|And Pilate did sayeth, "Dost thou even game,|
bro?" And the Lord did /sigh
“Quid est ludicrum?” ask the Pilates of our day, and I do not think them insincere.What is fun, anyway? You can ask five gamers and get six opinions. This person thinks a game without challenge is no fun. That person says a game without a narrative is no fun. And that person over there only enjoys turn-based strategy games in which anime schoolchildren murder God.
But if we pinned these people down, I think they would admit that the presence of these elements in and of themselves is not enough. The Cult of Challenge may decry “casual” games, but each acolyte draws the line between challenge and impossibility at a different point. The Narrative Collective may denigrate a narrative-less FTP game like Farmville while loathing the narrative mess which is Final Fantasy XIII. And I’m sure our anime strategist can name a few entries into that genre which failed to meet expectations.
It is not the presence or absence of our favored bits of gaming that makes games fun. No one loves abstract mechanics divorced from context. Fun comes from the interaction of subject (the player)and object (the game), an interaction which gives birth to an experience.
There is only one game which I could describe as “pure fun” – 1996’s NiGHTS into dreams... I don’t think that there’s a single thing about that game that I did not enjoy the ever-loving crap out of. The game was pure music – the flying, the item collecting, the twitch reflexes required to pull off combos. The story was simple, but elegantly told. I played the crap out of that game.
And yet, I have no particular interest in flying games as such. Item collecting and twitch reflexes do very little for me in isolation. You could make a game that has all of the discrete elements of NiGHTS which I would entirely disdain – such as 2007’s NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams, a game which was as highly anticipated as it was crushingly disappointing.
I do not want more NiGHTS games or even more games like NiGHTS. I want games that deliver experiences that are as tightly designed and impactful as that mid-90’s masterpiece. What matters is not what elements are present, but how they come together.
Fun is not a single element, but a quality of a total experience. There are any number of other mediums that can tell stories (books, films, theater), but none that can deliver the same experience of being an active participant in the story. For all of the improper graphics fetishizing in the game industry, there is something unique about the art of games – living paintings and sculptures that cannot exist in any other medium.
What matters about games is not narrative, graphics, or game mechanics, but the experiences that these elements create in combination with each other and with a player. There is no objective good or bad in the elements of games, only the creation of experiences enjoyed or not enjoyed.
What is fun? It is something like truth - something that can only be achieved by an interaction between subject and object. The author's intended meaning and the designer's intended fun may not always get through, but there is no fun, no experience, without an audience.