By William Shelton
At E3 this year Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aimé said something I want to talk about. It was something I was glad to hear him say and something I think speaks deeply to Nintendo’s core design philosophy, but none the less it is a statement I hate. He said “if [a game] isn’t fun, why bother?” While I’m not going to try and argue that video games need to stop being fun, that would be ludicrous, I do have to ask why this line of thought is so prevalent in the gaming community. Every other form of Art has its masterpieces that are not meant to be enjoyed in a way you could call “fun”. From Bosch’s “A Violent Forcing of the Frog” to Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”, a lot of great art can be unenjoyable and even downright hard to sit through. Not only do I think games are capable of this as well, a few have ready proven it can be done.
Spec Ops: The Line is a great example of this, if a little cliche to talk about. In a lot of ways the game is a complete mess. The controls are far from tight, enemies act in predictable ways and spawn in obvious “video game-y” locations. On top of that, it had it’s fair share of bugs as well. I remember spending 10 minutes trying to shoot out a window in order to move the plot along, only to restart the mission and have it break almost instantly. There just isn’t a lot of enjoyment to get out of “Spec Ops: The Line”.
But it is a game I think every one should play. Released in 2012, Spec Ops: The Line came out near the height of the “Modern Warfare” craze and was a damning critique of both the genre and the culture that made it one of the biggest phenomenons in entertainment. While it would be easy to look at the games mechanical flaws and say it was shoddily made, in fact almost every part of it was expertly crafted. The poor controls and obvious enemy spawns help reinforce to the player that they are in fact playing a game. Unlike most other games were the control scheme is made to help the player forget about the hunk of plastic in their hands, Spec Ops never wants you to forget that you’re playing a game. It wants that fact in your mind at all times. Because the game soon starts asking you to do things that are meant to feel wrong. The games enemies are American soldiers, Not just that, they are the player characters countrymen. Through out the game you are constantly killing your own people, and you’re aware of that from the nearly the very start of the game. Then there is the games famous white phosphorus scene, when you kill hundreds of civilians. The question is, why? Why do you do these horrid things? Because the game tells you too. The game asks you to commit war crimes, and you do, because the game told you to and thus it must be the right thing, right? Spec Ops: The Line was designed not to be fun in order to ask why a game about armed warfare should be considered fun in the first place.
Another game well worth you’re time despite not being a whole lot of fun is Loneliness by creator Jordan Magnuson. Loneliness is a masterpiece of minimalism and a game that taught me a lot about myself. You play as a single pixel and you can beat the entire game in about 5 minutes by simply holding the up key. As you play other pixels appear, all of whom scatter as you approach. After constant rejection you may choose to stop interacting with the other pixels, much like I did. Or maybe you hold on to hope, enthusiastically greeting each new cluster as they appear. There is no wrong way to play Loneliness, but how you choose too speaks volumes. I never realized just how poorly I handle rejection and abandonment until I played Loneliness and was forced to confront it. After the second group ran off I started to avoid any other groups I saw. Just like in real life, I had been hurt and I isolated myself in return.
I don’t think it is passable to create an experience like this that manages to be fun. Loneliness, depression and isolation are not fun emotions. As such, really getting a player into that head space requires engaging them in ways that are atypical to gaming and antithetical to being “fun”.
I don’t want to see a world without my big dumb action games in it. I will take all the Uncharted’s, Overwatch’s and Mario’s this industry wants to throw at me. But there is a whole host of human emotions and experiences that games can address, and I also don’t want to live in a world were developers chose not to engage with that material because they don’t know how to make it fun. Fun is great, it’s important. But it isn’t everything.