Reggie: "If It's Not Fun, Why Bother"
Reggie Fils-Aimé's famous line about enjoyment in video games assumes video games are supposed to be fun in the first place. So what do we make of more experiential titles that emphasize feeling, place, and (yes) experience over gameplay? Published on Tue, Jan 28, 2020. Written by Michael Bassili.
Reggie Fils-Aimé’s famous line about enjoyment in video games assumes video games are supposed to be fun in the first place. So what do we make of more experiential titles that emphasize feeling, place, and (yes) experience over gameplay?
There’s a subset of video games that doesn’t seem to get a fair following: the boring game. This subset contains many smaller subsets, with the main sub-subset being the walking simulator. Are games where you just walk around fun? I don’t think so. Are they still worth playing? Sure. Games like Gone Home (2013) and What Remains of Edith Finch (2017) place all their weight on the story and the experience rather than their core gameplay loop. (What Remains of Edith Finch is a small edge-case. It’s made up of small mini-games that change as you progress through the game. You might actually enjoy yourself while playing one of them.) In both titles, aesthetic and plot take centre stage. You walk through old, dilapidated houses. Reading notes pinned to walls and etched into wood. Working backwards in your head, trying to uncover the mysteries left behind. These games aren’t really mechanically ‘fun’ but they are definitely interesting as a complete experience. So are these games worth a bother? I’d say so.
Another sub-subset is the point-and-click adventure genre. A now (mostly) dead genre of games where you point and click on interactive elements on the screen to solve convoluted puzzles. The core gameplay loop is clicking on items around the game world and hoping that they’re useful in your context. These games let their puzzles pull most of the weight. Most-if-not-all have great stories behind them, but instead of investigating the environment directly, you’re interacting with it mechanically. You’re putting the game’s world back together, tracing your steps, creating context. The core loop has you walking and clicking and sometimes talking to NPCs. Are these games worth a bother? Id’s say so.
What these games lack in proper gameplay, they make up for in their moment-to-moment experience. The process of wandering around. The moments when a puzzle makes sense or a key plot element is suddenly revealed to you. These games are contextual and visual and not very interactive. They’re a middle-ground between a movie and a typical video game. A cross between those old choose-your-own-adventure books and a reality TV show. Enough interactive elements to justify the use of the medium, but not enough gameplay to sully the stories being told. The directorial experience is upheld. Your surroundings remain curated, shown to you only when the director wills it. These kinds of experiences make many scoff; games like these are more attractive to those who read more than those who play.
But it’s these kinds of experiences that are hard to come by. A carefully directed and spaced cinematic moment that isn’t constrained by a cutscene. It’s organic, happening while you’re fully in control. This kind of experience was what Half-Life (1998) was striving for: a cinematic experience where you’re never taken out of Gordon’s POV. You don’t need to be tied down to watch. You just need to be present. Simply attentive. The game world is like a digital diorama. Something to be poked and prodded and seen, not broken. Little simulations of movie sets. Everything has been placed with care. All exists to further the narrative. You’re simply visiting. You aren’t destroying or coasting along on the way to the next waypoint. You’re going on a visual adventure. These games might be the closest the 90’s and early aughties got to a purely virtual reality gaming experience. Were they worth the bother? Absolutely.