In a decade past, a blogger whose opinions I respect raised a question that has stuck with me: how essential is the element of “fun” in the judgment of a game? This was during a flare-up of the ages-long “Are games art?” debate, but the blogger chose to dodge that loaded question entirely in favor of a stickier and, arguably, more important one. If a game fails at being fun, can we still consider it a successful game?
The game being discussed was Punchline’s Rule of Rose. The year was circa 2007. The name of both the blogger and her blog have been lost to memory (it was some juxtaposition of fog or mist and mirrors or birds), but the question has remained, unmoored from its original context. Admittedly, one reason I remember it is the rarity of the person asking it: a critical-minded female horror gamer, at a time when that was an even rarer combination than it is now (NB: I don’t want to imply that such a thing should be rare, only that the gaming demographic was and is fairly homogeneous). The other reason is because it was something I had never bothered to ask myself. Not only that, but it was only after I had posed the question that I realized that my until-then axiomatic belief was likely to be in the minority.
Spoiler alert: some of my favorite games are not any fun at all, in the classical sense. Rule of Rose is among them. The hit detection is so poor that combat is routinely avoided where it is optional, lamented where it isn’t. On a larger scale, the player’s progression through the story is figuratively and literally leashed to Brown, a keen-nosed hound whose job it is to sniff out the location of the next plot point. This is not fanciful language; gameplay literally consists of a predictable rhythm of watching a cinematic, receiving an enigmatic item, showing said item to Brown, and following him to and fro (taking pains to avoid all potential combat) as he snuffles around in search of the next feather on the wild goose’s rear. The items in question are impossible to locate without Brown’s aid, and with it, impossible to miss. At the end of the chain, a boss battle ensues, inspiring much swearing and reloading of saves. And then the same general melody is repeated: same dog, different doll head.
Inarguable flaws notwithstanding, if I were to be buried Pharaoh-style with my favorite games, Rule of Rose would be my eternal companion. It is, in my opinion, a damn fine game, and (less of an opinion) an important game. Its surreal narrative, in which a grown woman is held captive by a cruel, manipulative and capricious pack of young girls aboard an airship that may be part fish or all imaginarium, is genuinely unsettling for its first 90% and genuinely emotive in the final 10%. It’s been described as “Lord of the Flies meets Mean Girls” and is far more interesting than the controversy surrounding its supposed sexualization of children. It’s from the same people who made Chulip, an unapologetically wacky game about a boy trying to steal kisses or, given an alternate reading, the miserable reality of poverty seen through a candy-coated lens (not only does the young boy earn a living by kissing adults, he also gets his meals out of the trash can and spends his nights in terror of patrolling cops, who will shoot first and ask questions later).
In fact, many of the same things that make Rule of Rose unfun to play contribute directly to the power of its overall experience. The player’s complete reliance on Brown, along with his convincingly canine behavior, help the player quickly form an emotional attachment that successfully mimics the character’s lifetime of companionship, opening up all sorts of avenues for that attachment to be tested or exploited. The combat…well, at least it helps that necessary element blend into the background as much as possible. Besides, given the way the melancholy tale concludes, it seems appropriate that acts of violence never feel fun, or even comfortable.
With violence at the core of nearly every mainstream video game experience–the chief point of difference between genres being whether guns, swords or pure momentum are the weapon of choice–it’s a lesson that’s easily forgotten. Eight years later, I’m learning it all over again. The teacher this time is a burly, bearded Texan who chokes people to death with his bare hands. I was as surprised as you are.
The Last of Us, June 2013’s post-apocalyptic journey of survival designed by Sony-affiliated video game developer Naughty Dog, Inc., is most assuredly not suitable for children. It’s rated M, a first for the award-winning developer responsible for the Teen-rated Uncharted and Jak and Daxter and E-rated Crash Bandicoot series. Nor should this change in policy be taken lightly. Though I rarely side with the regulatory agencies, The Last of Us is one product I would absolutely not want to see in the hands of children.
