Talking About Games: Fun and Games

Words: 2638 Approximate Reading Time: 20-25 minutes

I really want to share a game with you all: Pathologic 2.

I mentioned this game in last week’s essay and talked about it to some extent, though in some way I’m hoping that people didn’t read it. The game is an experience that really needs to be played rather than watched or talked about. There is so much there that is worth witnessing firsthand.

And so in sharing, I’m also trying to be careful about what I share.

So I’ll start by saying that Pathologic 2 pretty much shot up to being one of my favorite games of all time, and shot up the list pretty quickly. And it found its place after I had initially gone in being skeptical and thinking I wouldn’t like it. That is how much the game impressed me.

Perhaps it is useful to present a story.

I first was made aware of Pathologic 2 because of a video done by hbomberguy, called “Pathologic is Genius, and Here’s Why.” In the video, hbomberguy is discussing the first game in the series, or specifically an HD remake of that game. The initial question that sparks hbomberguy’s interest is a curious one: “Does a game need to be fun to be good?” This is the question I want to tackle in this essay. But allow me to continue the story first.

I strongly recommend watching the video. It’s about 2 hours long, but worth it for several reasons. One is that it gives you as the viewer a pretty good overview of what Pathologic is doing, its problems, its successes, and so on.

In the video itself, hbomberguy really demonstrates a love for Pathologic, and yet by his own words is uncertain that the game is fun. Near the end of the video he specifically notes that he never actually recommends the game to anyone watching. If people do try it out, cool. But he recognizes the problems and thinks those problems are too much to actually tell people “you should try this.”

But at that same point, he says that viewers should try the sequel, Pathologic 2. I will note that you can play the sequel without having played the original. The two will be different experiences for several reasons – hence again why it is a good idea to watch the video, especially if you don’t want to play the first game – but the second game is not a sequel in the same way that, say, Halo 2 was a sequel to Halo: Combat Evolved.

So my story begins with watching this video. I ended up watching the video multiple times – I like to put a let’s play or a stream or a video on in the background while doing something else. After that initial viewing, I had reached a pretty easy conclusion: Pathologic did not sound fun, and I would absolutely not play it. And when it would get to the point of the video where hbomberguy would say “you are going to play Pathologic 2,” I would comment to myself that it wasn’t going to happen. If Pathologic didn’t sound fun, I doubted that Pathologic 2 could actually improve the experience that much. This was my attitude for a few months, after watching the video four or five different times.

But at some point or another – and in all honesty, I think I can pinpoint the thing that really stuck with me and made me want to play (it was a small bit of music used in the video to introduce Pathologic 2, taken from the game’s soundtrack) – I decided that I would give it a shot. I bought Pathologic 2 (it just so happened to go on sale a few days after I made the decision, which definitely helped), and started it up. I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t like it. After all, I’d watched this video multiple times that suggested it wasn’t a fun game. I would probably get through a few hours of gameplay, decide it wasn’t for me, and then stop. I’d have the basic experience, and I could use that experience to hammer out a quick essay on the question of “does a game need to be fun to be good?”

The beginning sequence really blew me away. I was hooked within about 20-30 minutes. And everything that followed just hooked me even further in. At every moment I wasn’t playing Pathologic 2, I was really itching to go back to playing Pathologic 2. As I was getting near the ending it was time for me to go to bed, and I thought to myself “I’ll just play a bit longer, the ending can’t be that far off.” By the time I’d quit out of the game it was 3 o’clock in the morning.

That is how much the game kept me going.

And so I tell this story as a preface to that central question. Does a game need to be “fun” in order to be “good”? It’s a weird question when you think about it. And yet, it’s important to ask.

But in approaching that question, I think there are some fundamental problems. Namely, the meaning of the basic words. And so I wanted to use my own experience to help flesh out the problem, so that the question can feel a bit more fruitful for discussion.

Defining Our Terms

It’s time to do the thing that we all enjoy, which is defining common words.

I want to start with “good.” This is the stickier one, because there’s so much subjective opinion surrounding it. I’ve written before on how we can distinguish “good” and “bad” separate from subjective opinion, but I’m going to try and rely on those ideas as little as I possibly can.

Instead, I’ll note that there’s going to be plenty of room for discussion about whether the Pathologic games are, in fact, good. Having that discussion is going to require us to think about what we mean by the term. Do we, personally, have to like a game for it to be good? Can we like a game even though it’s bad? I argued in the essay I just linked that we can separate those two components. But if we agree with the premise that “liking” and “good” are two separate processes, then we need to arrive at some kind of conclusion about how we are going to “measure” goodness in a game.

I won’t try to establish anything here. My objective isn’t specifically to say that Pathologic 2 is good. I would argue that’s the case. Pathologic 2 does things that so few games ever attempt to do, and in doing so creates a unique experience. There are few games that capture these unique experiences, and those games generally embody what the medium is aiming for. If those kinds of games aren’t inherently good, they at least get to rest on the idea that they need to be shown to be not good.

But you can disagree with all of that. What follows does not rest on what I just said.

Instead, what matters is whether a game must be fun in order to be good.

Which means we need to identify what “fun” means. And here’s where I think there’s a fundamental problem with the question that was originally posed.

In playing through Pathologic 2, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience I had. In watching hbomberguy’s video, you as the viewer get the impression that he is enjoying his experience. All this despite the challenges he or I faced in our respective games.

From a certain perspective, an outside observer could look at all that and each a pretty simple conclusion: we were having fun. That’s why we kept playing.

