“Videogame,” as a descriptor, is a bit problematic. It’s a compound of two words that, apart, don’t do a whole lot to encapsulate the medium. When smashed together they do even less to sum up the wide range of experiences that playing videogames can offer. In some ways none of this matters: a catch-all term is easy enough to ignore in most cases and only really shows its shortcomings when the boundaries of the medium it’s used to describe start to expand.
Unfortunately this is exactly what is happening with “videogame,” a word with a definition so vague that those who interpret it a certain way (games, from Tag to Monopoly to Halo are meant to be, above all else, fun) take issue with titles that don’t feel the need to offer a traditionally enjoyable experience. People who believe that videogames must always be fun haven’t had many reasons to question their vision of the medium until recent years. Now the rising influence of indie developers has begun to alter mainstream titles in significant ways. This process will continue to broaden the established definition of videogames to such a degree that the importance of fun as the ultimate goal of creation can be called into question.
That long introduction is all to say, basically, that playing Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptathon, The Last of Us, made me wonder what, exactly, I want from a game.
I love the studio’s Uncharted series and went into its developers’ latest release hoping for a story that gave the team’s writers an excuse to bring their usual knack for characterization and dialogue into a more serious setting than the kind of pulp adventure locales featured in their previous games. I was also excited for the gameplay, which looked (from the bits of preview footage I checked out) like an attempt to make videogame violence have more weight — to make the act of, say, shooting a human enemy in the head represent something more substantial than just overcoming a minor obstacle. The game accomplishes all of the above, but it does so in such a strange way that it warrants a bit of discussion. The first few hours of The Last of Us are extremely effective at setting a tone, introducing a cast of well drawn characters and, of course, illustrating the hopelessness of a world torn apart by disease and factional warfare. The opening setpieces also establish, fairly quickly, that the experience of actually playing The Last of Us isn’t always meant to be fun. Much of the game is slow, the pace deliberately kept this way in order to set and maintain a very specific dramatic mood. Because no segment of the game (except maybe the very end) unfolds quickly the player is always keyed into the overwhelming danger of its tense combat sequences, the bits of dialogue between protagonists Joel and Ellie, and the sense of despair that carefully picking through its devastated environments entails. This is a good thing. Naughty Dog guides the gameplay with a journeyman storyteller’s practiced confidence, making every moment essential to the sum total of the game’s narrative. What this means for a tale unfolding from within an incredibly bleak world, though, is that playing through the game often leads to frustration.
While the multiplayer mode illustrates that The Last of Us is an honest-to-god blast when its gameplay is freed of a developer’s guiding hand, the single player experience is often soul-drainingly repetitive. The combat sequences are inevitable, occurring around nearly every corner, and the sheer deadliness of the enemies means that each battle leaves the player exhausted. In short, an hour with The Last of Us often isn’t much fun. Just the same, it can be argued that the game has to feel this way — that making the combat easier by increasing the amount of available ammunition or making Joel and Ellie’s movements slightly more responsive would defeat the purpose of the story. By the end of The Last of Us the player is meant to feel, like the characters themselves, tired. The enemies opposing Joel during the last chapter are aggravating and dispensing of them in a brutal fashion is as sickeningly satisfying to the fed-up audience as it is to the protagonist. Because we are sick of the violence, willing to glut ourselves on yet another brutal kill in order to get where Joel is going, we put ourselves in his shoes. That’s frightening and fascinating. It’s also a testament to how sacrificing fun can enhance the storytelling possibilities of a videogame.
Compare this to Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, a game that features a lengthy sequence in which Solid Snake, the rapidly deteriorating main character, has to struggle through a murderous hallway filled with microwave emitters. The scene takes place during the Guns of the Patriots‘ climax, a time when the story’s heroes are inches away from achieving their nearly impossible goal of toppling the series’ main antagonist. In order to get down the hallway the player has to mash the triangle button on their controller until their wrists and thumbs are aching. Hideo Kojima, Guns of the Patriots‘ detail obsessed director+, gets his audience to feel (a greatly minimized version of) Solid Snake’s pain while he pushes forward. His willingness to continue onward despite being tired and beat down becomes our own. While this segment certainly isn’t much fun to play through, it’s a fantastic way to enhance the level of connection that already exists between the person on the couch and the person on the screen.
Both of these examples ultimately ask the fundamental question of what we expect from our media. Guns of the Patriots‘ hallway and The Last of Us‘ single player aren’t always enjoyable, but they do impart something worthwhile. Would either game have been better if designed differently? Probably not. Much of what makes them special is the insistence on foregoing fun in favour of properly taking advantage of an interactive medium’s unique advantages. Not every game has to be extremely difficult, tiring or laser-focused on echoing story through gameplay, but these are all valid options for developers who wish to to use them in their work. Asking every videogame to be fun is an increasingly antiquated demand and one that makes less and less sense as innovative designers continue to experiment with the boundaries of interactive narrative. There will always be room in the world for purely entertaining games (I hope) and there should be space for less traditional experiences to exist as well.
+ Alongside Shuyo Murata. Nobody ever gives poor ol’ Murata his due so I’m going to.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for videogame site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.