In an effort to catch up in time for its sequel, I’ve been playing a healthy amount of Metro 2033 recently. For those reading who aren’t familiar with the series, it’s set in post-apocalyptic Russia, where the few survivors have flocked to the subway tunnels to escape the destruction and radiation. Most of the game takes place in these tunnels, with some infrequent and ill-advised trips to the surface.
It’s a first-person shooter, really, but it gives the player an impressive amount to manage. Bullets are scarce, and also serve as the currency at stations. If you want to buy a medical kit, you have to give up a means of defense. You also need to keep fresh filters stocked for your gas mask, and manually charge your flashlight with a hand-pump. The shooting mechanics are fuzzy and imprecise, and the enemies are often overwhelming, resulting in a severe feeling of dread from each missed shot.
I love it, and it’s no fun at all.
I can only play Metro for about an hour at a time before needing to do something else to wash the taste out. The atmosphere is so oppressive, and the mechanics so harrowing, that I really don’t want to be playing it when I am. Occasionally I’ll get stuck at a particular combat encounter, and I’ll bang my head against a wall trying to figure out the best approach. The only truly satisfying outcome is to sneak past the enemies; no blood on my hands, no precious bullets wasted. But a lot of the time, it doesn’t work out that way. Even in triumph, I’m reminded of how it could’ve gone better, and how my carelessness will make my life more difficult in the future.
A lot of this is just set-dressing. Ultimately, that one shotgun shell I misfired probably won’t come back to bite me in the end (at least, not on the difficult I’m playing). It’s just that there’s no joy in the world of Metro, no hope or humanity or humor. There are only interminable slogs through poorly lit subway tunnels.
As the player, and a critic, I can abstract my visceral feeling (this game isn’t fun) from my academic feeling (this game is achieving exactly what it wants to). I deeply respect the game in that way, for creating a first-person shooter I can love that doesn’t rely on me having fun, well, shooting people.
I remember when Tomb Raider came out, there was a fairly bitter divide between some people in regards to its story. I was in the camp that objected to the game’s treatment of Lara Croft, seeing as each brutal injury had no impact beyond that of shock value. The opposing company felt, largely, one of two ways: 1) Lara’s development was actually well-handled, or 2) a game in which Lara’s injuries were more permanent wouldn’t be fun to play. This got me thinking: does a game really need to be fun?
First, it’s probably good to address the obvious criticism of such an ideology. Whether or not something is “fun” is purely subjective. So subjective, in fact, that the term is kind of meaningless in game criticism. It’s about on the level of recommending a game because it’s “good.”
Even then, the vague, standardized meaning of what constitutes a fun game doesn’t translate into a good one. Or… okay, let me take that back, and provide a somewhat sterile thesis.
Most fun games are good, but not all good games are fun.
It has a nice ring to it, but it also falls apart from my perspective. Take, for example, the Call of Duty series, which thrives on well-refined, “fun” gameplay. The problem for me lies in the way it encourages you to have fun in brainlessly militaristic and sadistic ways. Spec Ops: The Line tried to tackle that problem admirably, but there lies a case where I felt the game should have been more fun: the best satire often starts with parity.
Thinking back over the games I’ve really loved this year, many of them stand out as not being traditionally fun. In fact, the most fun I’ve had was probably with Bioshock Infinite. It paired some really solid and inventive FPS mechanics with the engaging beautiful/disgusting disparity the game flaunts aesthetically and thematically. There I enjoyed shooting people, thanks to both the fluidity of control and the means by which the game earns its violence through its narrative (many would argue it doesn’t, but that’s another argument for another editorial).
Another highlight for me this year was the non-Euclidean puzzle game Antichamber. It was utterly spellbinding in its atmosphere, one both sterile and foreboding but also sarcastic and playful. Was the time I spent getting lost in its shifting hallways really all that fun? Is it fun to be stuck on a single puzzle for over an hour? Not by my definition.
And yet Antichamber delighted, surprised, and thrilled me in every virtual step I took. Part of it was the basest neural reaction a video game: spot a challenge, overcome it. But the more time I spent playing, the more I found myself intellectually engaged and immersed in a way that was isolating, scary, impenetrable, and most importantly, not fun.
Most every horror game is based upon a similar principle. Who really likes being scared? If something is truly scary, most people’s reaction is to run, hide, or stop looking. Games force you to confront a fear, be it a lanky, faceless man in a suit, or, in the case of another one of my recent favorite games, Year Walk, an eery Swedish forest buried in mythology. The “fun” for most people comes in the relief of overcoming a fear, or in the pleasure of admiring and dissecting a scare.
Okay, here’s a good example to illustrate my point. I recently played both Zero Escape games, the first called 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, and the second called VLR: Virtue’s Last Reward. In summation, I found myself disinterested in 999 but utterly in love with VLR. Why? They’re basically the same game. Both are visual novels featuring ensemble casts. The premises are very intentionally similar. How could I love one and be so apathetic toward the other?
Neither game is fun. They consist primarily of tapping through dialogue and sometimes solving and escape-the-room-style puzzle. But VLR does something 999 never quite figured out: it wields that lack of fun, and turns it into agonizing tension. Without talking about it too much in detail, VLR features several moments of choice that are nuanced and morally somewhat gray. It reminded me of Heavy Rain. You’re engaged because of the way the mechanics impact the story: not the mechanics themselves.
That worked wonders for both those games, and I wouldn’t call either fun. I would call them good. I would call them engaging. Just like Antichamber, and Year Walk, and Metro 2033. Demanding every game be fun is akin to demanding every book be a page-turner, or every piece of music, pop, or every movie exciting. There are page-turners, and pop songs, and exciting movies, and some of them are great, and some of them aren’t. It’s not a binary state. And you know what? I think a game like Tomb Raider – one with such obvious character development aspirations – would’ve been better if it were less fun. Make the player feel inconvenienced. Make them feel sad, or angry. Make them feel pain. Make them empathize.
Designing every game to be fun would stick this medium in an even more severe case of arrested development. Like a record skipping, hitting the same beat over and over again. You don’t have to like every game, and really, there’s probably no way for you to like every game. I certainly don’t. I can’t stand Dark Souls, but I recognize how it fits into the exact same category I’ve been describing. I want to let every game breathe whether or not it speaks to me, because ultimately, it’s speaking to someone.
And I’d rather let the record play.