The Gaming Club

"Fun" Is Not the Point of Video Games
The art of play.
Dec. 16 2010 10:33 AM

The Gaming Club

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Still from Mass Effect 2. Click image to expand.

I confess to being puzzled, Seth. Why is pointing out some objectively stupid stuff in a game whose popularity is mystifying to me "defensive"? Black Ops is a cynical piece of work, from its basic misunderstanding of what's exciting about shooters (hint: it's not deadeningly wall-to-wall action) to its lazy design choices (like endlessly spawning enemies). I'm on the record for loving plenty of silly, over-the-top games (another favorite of mine this year: Just Cause 2, a more delightfully stupid game you will not find), and, forgive me, but are you not the video-game critic whose hyperbolical tendencies are, um, much commented on among serious gamer types? I'm not trying to pick a fight with you—though I would love to know how you came to believe that the stale, boner-killing talkathon that is Dragon Age "sails into the ranks of the best single-player role-playing games ever made"—but I wonder if there's not some projection going on here.

Look, I don't imagine it was easy writing those early reviews for the Times, and I know you have the highest-profile reviewing gig in, well, the known universe, but you're dead wrong that "fun" is the point of video games. No, I say. It's not. That's a fallacy that grows out of this unfortunate etymological ensnarement the medium is stuck with. Games, for me, are supposed to be interesting or engaging, and can arrive there in any number of ways. But fun? Who cares about fun? This "fun" shibboleth is so often used to validate games' overall lack of ambition—something that Black Ops has, yes, a ton of. Escapism is fine, but when you're dealing with assassinating the living head of a neighboring state, working with a lot of extremely potent and violent imagery, and getting into matters of the morality of war—all stuff that Black Ops, by its own choosing, gets thematically involved with—yeah, I'd like to see the game-makers bring a little something more to the table than mere escapism, mere "fun." And whatever, because Black Ops fails at being fun! It's repetitive and dull. A "Bond-ian" take on the Cold War? The James Bond series is, or was, defined by its geopolitical lightheartedness. That's not the case here: Just Cause 2, though—now there's a Bond-ian game. Escapism doesn't have to be dumb, and I'm tired of hearing that it does.

You're very right, however, that it's weird that Slate has its game reviews listed under its Tech section. I would very much like to see Old Man Slate rectify that soon.

I see that a lot of the commenters are lamenting the fact that we're not talking about Mass Effect 2. So, commenters: Mass Effect 2 was a fine game. I liked it a lot. I didn't like it as much as the first Mass Effect, though, which is one of my all-time favorite games. Occasionally, Mass Effect 2 felt like an exercise in Building the Brand, whereas the first one felt more like an authentically new and interesting world, at least to me. I hope the third one gets back to the spirit of the first one, while keeping the inarguable gameplay improvements of the second. The one thing I would like to say about Mass Effect, either of them, is that it really is a joy to encounter a video game as generally well written as it is.

Please, though, commentators, stop using Metacritic as the metric by which you demand we talk about something. It's a scourge, emblematic of everything that is wrong with the world generally and video games specifically, and it must be stopped, unless, you know, you like having a bunch of reviews run through a spectrometer, via some mysterious methodology that has never been disclosed and assigned some asinine and frequently unjustified "number"—even reviews that pointedly refuse to dole out numbers or grades—whereupon all these reviews are blendered into some seemingly scientific numerical score, which, in-fucking-credibly, game-developers' bonuses are then based upon. Great system! Imagine if NBA players were paid according to how fans who may or may not be smart or paying attention regarded their performances. Now imagine that NBA players were paid according to how another set of fans interpreted the first set of fans' judgment. That's Metacritic.

Here's a game I'm surprised no one has talked about much yet: Limbo. I didn't play Limbo, though I did watch my lovely girlfriend, Trisha, play through it, and she adored it. It's maybe the most disturbing platformer ever made, yes? As though Ingmar Bergman made a Super Mario Bros. game.

Speaking of my girlfriend, 2010 will always be the Year in Which My Previously Non-Gamer Girlfriend Got Serious About Games. She played through several—Red Dead, Fable II, Left 4 Dead 2, Limbo, Heavy Rain—with little to no help or prompting from me, which is amazing, especially considering that this is a person who, before we started living together, had not played a game since 1987. Which means there's a big, personally significant, yet-to-be-played game for me in the offing this year: Fable III. Trisha's favorite game of all time is Fable II, and she's been out of town working since September, which means she hasn't been able to play Fable III. Before she left, she asked one thing of me: save Fable III until she gets home. In a few days, she will finally come home, and we'll play through it together. So, really, everything I've written so far is wrong. Given how much I miss her and how long we've been apart, my best and most meaningful game experience of 2010 hasn't even happened yet.

As ever,
TCB

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Tom Bissell is the author of several books, including the essay collection Magic Hours, which will be published in April. He writes about video games for Grantland, ESPN's sports and pop culture website, and is a past winner of the Rome Prize and a 2010 Guggenheim Fellow.