A recent GameSpot video got my attention.
In it, narrator Mike Mahardy explains how games can go beyond being simple avenues for escapism and entertainment. I agree with most of what the video has to say, except for its title: “Video Games Don't Need to be Fun.”
I'd argue that if a game isn't fun in one way or another, it's going to fail. But that doesn't mean a game can't go beyond mere entertainment to be emotional or thought-provoking, as well. Some of the best games I've played balance all of these things exceptionally well.
Mahardy uses horror game “Outlast 2” as an example of a game that isn't “fun,” but still is worth playing.
“All in all, it's a fairly miserable experience, yet I can't wait to finish it,” he says. “This is always fascinating to me. Why am I playing games that I'm not enjoying?”
I'd argue that Mahardy is enjoying it, just not in the traditional sense.
Why do people watch scary movies or read horror books alone in the dead of night? Probably because they get a kick out the sheer terror these activities provide. They're not “fun” in the happy-go-lucky sense, but they're certainly entertaining in some fashion. A horror video game such as “Outlast 2” is no different.
Mahardy also mentions “The Witness,” a challenging puzzle game. He claims “The Witness” is in no way fun and that he'll never play it again, but it's still one of his favorites in recent memory.
I, too, played “The Witness” and didn't find it that enjoyable. The difference? I stopped playing; Mahardy continued.
Why would someone play a game—a leisurely activity—if it's not somehow stimulating? They wouldn't. Mahardy likely wasn't enjoying all the hours he spent racking his brain, but I bet he got a kick out of the eureka moments that came after solving challenging puzzles. That's the type of entertainment I never found with “The Witness,” which is why I stopped playing.
In the video, Mahardy mentions “flow state,” which is when a player becomes so engrossed in a game that he or she enters an autopilot mode where hours melt away in minutes. “Fun” is a subjective term, but a flow state is one way in which it can be measured. It's true not every game needs to put players into this state; there are more ways games can be engaging.
But successful games, the ones that people talk about for years after their release, are the ones that entertain. Even if a game scares you, makes you cry or causes you to think deeply about something you'd never considered, if it's doing its job, you're still having “fun.”
Think of movies everyone enjoys, such as “Toy Story.” People love the humor and the animation and the characters and the comedy. It's pure amusement.
Now think of other amazing films that deal with more serious topics, such as “Schindler's List.” No, it's not fun in the “Toy Story” sense, but it's certainly entertaining in some ways. Whether that “fun” comes from learning about history, anxiously awaiting the story's conclusion, the emotional impact or something else entirely varies from viewer to viewer.
There's nothing wrong with “Toy Story” games that exist just to be a blast, just like there's nothing wrong “Schindler's List” games that are rough to get through but are still entertaining enough to keep audiences enthralled.
But developers need to remember games—just like novels, films and all other forms of entertainment—are just that: entertainment. How artists engage their audiences is up to them, but engage them they must.