That’s because it does exactly what so many pundits have (wrongly) decried similarly rated video games for doing: it desensitizes the player to its own violence. In fact, the game’s entire emotional journey can be interpreted through the lens of desensitization. It is not just an unfortunate byproduct of a culture that celebrates destruction; it is an intentional, confrontational statement.
The game begins in a place of innocence. For the opening sequence, the player controls a young girl. Her actions are limited to observation and simple interactions—checking the messages on her father Joel’s cell phone, for instance, or shimmying around in the backseat of his truck to get a different angle on the world as it falls apart. It is from this perspective that the player witnesses the end of the world, both personal and apocalyptic in scale, by way of a nationwide fungal outbreak (a form of Cordyceps, a parasitic fungus that can affect the behavior of its host) . The game then fast forwards twenty years, beyond the government’s failed response measures and into a collapsed society. Joel now lives as a smuggler in the Boston Quarantine Zone, and is soon united with 14-year-old Ellie, the only human known to have resisted the infection. Together, they venture westward toward an uncertain future.
The journey is not a peaceful one, however; it is frequently punctuated by run-ins with infected humans, heavily-armed military, and insurgent hunters, who prey on ill-defended transients for their continued sustenance and survival. Being able to sneak past these groups without a fight is usually the preferred option, but it is more often an ideal than a realistic goal. And the means by which Joel dispatches his opponents, both human and monster, is brutally violent. Not in a fetishized way, but not in a censored way, either.
Joel’s bread-and-butter killing move (nonlethal takedowns are not an option) is to sneak up behind an opponent and strangle him to death. The animation that accompanies this action is uncompromising: the victim paws and scratches at Joel’s arms, twists and kicks as they both struggle earthward. The first few times this occurs, it is a deeply uncomfortable experience. Other means of dispatching the enemies are no less brutal: guns can leave gaping headwounds or exposed guts, while melee combat is fluidly animated and context sensitive, which means the player may see Joel smashing an enemy’s skull against the nearby brickwork or kicking him in the windpipe, depending on the surroundings. When Joel receives a flamethrower in the late game, you will be overjoyed, but if you ever have to use it on a human, you will be horrified.
None of these sights are represented attractively, as video game violence often is. But several hours into the game, their impact starts to fade. They are still not pleasant, but they are no longer so difficult to endure. The player starts to experience the game less deeply, viscerally, and begins to actually play it, casually plotting tactical maneuvers for how to separate a human being from his pack of allies and taking his life silently, how to achieve the most kills in the fastest way if things get messy. It helps to view these actions as necessity; the game employs the well-worn phrase “It was him or me” knowingly.
At around the time the player’s own sensitivities become blunted, Ellie begins to speak up. Throughout the game, she serves as an emotional anchor, bringing the player back into grim reality. “Holy shit, Joel,” she’ll murmur after a particularly brutal takedown. It’s an understatement, but it’s enough to turn the lens around, especially when the player begins to enjoy the violence.
In keeping with Naughty Dog’s sweeping statement about glorified violence, Joel is admirably reticent in providing Ellie with her own gun. He know that it has to remain a last resort. When he finally, grudgingly gives her a sidearm, it is with these (uncomfortably spoken) words: “You gotta respect it. This is not—”. The final words in that sentence remain unspoken, but they are understood by both Ellie and the player.
The kicker is that Joel is not, at the end of the day, a good man. He is self-centered, cold, and takes to violence far too easily. His kills are not a measure of his glory, but you can’t pity him for them either; each one was enacted voluntarily. No less could be said of the player, for whom this is still, after all, just a game.
In both of the examples above, the discomfort of the player is a tool wielded by the game creator with deliberateness and efficacy. There’s an aura of intentionality to it. What if this weren’t the case, however? Would my answer to the original question remain unchanged?
