the game is indeed executed nearly flawlessly considering the time of its release, is there anything about it that particularly says "art"?  Is it the functional but effective visuals?  The iconic soundtrack?  The quality of its mechanics?  Is there anything in particular about it at all that actually makes us sit back and think "that's art" when we may not think the same of another equally well-conceived title?  Inevitably, we have to fall back on one of two answers.  The first, "it's a classic" is unconvincing at best, since it's imprecise and lacks detail as to precisely why a game's precedent matters in relation to its status as art (I have seen many arguments for this sort of thing in the rest of the art world, equally unconvincing).  The second, and most plausible answer, is "it's cohesive and unified in all aspects of its design".  Upon inspecting Super Mario Bros., I think we could all agree: its visuals, soundtrack, gameplay and so forth all serve to achieve the same goal of providing a fun and immediate platform game.  Does it have much to say?  Not really, no, but it's damn well executed.

The simple fact is that we cannot continue to make exceptions for Super Mario Bros., Pong and any other classics that we might crown, either older games or new "modern classics".  Such exceptions fly in the face of us formulating any sort of precise definition for games as art, as well as criteria for understanding them as good art or bad art.  Unreal Tournament might not be full of artistic pretence, and it's not a classic of the same caliber as Super Mario Bros., but to say that it is any less accomplished a game would be to ignore all of the things that it excels at so well in favour of things that we might consider to be "low" on the artistic scale.

Of course, when it comes to Unreal Tournament, those things would be violence and gore.  It seems that whenever one introduces graphic violence to a work of fiction, it's instantly lowered in the eyes of critics and even the public at large, as if something which features blood and guts can't be anything other than a mere childish amusement.  This actually presents quite a problem for games, especially modern games, since so many of them revolve around violence; in order to still be considered "artistic", a game that features violence has to have plenty of other things to "make up" for all of that excess.  Rather than fully accept the violence as an integral part of our enjoyment of the piece, we instead try to justify it by saying "well, at least the story is good", or even "it's a mature work for mature people".  Viewed at a glance, BioShock is no different from legions of other shooters; the game seems almost aware of this, and at every turn is desperate to ensure us that it is "more than just a shooter", just as we insist the same to onlookers.

Now, I'm not trying to say that BioShock isn't necessarily art, although as an art piece I'd say it has some major problems.  However, I don't think it's not art, or low art, simply because of some of its graphic imagery.  Rather, I'd say that the violent content of the game helps to support the narrative, at least to some degree.  BioShock isn't just senseless violence: the game gives players context for the violence that they commit, and even provides meta-commentary by way of a plot device to make us feel a bit uneasy about the things that we do in the game as second nature.  I would go as far as to say as that BioShock would be significantly harmed as a game if it did not include its depictions of violence and gore - perhaps the core experience and story would come through, but it would be lacking a visceral quality to it that would take us out of the game rather than draw us in.  Conversely, the unrealistic and exaggerated blood and gore effects of Unreal Tournament serve to accentuate its hyper-violent and lighting-fast game universe and play style - when you shoot someone with the Flak Cannon and blow them to bits, it satiates something primal and kinetic inside of us.  Just as the inclusion of realistic (for game standards) gore in BioShock helps make the experience more plausible and disturbing, the excess of Unreal Tournament's violence gives us tangible feedback within what might be a very unfamiliar world.  Of course, this works in reverse too: Super Mario Bros. is enhanced by its cartoonish depictions of violence, and would only be harmed by any more than it already portrays.  Violence itself won't make or break a game's art value, but its execution within the context of a given game can certainly add to or detract from its artistic merit.

Taken out of context, BioShock's realistic violence could
be seen as tasteless, but it serves a strong narrative purpose in-game.

In any case, what we do need to do is get beyond this high art vs. low art divide that is currently harming the games industry.  I don't mean to say that we need to start evaluating all games by the same artistic standards - certainly that would be a foolish waste of time, as every other major form of media is well aware of the differing standards between its genres and formats.  However, there is nothing preventing us as critics, journalists and individual thinkers and consumers from looking at games from a more critical perspective, and abandoning our biases about what can and can't be art, as well as our presumptions about various "tiers" of artistry.  I'm convinced that doing so is one of the best ways to ensure that the games industry move forward.

There are a couple of benefits to be had from taking this more open approach.  The first is that we that much more accepting of new ideas.  Thinking of X and Y as artistic is fine, but it also limits what we consider to be art in the first place.  Rather than look for telltale signs of an "art game", instead we'll be able to give all games the benefit of the doubt, as it were.  The second is that we will begin to look at games beyond mere toys.  We don't think of art in the same way we do casual entertainment, or decoration.  As soon as we start to think about something artistically, we start to examine it on far different merits than we would "just a game" - namely, how it speaks to us as human beings and to our human experiences, and what sorts of things it teaches us about the world we live in.

There is a downside to this, and that is that we could run into a potential post-modern quagmire of "well, since art is up to the interpreter, anything can be art".  That may be the case, and that's not something that I believe I can fundamentally or wholly disprove.  However, in the following articles, I hope to further outline some of the criteria for evaluating games as art, to hopefully provide more context and specificity to my articles, as well as in order to shoot a few holes in the "everything is art" argument.

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