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Monday, December 19, 2011

Video Games Should Be Fun


I've been into watching Extra Credits recently. It's a documentary-style editorial series about where video games are going, what's wrong with them, what's right with them, and what we can all do about it.

One of their videos was "Games You Might Not Have Tried", and one of their categories was "Flash Games" that you can play online. I'm always looking for ways to waste time at work new games so I thought these would be worth a check-out. After all, these people seem to know what they're doing. They've released editorials on "How to Play Like a Game Designer" and "Gamification" and "Narrative Mechanics" so it's clear they know what they're doing, they take this seriously, and they love games. I thought the games they recommended would be a shoo-in for fun.

I was wrong.

The games they called out were "Today I Die", "Every Day the Same Dream", "One Chance", "The Company of Myself", "The End of Us", "Freedom Bridge", and Passage. If you've played them before, you might know what I'm talking about. If not, feel free to go play them now, so you know what I'm talking about. If you don't want to play them, I would understand.


They're closer to "interactive art" or "participatory visualization" or "thematic stimulus-response" or something a pretentious fashion designer would say. My point is: these aren't games. How do I know? Because they don't even fit the definition of the game. When you open any new board game and read the instructions, what's the first thing you see?


The objective.

Any game has a clearly stated objective or winning conditions. These games don't. Some of these games, there's no way to win or lose. "One Chance" has a way to "win", but it is so unforgiving, it doesn't even let you try again -- it keeps you at your death screen every time you load it (unless you cheat the system). "Freedom Bridge" you can't win. "Passage" is simply getting from one end of the screen to the other.


"Today I Die" lets you "win" but with no clear objective, so the win is only half-fulfilling. There is such a large learning curve of figuring out what you're supposed to do and what objects represent, that you are almost forced to look at the walkthrough. And once you do that, you may as well be watching a movie, because the temptation to use the walkthrough is just too strong. The rest are incomprehensible, art house, hipster crap. Only "The Company of Myself" seems to have a clear objective. Not surprisingly, "The Company of Myself" was also the only one that seemed like a video game, using elements of platforming and puzzle solving.

The only way I would know I'm progressing in "Every Day the Same Dream" is that there's a lady in the elevator who tells you "You have X steps before you become a different person." What does that mean? I don't know. I hope 'steps' mean tasks I have to do. What are those task? Don't know. What are the tangentially related to? Don't know. You have to guess. You have to try different things, different options, choose not to do something then do something in a different direction, press the buttons at different times. In other words, trial and error.


Trial and error is not fun. That's what scientists do when they're trying to prove a hypothesis. And like Thomas Edison said, it is 99% failure. Who wants to play a game that you fail at 99% of the time? It's not like you lose. It just means that you do something that has no effect. At least if there's a game over, there's a clear losing condition and you know not to do that next time.

And the tasks you do make no sense. You have to go to work without putting on clothes so you can get fired. Then the game repeats. You wait for a leaf to fall, then you grab it. The game repeats. You have to exit your car on your way to work -- which there is no indication you can do, because objects you can interact with are captioned... except this one. Then you pet a cow. WTF? You have to repeat the game a minimum of five times (but it's guaranteed to be more, since you can't figure anything out).

The objective is the most important thing in a game, and that must always come first. Second is the obstacles. You must know what's stopping you from getting to your objective. In "The End of Us" you're a meteor, but you don't know what you're supposed to be doing. There's nothing to collect or run into (like I'd expect a meteor would do).

Then a second meteor comes in. Are you supposed to kill it? Run into it? Avoid it? Circle it? Is it supposed to run into you? Are you supposed to let it? Are you supposed to merge and become bigger like a Katamari? Is it your opponent? Your companion? Are you trying to mate with it? Then the meteor stops running into you and starts duplicating your movements. Then it starts mirroring your movements -- going left when you go right.

Then there's a part where you're trying to run over stars, changing them to different colors. The other meteor changes them to its color, so it's like trying to claim territory. But are you supposed to? What does getting the stars get you? What impact does it have on the end of the game?

As far as I can tell, zero. Then there's a countdown as the Earth looms closer and you seem to be about to hit it, while you're continually bumping or not bumping into the other meteor. Then the other meteor disappears, apparently collided with the earth, and you go on alone. Did you win? Did you lose? Did the stars have something to do with it? There's no way to know. No clear objective. No clear obstacles. No clear game.


You know what's a game I enjoyed? Nurse Quest on Adult Swim games. It's a simple point-and-click adventure game in the tradition of "Secret of Monkey Island" and "Leisure Suit Larry". There is nothing innovative about it at all. Games like it have been made for decades, since the first Wumpus Hunters and the Sierra King's Quests.

But I had two thousand times more fun playing it than all these other games combined. It was funny. I liked the jokes. I liked the challenge. I liked the mystery. I liked the discovery and reward. I liked that it was (mostly) clear on what I had to do next, both with objectives and contextual clues. Yes, I had to go to the walkthrough sometimes, partially because I'm a moron, but more because I wanted to get the game done and it wasn't doing a good enough/fast enough job of giving me the hints of what to do next.

Extra Credits's central purpose and theme is to move video games into the realm of legitimate media, like movies, books, and other art. They want to make video games a recognized form of entertainment. They want to go beyond the brown-gray space marine games, industry short-sightedness, and tea-bagging misogynists. I know they didn't pick these games because they were necessarily good or fun, but because "you should try them". I don't know what this means, but if it means the games won't be fun, maybe Extra Credits needs to take a look at what they're doing and why.
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