Published on July 18th, 2012 | by Matt
These Games Aren’t “Fun”
I just finished Spec Ops: The Line, and a certain part of me wishes I hadn’t.
Playing a game that sets you on a path as part of the story, and then chastises you for following along seems exploitative, and perhaps it is. But Spec Ops really made me question my own decisions as a player as well as the decisions of the characters in the story. At one point I said to myself, “This is horrible. I am not having fun.” Yet I couldn’t stop playing, and no one was forcing me to do so.
Delta Force Captain Walker’s horrifying journey into damnation and insanity begins as any generic military shooter would. If you’ve listened to this week’s podcast you know that the beginning of the game is so standard it could be considered boring. It’s not until over an hour into the game that the slippery slope into chaos starts to become truly evident. However, the idea is that it could have been avoided long ago; by the player, by Walker, by his squad, or by the rogue American soldiers you were sent to find in the first place. Things just get worse and worse, and no matter what decisions you make trying to fix things there’s a feeling in the pit of your stomach telling you that things aren’t getting better. Then they get even worse.
Some have called Spec Ops: The Line a statement about military shooters, American patriotism, or violent video games in general. While arguments could be made for all of these, writer for the game Walt Williams has said in various interviews that the main target of criticism are the players themselves (warning, links contain major spoilers, do not read/listen unless you’ve finished the game.)
So you have a game that is an amazing work of storytelling. It’s something that you want to experience, juxtaposed with a message telling you’re enjoying killing people (albeit fictional, digital people) for your own entertainment, and you should stop.
See why I’m a little upset?
Yet I can’t recommend Spec Ops: The Line enough. Just know what you’re getting into.
If we play games for entertainment; for fun; what does it mean when a game shakes us in such a way that is not pleasant, yet still drives us to keep going? Does a game have to be fun to be entertaining, and does and game that ceases to be “fun” in that standard way also cease to provide the same entertainment?
Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead is another such example. As soon as the recently released Episode 2: Starved for Help gets started, the game makes it clear that your choices have consequences and no choice will solve all the problems and keep everyone happy. No matter what you choose to do, people get angry, violent, or die as a direct result of your actions. Even after the episode calms down it only becomes a waiting game as the tension builds toward a gut wrenching climax that you can do nothing to prevent, no matter how much you see it coming.
While The Walking Dead doesn’t go to quite the extreme that Spec Ops does, neither episode has ended that you would call a happy one, and it doesn’t look like things will be getting better in the coming episodes.
Yet both these games I enjoy, and both these games have received praise for their engaging stories and choices that are more than the overly simplistic “good vs. evil” system we’re used to.
So does a game have to be fun to provide entertainment? In a certain sense, yes, but the entertainment doesn’t come from simple enjoyment or happiness. Horror games have been taking advantage of a similar effect for years. Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw said as much in his review of Spec Ops, calling it was almost a horror game in its own right.
In recent times Amnesia: The Dark Descent stands out as a game that effectively uses horror, so much so that players have reported being so terrified they haven’t finished it. It’s the adrenaline and excitement and morbid fascination of discovering what lies around the next corner that keeps players going, not necessarily because it falls into the normal realms of “fun.”
Spec Ops: The Line makes you feel bad while playing it because that’s its goal. While we may view games as entertainment, sometimes the consumer’s desire for entertainment conflicts with the creator’s goal for the story or message. If you can enjoy that message, even if the message is offensive, horrifying, or possibly condemning the player, then games can still be enjoyed without necessarily being “fun.”