The Walking Dead, 12 Days A Slave, and Fun

Last weekend, a friend and I went to go see 12 Days A Slave in theaters. He had to do it for extra credit in an American History class he is taking, and I just wanted to goof off on a Sunday afternoon.

Without burdening my point with the summary of the movie, both he and I left that theater in unanimous agreement: the movie was excellent, probably Oscar-worthy, and we hated every part of it.

We weren’t entertained, we were horrified. Depressed. Miserable, even. The movie tells the story of a slave in the American South, as tensions are building between Northern and Southern mentalities in the states, and it does not pull any punches. It is gruesome, brutal, and honest. And it’s great. The narrative is engaging, you feel for the characters deeply, and every twist and turn of the plot has you reeling.

This got me thinking about games, specifically Telltale’s The Walking Dead. This is a game that, much like 12 Days, I would say is absolutely fantastic, parroting most reviews. And, much like 12 Days, I found many parts of the game to be intolerably depressing. Walking Dead is full of characters that you empathize with, combined with horrible situations, making you constantly mourn and empathize with these poor people. I found myself having to take breaks in between episodes to release my emotional distress.

This brings me to the question  I am now bringing up: Does a game have to be fun?

The answer, I think this has proven, is no. For so long we have belabored the point of games having to be fun, but now I’m starting to see games which focus on other emotional responses rather than amusement, games which are seeing critical success.

To look at this from another angle, allow me to present an idea I’ve had for a while. I, very pretentiously, like to call this idea The Fun-Quality Matrix.

fig A. The Fun-Quality Matrix

Basically, the synopsis of the Fun-Quality Matrix is that the quality of an experience is irrelevant to the emotion it provokes. Fun things can obviously be good, as evidenced by most every game ever to receive critical acclaim. Mass Effect, Skyrim, and Halo are all fun. However, things can definitely be good without being fun. In fact, the best examples of many mediums elicit a reaction other than entertainment. Schindler’s List is commonly cited as a horrible, depressing, and fantastic movie, and The Walking Dead can be brutal with it’s treatment of beloved characters. Even more bizarre is Quadrant 2, proving that there’s also success to be had with something that’s crap, but fun. The cinema example I give is the movie Drive Angry, a Nic Cage movie that is by all accounts terrible, but was a great time to watch because of how simply atrocious it is. Ride To Hell: Retribution is in a similar “so bad I love it” category.

Well, what does this analysis show? That a game doesn’t even have to be good, much less fun, to be a success? Not quite. What that original question about fun in games has led me to do is develop a coherent theory about what makes for a successful game. This theory is as follows:

A game can be considered a successful game worth playing if

A. The game is capable of bringing about a strong emotional reaction in the player, most commonly one of entertainment

or

B. The game’s level of quality is so low that the badness of the game is, in itself, the primary feature of the game

This theory seems pretty “no duh”, and that’s because it is. It does, however, provide a good working definition of what defines a game worth playing, one I can work with as I continue my thoughts on game design. It also provides a good guiding light on what a good game should, at a basic level do. Hopefully my games will strive for option A, rather than B, but either process does get hands on controllers and games in consoles (or hands on keyboards and games in Steam libraries, put your pitchforks down PC gamers). Obviously, this theory needs expounding, which I will do later, but for now, this provides a good base for my dogma of game design: make a game that brings about emotions in players.

This theory also immediately makes any game design I set out to make player-centric, which is good, but that’s a different topic. The point this all comes to is this:

Games should bring about some emotional reaction in the player, with as strong an intensity as possible, be the game as fun as Halo or as soul-crushing as Schindler’s List. That’s how a game makes a lasting impression.

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