I’m a Scotch drinker. I like it because it’s often a bit smoky or peaty with an often latent sweetness. It can hit the palette with one taste and finish with another. I like it because the whisky burns going down my throat, and, if I’m not careful with it, it can knock me right on my ass. I don’t however, consider it a fun drink, something lightly entertaining to drink quarts at a party. I like my art, too, like I like my whisky: challenging, complex…and with maybe just a hint of absurd nihilism. It doesn’t have to be fun or pretty. I like it to challenge me, make me rethink the way I understand language and narrative or color, subject, and perspective. It stands to reason, then, that I approach some games in a similar mindset–eager to experience complexity.
My general rule regarding video games, like almost everyone else’s, is that once I stop getting some type of satisfaction, I stop playing. I never finished Crysis because, try as I might, I just couldn’t get into it. I attempted to play Dead Island because of its awesome trailer, and I wound up bored. I’m worse at Madden and NCAA football games than I am at actual football. I tired of Red Steel 2 before I was due to return it to Blockbuster. I only played Assassin’s Creed: Revelations so I could get the story before Assassin’s Creed III (which I’ve still yet to play); for me, Revelations was close to joyless. These games I usually abandon or sell fairly quickly because there’s just not enough there for me to keep them.
Every now and then, however, I find something engaging in a game that offers a worthwhile experience other than fun. Sometimes I play because the story hooked me more than the mechanics. I play because the game is beating me senseless, and I’m too pissed to quit. I play because a game’s thematically challenging, and I just want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes. I play because I want to see which glitches I can exploit (Bethesda, folks…Bethesda), to discover where the boundaries of the world end. But often, I play to figure out how I can read a digital text in a meaningful way. Sure, approaching a game with a goal other than having fun seems like a ridiculous idea, but it can lead to new insights on how games function as forms of art and entertainment.
One such game that I find meaningful without having fun is Dark Souls. The game does not entertain me in nearly the same way other games do. The combat system tasks my brain to constantly anticipate my enemies’ reactions, making every single encounter a puzzle with a set number of variables. Exploration fills me with dread as I approach each new area with more trepidation and anxiety than excitement. I cannot play the game for long periods of time, and it, like its predecessor Demon’s Souls, often requires more time to master than I have to give it. I, nevertheless, have held onto it, returning to the game every now and then when I’m feeling masochistic. I play it because I am fascinated with how it attacks not just my character, but my actual psyche, to the point where I’m not a lot of fun to be around.
In those brief moments after I’ve killed a massive boss or I’ve successfully navigated through a trap-filled fortress, the trials seem worth the effort. Dark Souls‘ play structure functions as a type of Zen master, and the player serves as the game’s apprentice, willing to undergo ruthless tutelage in order to achieve “enlightenment” in the form of a successful playthrough. Dark Souls is a digital koan, a taxing meditation on progress and punishment I play to achieve satisfaction through struggle–not a game I enjoy for its “fun factor.”
A game does not have to be brutally punishing to offer something other than fun, of course. Sometimes, a game is worth playing because its content is challenging. Spec Ops: The Line provided the most compelling game experience for me last year, and it did so without being fun. The mechanics serve the narrative and themes at play, and that’s about it. I did not enjoy my time in Dubai, but I have completed the game more times than I’m willing to admit. The story drags the characters through a hellish pit of surrealist military nihilism with the player in tow. It breaks apart not just the characters but the shooter genre, all by exploring what it really means to play the hero.
Every pixelated person I killed had weight and significance. I felt every atrocity my digital avatar committed. I’ve done horrible things because a game directed me to…and I’ve tread even darker virtual paths because I chose them–or maybe the game made me, I’m not really sure anymore. I continued to play Spec Ops not because the combat was enjoyable and fun. I wanted to finish the story and continue on this path of self-destruction. And when it was done, I went back and did it all again. It’s not a fun trip, but I’ve taken it more times than I’m willing to admit.
Though Spec Ops proves to be an excellent exercise in gameplay nihilism, it is not alone in this respect. Playdead’s Limbo and Jonathan Blow’s Braid offer ambiguously dark game experiences, albeit through different means. Both are platformer/puzzle hybrids taking place in strange lands, but while Limbo’s black and white aesthetic makes loneliness and despair apparent from the outset of the child protagonist’s journey, Braid masks its darker, solemn tone with lush, impressionistic art direction.
I did not play these two games because I found them fun–the puzzle/platformer as a genre does not really appeal to me all that much. I played them because I found their core concepts fascinating. The time-based puzzles in Braid required intricate solutions that, while rewarding once conquered, provided me little in the way of fun in experimentation. I kept playing because the game’s mysterious exposition and surreal puzzles came together in meaningful ways that challenge narrative and generic conventions. Limbo, on the other hand, is built on a “trial-and-death” mechanic that forces the player to kill the protagonist time and time again. When I play the game, I don’t focus on the fun of the platforming and puzzle solving but rather the dismal beauty of its art direction and the hauntingly minimalism of the core system. It disturbs instead of enchants me–and that keeps me coming back.
I recognize how completely subjective my position on the issue of fun is. “Fun” is a loaded term, and positing some objective definition would be an exercise in futility. A gamer’s relationship with a game is personal, and while I may find the sadistic gameplay of Dark Souls rewarding for its difficulty but not for its fun, I see no reason why someone could not have a blast with it. I get why someone would have a lot of fun tinkering with Braid and Limbo, too. They’re excellent games offering a myriad of possible experiences. My point is simply this: sometimes, approaching a game for a reason other than fun, yields worthwhile results.
With the games listed above, I rarely sit back and appreciate what a joy it is to play them. I play them because they’re maddening. I play them because they elicit emotional responses other than delight. I play them because I want to see just how far the game can punish me while maintaining a cold, cohesive fairness. I test them as much as they test me. And when I finish playing, I turn the machine off, still thinking about what I found, gained or lost by interacting with groups of pixels floating across a screen.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for a Scotch.