And I think there’s a potential validity to that response. Which is why the initial question could seem weird at first glance. Of course and a game needs to be fun in order to be good. A good game needs the player to want to play it, and if a game wasn’t fun, nobody would want to play it. A good game might need to do other things as well, but it definitely needs to be, at its core, fun to play.

So then how could the question even make sense?

To answer that, we need to distinguish between two ways in which we use the word “fun.”

The first way, let’s call it the broad definition, is to say that fun is any form of enjoyment derived from an activity. We have fun playing games, hanging out with friends, watching shows, reading books, and so on. We could even apply this meaning to activities like eating, exercising, or even thinking. As long as we enjoy what we’re doing while we’re doing it, then we’re having fun.

The second way, the narrow definition, is to say that fun is a particular manner or expression of our enjoyment. Imagine a kid playing in a park: the child runs around and laughs and is excited and so on. The kid is having fun. There is an active component to it. So you can hang out with friends, but having fun hanging out with friends or more than simply enjoying the experience. It requires a certain form of enjoyment. We might imagine things like laughter, participation in conversation, a liveliness to our actions. Fun is not just outwardly expressed, but is something that we can observe in others – we can see others having fun and thus easily tell that they’re having fun.

On the broad definition, the question “does a game need to be fun to be good?” doesn’t really make much sense. The experience that hbomberguy had with Pathologic and the one I had with Pathologic 2 were both “having fun with the game.” If we weren’t having fun, we wouldn’t keep playing (unless, of course, we were being compelled to).

On the narrow definition, that question does start to make sense. Does a game need to spark a particular kind of emotional response that we call “fun” in order to be good? At which point, we can then have a discussion about what emotional responses fall under “fun” and whether a particular experience is indeed creating those responses or not, and then finally addressing whether those responses are necessary for a game to be good.

But the problem I keep encountering as I keep trying to read more discussions on the subject is that people are subscribing to one of these two definitions, and then talking past each other. Those who are using the broad definition essentially respond “you are having fun, you’re just not calling it ‘fun.’” And in a sense, those people could well be correct. But we can definitely argue against them that maybe the broad definition is, well…too broad.

Those who are using narrower definitions usually are able to better delineate different emotional responses. But in doing so I think we end up potentially missing the forest for the trees. Occasionally we’ll see someone bringing up a specific example: is it fun to die in a video game? To which most people say “no, at that particular moment the game may not be fun.” But in eliciting that response, we’re ignoring that a game might not need to be fun at every single moment in order to be fun in general. In fact, those “unfun” moments might even contribute to the overall feeling of fun that the experience provides – the complete absence of death might rob the player of any feeling of accomplishment, leading to an experience that isn’t enjoyed. I think the narrow definition can still be applied, but its application needs to rely more on the “overall experience” that the player is getting, rather than trying to freeze time at a specific moment and yelling “Aha!” as though we’ve solved the problem.

Okay, but which is the right definition to use?

In all honesty, I’m not sure. I didn’t really write this essay with the intention of solving the question of “what is fun?”

My own experience with Pathologic 2, especially after having my curiosity piqued by the initial question, has pushed me more towards the broad definition. Much as I tend to like more careful language, I am unable to talk about my experience as anything other than “having fun with the game.” I could use different words, but the difference would not feel substantive.

I think the fundamental problem is that we still don’t have a good language for talking about these things. We can argue about whether a game needs to be fun to be good, but that argument is going to fall apart because the word “fun” is an empty concept. You can fill it in with just about whatever you like.

So the solution relies on doing one of two things. Firstly, we could fill in that concept of “fun” more clearly. These kinds of things are fun, and these other kinds of things are not fun, and here’s the metric by which we can tell the difference. Rather than relying on a person’s own statements – “I had fun” or “I didn’t have fun” – we look to what their actual experience was. If fun must fit conditions A, B, and C, did the person’s experience meet those conditions? If yes, then the person had fun – regardless of whether or not they claimed to have had fun. If no, then the person didn’t have fun – again, regardless of what they say about having fun.

Secondly, we just pick a different word, one that does have a clearer meaning. “Does a game need to spark [emotion] to be good?” Although I think at that point the answer becomes obvious: no.

This is why I find the question so frustrating. “Does a game need to be fun to be good?” has an incredibly obvious answer, with the answer just depending on what we mean by “fun.” If fun is merely enjoyment, then the obvious answer is “yes.” If fun is something more specific, then the obvious answer is “no.” It feels more like an invitation to talk past one another, than an invitation for serious discussion.

Concluding Remarks

There are a handful of games that I would recommend that everyone try. Not necessarily finish, just try. They are truly unique experiences where you can observe someone else going through it, but you really need to play for yourself to understand. Dark Souls was one of those games. Pathologic 2 has now been added to the list.

The idea of “trying” these games is to just allow players to get a feel, to try and explore the game’s mechanics and world and story and premise for themselves. The games won’t be for everyone. As I said above, that these games are fun does not mean that they are fun for everyone. Some players will certainly decide very quickly that they don’t like these games and stop playing. The point is to genuinely “try”: to go in with the willingness to have fun.

Because lurking at the heart of all of this is the need to recognize that how we have fun is not a singular universal constant. Some people find the terror of jumpscares in horror games to be fun. Does the fact that I don’t make them “unfun”? Surely not. Certainly I don’t find them fun, but it would be wrong of me to immediately conclude that my feelings about fun are correct and anyone who does find those jumpscares fun is wrong to do so.

Perhaps there is a way of talking about fun that would be more substantive. Perhaps we can identify ideas of what makes a game fun separate from subjective enjoyment. If it is possible, we are likely a long way from reaching that kind of consensus.

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