F Is for Friends
One big gaming craze has completely passed me by over the last few years; Dark Souls. I’m plenty aware of it. I’ve played a fair bit of the first entry. Still, no matter how hard I try to force myself, I just don’t get the obsession. The stats are nearly impenetrable, the story is barely present and a tiny mess up during combat because you missed a single step, or the camera suddenly jostled around, can set you back two hours. I have other things to be doing! I can’t afford to lose all that progress in the blink of an eye! Really, I just don’t see the appeal of something that amounts to little more than an exercise in frustration!
U is for You and Me and Mario Kart
Y’know what is great though? Mario Kart. Sit around with your mates, fire up a bit of Moo Moo Meadows, and away you go. One of Mario Kart‘s major triumphs is that just about anyone can pick it up and play fairly competently. A little more practice, and you’ll consistently be able to stay out of the Bone Zone (i.e. 4th – 8th place where you get hit with all the worst weapons, all of the time.) However, if you really want to get good, like, really be sure of securing 1st place in every track at any speed, you’ve gotta put a little more work in. Learn all the shortcuts, nail your drifting technique, find the perfect mix of all those minute little kart stats for each map. Get all that down, and you’ll be comfortably in 1st place on every map.
N is for No Survivors
All that’s well and good, until someone, some human waste of flesh, decides, “Hey, you know what’d be class? If I just fired this Blue Shell right now.” And then she does it, and boom, you’re flat on your butt, about 5 meters from the finish line. Then along comes the Green Shell, the Red Shell, and some ignorant so-and-so firing a banana behind when he’s already won the race.
Before you know it, that CPU Donkey Kong, who was lagging in 8th for the entire race, has taken your winning spot. Meanwhile, you’re left sitting there, staring at the friends sitting around you. You’re wondering what it was you ever saw in them, seething with rage AND THAT’S WHEN I KILLED THEM YOUR HONOUR! AND I’D DO IT AGAIN!!! *ahem* It’s fun folks. Try it sometime.
The Salt Must Flow
Games are generally at their most fun when they’re challenging and have a well thought out set of mechanics, giving you a real sense of reward when you finally complete a stage. Other times though, games manage to be fun by using frustration as a tool. In the case of both Mario Kart and Dark Souls, part of the fun and longevity comes purely from those moments that induce pure, belligerent rage. In times of yore, games could have been frustrating simply due to dodgy controls or other poor aspects of design, but they were never enjoyable because of it. Engaging players using designs that fall a fair distance outside of what might traditionally be called ‘fun’ is a fairly recent practice.
More and more, game design is branching out and evolving to find more ways of engaging the player. Beyond just fine tuning an enjoyable or addictive set of mechanics, designers are considering what engages with other aspects of the human psyche. It’s not an entirely new practice, with games like Resident Evil having used fear as a key part of the experience over 20 years ago. It is however, a practice that has exploded over the last half decade. Just look at the amount of jump scare games that were released in a relatively short span of time. Even though these games commonly contain elements of shooters, or other ‘fun’ mechanics, the fear is at the core of the engagement, not the shooting.
…I Could Probably Have Learned A New Language Instead
Take, for example, Skyrim, a game that I’ve sank over a solid month of actual game time into. If I talked about its combat mechanics, it’s not a super engaging story to tell. The dialogue tree is also severely reduced from any of the older games in the series. What really makes Skyrim engaging is the exploration. Traveling the world and just finding things has always been, for me at least, far more enjoyable than the mechanics built into the game. Simply wandering aimlessly is not something I’d readily describe as fun, though. Moving even further away from that, games like Dear Esther, or for better or worse, the Quantic Dream releases, have been finding different ways to engage us. These games don’t necessarily have fun at their core, but they are, for many people, interesting and engaging.
So, perhaps games are becoming less fun, but that isn’t a bad thing. There will always be plenty of fun games on the market, but as designers grow more daring, and technology creeps along, we’re finding many more ways to improve on the state of the art.