When a Game Isn’t Fun
Last year, I replayed the game Life is Strange in order to reacquaint myself with the story to write about it for Level Story Magazine. I was not too excited going into the game, having disliked much of it on my first play-through. But playing it a second time was oddly refreshing and revealed more depth than I originally allowed the game to offer.
What struck me most about the game was all of the dark avenues in which it took the story. From plot points about girls getting kidnapped and drugged, to the everyday violence of men towards women, and to a scene where a character threatens to commit suicide (and succeeds depending on the choices you make in that moment based on how well you have been paying attention), the game does not shy away from difficult topics. It got me asking, in the very back of my mind, what happens when a game is not fun? This question became even more evident when it became personal, after my younger cousin committed suicide. The pain which was put on display in Life is Strange suddenly felt much more real in comparison to before and I quickly realized that I would never be able to experience the scene the same way again. I was being forced to think about the dark reality of my own experiences when witnessing the one on screen.
This is not something new. Entertainment can sometimes hit too close to home with certain plots. For example, I tend to stay away from shows about doctors for fear that what patients are experiencing will happen to me. A friend of mine can’t play The Last of Us because all she can see is her daughter being shot. The thought of that is too painful for her to continue with the game. Sometimes, games are not fun.
I don’t want to make an argument for why these sorts of games should be experienced no matter what, because I think people should not purposefully expose themselves to things that make them feel incredible pain. But I do want to explore the power games have and what these unfun moments mean.
The cultural understanding of video games has largely revolved around them being forms of escapist entertainment. Once you turn on your console, you can perform maneuvers that would be impossible in real life and explore fantastical spaces within your own living room. As a child, this is what games were for me. They existed to give me a challenge and have fun, and never went past that line. But the truth is, games have been passing that line for longer than we care to admit. Sometimes we don’t even realize a game has transcended from fun adventure to social commentary. Art and stories cross this line all of the time.
Yet for some reason, I viewed games as a separate entity when in relation to something like literature or film. This is strange coming from me, a person who has a magazine about stories in video games and argues that these stories should be taken as seriously as any other story in another medium. So why was I so fixated on this notion that video games aren’t always fun?
I think a lot of this has to do with the nature of games themselves. Games inherently are meant to perform play. A book or a movie does not require this sort of participation, at least not in the same capacity. In addition, books and movies are expected to have a story to tell. Playing a video game doesn’t require this same need for a plot, at least on the surface. For example, Tetris has no visible plot, and plot doesn’t need to exist to enjoy the game. Including narratives in video games, therefore, recontextualizes what a game is and gives it new meaning.
And this brings me back to Life is Strange. What was giving me pause was the fact that this game, which was supposed to give me joy in the form of play, was actually doing the opposite. Playing through the scene where a student is ready to jump off a building is not fun in the slightest. It is emotionally draining. The game is full of these types of scenes.
I’m an English major, so experiencing stories that have emotionally draining story moments is my bread and butter (and to be clear, sad story moments or emotionally draining moments does not equal deep or interesting storytelling. It is when the writer or writers use these moments to say something larger that elevates them from the typical sappy, sad scene). Engaging with stories has a way of contextualizing things that we may not be able to do ourselves. Sometimes it is easy to view people and their experiences in black and white terms. Stories provide color and open windows to understand people, the world, and ourselves more deeply when we otherwise may not have done so. Stories have the power to move us and teach us. Experiencing these very raw and human moments feels cathartic in a way.
This inherently goes against the very nature of gaming in its basic form. Games are not commonly seen as a means to understand ourselves and humanity a bit better. If there is a challenge in games, it is less to do with emotions than physical or intellectual mastery. At least this is the default understanding. Perhaps this is why so many gamers get upset when a game dares to go deeper and not just tell a story, but tell one that hits sensitive buttons or gets political (and by political it usually means any story that isn’t about a straight white man, apparently).
A game’s difficulty is a tool that promotes growth and change. Celeste is a clear model of this, it’s rigorous gameplay matching the high intensity of the story. Lots of games present the player with gameplay that really tests them, so that when they beat the boss or complete a level, there is a sense of accomplishment. Perhaps overcoming these gameplay challenges makes the player better at the game and better able to handle more difficult gameplay challenges within said game and in other games. It is expected for the player to learn and grow from the gameplay challenge.
Celeste does this on both counts. Not only is the game simply difficult to master, but it centers around themes of mental illness, insecurities, and acceptance. The game tells a competent story that challenges our ideas of how to deal with conflict. The main character, Madeline, can’t simply defeat her antagonist as traditional stories often go. Instead, she has to reconcile with herself in order to move forward. Celeste pushes the player to master the gameplay in order to overcome several different challenges. Although the game is a favorite, I can attest to being very frustrated with it at times. Sometimes I didn’t feel like I was having fun – until I finally overcame the difficult movement I’d been trying to master for hours.
But that sort of challenge is different to a narrative challenge. Thinking about all of this made me realize something. Narrative in games, especially narrative that is dealing with heavier topics, is in itself a form of a challenge. Just as gameplay presents a challenge, so does the story.
We can still play a game and enjoy it separately from the story (and perhaps we have to do this when the story is not so good), but looking at a story as a form of challenge in a game can help us grow and change. Perhaps my desire to be challenged in this way is unique. I don’t know. Our understanding of games has changed so rapidly in a short amount of time. It is normal to expect that going into a game is going to be nothing but fun, but I think the medium requires more from us at times. This isn’t to say we can’t play just for fun, but that we should allow games to have these moments that are dark and close to home (beyond simply having dark filters and gray landscapes), the way other mediums are allowed.