There is a nebulous debate about what the first video game was, but Pong is now 45 years old and it was from there that video games as an industry took their first steps into the future of being part of the mass media culture industry. One thing that still separates video games from other media is the idea that they should be “fun”, you should be able to win, achieve a goal and achieving that goal is a process of completing tasks that one would consider “fun”. If games aren’t fun, players will never master the tasks and complete the goal, it will be considered a “bad game”. Its clear I think that the gaming audience wants games to be fun, and if I wrote an article about how food needs to be “delicious” you would have stopped reading by now. I suspect that fun to video games is not the same as deliciousness is to food, literature does not have the same requirement to adhere to one kind of enjoyment for it to be considered good, going back to the days of Greek drama there were tragedies and comedies. If storytelling is a reflection of the narratives of human experience that reside within us than it makes sense to many kinds of stories proliferate. No one ever said Romeo and Juliet was bad because it wasn’t funny enough, critics would reply that humor is an unfair standard to hold a drama accountable for.
Video games don’t reflect our inner understanding of narrative in the same way literature does, but it does reflect our need to complete tasks, it cures boredom. Yes there are many video games that have rich narrative and visual storytelling with themes that can rival great works of literature but if a video game leans into that too much you end up with Final Fantasy XIII, a movie with intermittent hallways to run down between cutscenes. But is FFXIII a bad game because its not “fun”? I’m not sure I would describe my experience ducking for cover and sneaking around in The Last of Us as “fun” but it was a task that satiated my need to have meaningful choices and consequence just enough to invest me into a narrative that in no way is “fun” to watch. Somewhere between Pong and The Last Of Us “fun” has been distilled down into a mechanic that invests the player into the outcome, even if that entire process is intentionally distressing.
I think “fun” in video games should be thought of as sufficient investment in making the meaningful choices and consequences that make a video game a video game. That is not to say that fun as a subjective criteria is meaningless, fun games aren’t going to stop being fun just because you read this. What I do object to is the idea that “fun” is a criteria in game evaluation that should apply to all game projects at all time. People want to be invested in and play the Oedipus Rex of video games, but it will never get made if developers are beholden to a mistake belief that games have to be “fun”.
Post Script: Clay and I had to scrap our first version of the Donkey Kong 64 episode because of both technical issues with an echo and the discussion didn’t meet the standards we both wanted the show to be held to. I wanted to talk about this idea and we will give recording DK64 another go but in case we jump to another game I wanted this idea out there.