I recently had the opportunity to find out—this time, with a board game. Archipelago, from designer Christophe Boelinger, is a fun game, don’t get me wrong. Set during the “Age of Discovery,” it allows players to assume the role of explorers under the employ of competing European nations as they explore, settle and exploit an island chain somewhere in the West Indies. It’s a staggeringly rich simulation of such an endeavor while still delivering a marvelously light experience—the shortest version of the game can be played in under a half hour. It cultivates an atmosphere of bluffing, negotiation, deliberation, coercion and plenty of backstabbing. The components are gorgeously put together, making each exploration of the archipelago feel like a true voyage of discovery. There are hidden roles and victory conditions. There’s a really clever simulation of supply-and-demand dynamics in both the domestic and export trade economies. And there’s a tricky, consistently tense puzzle involved in maintaining the “balance of the archipelago”—increasing the scope of your dominion without allowing it to grow beyond your ability to control it and risk inciting a rebellion.
I could write a review talking about all the clever ways in which Archipelago makes colonialism a whole heap of fun, and maybe I will in the future, but today, I want to talk about how it manages to make me feel deeply uncomfortable despite (or because of) all the fun I’m having. You may have caught glimpses of it in the language I used to describe the game (much of the same language used by the publishers themselves). Although the rulebook stresses that the players are on a mission of peace and that “a balance must be found between expansionism and humanism, between commercial goals and respect for local values, between knowledge sharing and unbridled industrialization,” the actual historical context of the game’s setting can’t be escaped. And there’s that word, just a paragraph above, so much more blunt and honest than the contrived “mission of peace”: players aren’t just here to discover and colonize islands; they’re here to “exploit” them.
Archipelago is what might be described as a 3X game. It’s closely related to 4X games (eXpand, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) such as Age of Empires and Command and Conquer, except it stops just shy of its bloody but inevitable conclusion. Well, most of the time it does. Archipelago is also a semi-cooperative game, which means that although there can only be one winner, it’s entirely possible for all players to lose the game. Frequently throughout the game, the players’ workers will rebel, essentially staging a peaceful protest—they will lie down, refusing to render any work until some of the local resources are returned to them. If the players are unable to appease the natives—say, because all of the requested commodities have been sold to the foreign market or because the players are hoarding them in their own personal stockpiles—the rebellion marker moves up. When it reaches a certain point, it results in a War of Independence, and all players lose the game.
Of course, there are other things that you can do to prevent this. Building churches, for example, will help keep the native population from misbehaving, as will schools. But in order to play the game well, you must treat your workers as commodities: “I’ll use my church to stand up all your rebelling workers in this region if you allow me to harvest pineapple over here”; “I’ll quell the uprising, but only if you give me control over this port.” The threat of rebellion is something to be leveraged, and only a sucker gives in to the natives’ demands without spinning some profit out of it. Peaceful coexistence be damned; if you want to win, you have to exploit. Like true conquistadors, you can also commission “wonders,” colossal statues or golden pyramids in your honor, earning you extra victory points at the game’s end. But in addition to time and resources, you have to sacrifice a worker (representative of the generation of people who died building the thing). It’s okay! They’re expendable! It’s particularly hard to stomach the casual references to slavery, both explicit and subtle (in addition to the Slavery and Dictatorship cards, there are more subtle elements like Emigration, which allows you to decrease the amount of surplus workers–more surplus workers=more native unrest–by shipping some of them back to Europe…what happens to them after they get there is never addressed).
There’s just something inescapably distasteful about all this. While I can appreciate the historical accuracy, I just can’t come to terms with the fact that a total loss, the worst possible game outcome, is equated with native independence, or that the “traitor” role seen in other semi-cooperative games, the player who might otherwise be the Werewolf, the Cylon or the Spy, is here referred to as the “Separatist.” The game itself passes no judgment, but it’s hard to allow myself to enjoy a game, especially one as immersive as this, built on the implied analogy that independence=bad.
It’s no fault of the game; the problem is entirely my own. Archipelago is a fantastic game, one of the best I’ve played in the genre. It provides a tangible feeling of exploration and development in a short amount of time. As deliciously executed as this simulation is, though, it’s not a role I can sink into lightly. It’s the same reason I refuse to touch a game called Zulus on the Ramparts! However fun it’s reputed to be, I simply don’t want to have fun slaughtering 4,000 spear-wielding Zulus as rifle-armed British imperialists.
Honestly, the thought that I might enjoy it, just as I ashamedly caught myself enjoying snapping necks or sniping at skulls in The Last of Us, is what scares me the most.