What Makes A Game… Fun?

By Nathaniel Liles


We live in a time that many believe to be “lacking that retro charm”, and many people are convinced that games simply are not as good as they used to be. I’m not quite convinced yet, and although many times game developers hold your hand a little too much with condescending tutorials and P-Wings that fly you straight to the flagpole, there are plenty of people who do the exact opposite, and it’s just as bad. Now, what’s the exact opposite of “so easy it’s insulting”?

DarkSouls“So hard it completely stops being fun”.

Now I’m sure I’m going to absorb all kinds of verbal shrapnel for saying this, but I don’t want my video games to be mind-numbingly difficult. I play video games to relax, to have fun, and to live the life of another, fictional, dude for a little while, and if that little fictional dude is constantly getting his ass rounded off, it reminds me too much of real life and I get all sad and junk. It reminds me that I have homework to do and that I should probably shower sometime this week.

giana00009People talk about the “good old days” when games were tough-as-nails, and beating them took a real man, but they weren’t difficult to make you be a real man. They were difficult because those cartridges had extremely limited space and the game companies wanted you to feel like you got your $60 worth. It was okay to play the same bit over and over again trying to beat it because video games were, in and of themselves, a novel concept back then. It was okay to sit there doing the same thing because making lights dance on your screen with buttons was exciting all by itself, but we’ve gotten used to that, now. Making lights dance on a screen is as blasé and standard as eating and walking now, and when I get stuck on a particularly tough part of a game, I get sick of seeing the same thing over and over because I know the game has so much more to offer me. I don’t want to keep fighting this hard-ass boss, Giana Sisters, I want to see what beautiful trees lie beyond it.

I understand the place of a good challenge in games, and I don’t think games should be stripped of their tough-as-nails options, but when you have no option, it really grates on my patience. Games should definitely have multiple difficulty settings, because video games aren’t exclusively for hardcore joystick warriors. Video games aren’t just a challenge made of code. They didn’t insult my mum or kick sand in my face, so I don’t feel an urge to conquer them. I want to hang out with video games. I want to high-five them and frolic through the god damn meadows. Sure, sometimes I’ll skin my knee or step on a pixie, but a game, to me, is about enjoying what the developer has presented to me, and I don’t have the time, stomach, or testosterone to stare angrily at a game until it catches fire and lets me win.

karnovMy entire opinion here can be summed up as so: when I play an obnoxiously hard game, I do eventually win. I try and try and try, and eventually, I beat the game. It feels fine, no better than beating a well-paced game, but the difference lies in time consumed. When I look at the play time of a hard game, I see that I’ve played for, say, 11 hours. That’s all fine and dandy, I’ve spent much more time than that on other games, but then I break it down in my head… I spent 2 hours trying to beat that first boss… It took me just as long to beat the second boss, and the last boss took an hour longer… And then it dawns upon me… That game was only 4 hours long? I wasted 7 hours playing the same level over and over again? I could’ve beaten an entire, full-length game in that amount of time!

Difficulty does not make a game fun, at least not for me, and adding difficulty settings to make the game more accessible to less skilled gamers doesn’t take away the “Hard”, “Insane”, and “Nightmare” modes from the hardcore crowd. So what does make a game fun? Well, that differs from person to person. I, personally, love seeing my character grow in power over time. I can hear you now, saying, “Oh, if your character gets stronger, you don’t actually have to get better at the game!”

So? It’s fun. It’s also very satisfying to see a character – in any kind of storytelling medium – go from wearing rags and swinging a wire hanger at giant rats to wearing giant rats and swinging rat tails at slime monsters. Ad infinitum until I’m wearing the head of a giant laser-breathing Death Dragon fighting off a sea of hundreds of enemies with sick combos and massive spells. The game hasn’t necessarily gotten harder, but it’s gotten more fun, it’s gotten more epic in scale. I also like bright colors, explosions, and other things that are just plain stimulating. I like exiting things, I like shiny things, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Seeing the same shiny thing over and over, however, lessens the effect that said shiny thing has on the shininess center of my brain, and if I have to keep doing the same thing over and over, I start getting antsy. I want to see the next shiny thing, dammit.

A game can be a lot of things to a lot of different people, and I am in no way lashing out against the hardcore crowd, I’m just saying that everyone plays for a slightly different reason, and those of us who play to have fun don’t really react to the “Yes! I did it! It took me three hours of mindless repetition, but I did it!” kind of satisfaction that seems to be largely steering the big purple boat aptly named the H.M.S. Indie Games. I like fun. I like feeling like I’ve accomplished something, but I also like feeling like I’ve used my time to the fullest. I like experiencing a game fully, and I don’t like experiencing the same thing over and over and over unless it’s just that kind of game, like Angvik. I love Angvik. I love Super Meat Boy. Difficulty can be done right, and it has its place, but a difficult game must also be forgiving, and never withholding. For a game to be fun, it must be balanced, and it must appeal to different people, simple as that. I’ll play on “Extra Easy Bunny Slope Mode for Girls” and you can play on “Nightmare Anti-Nathaniel Mode for People That Are Far Greater Than I”. It won’t ruin the game.


What Makes A Game…” is Nathaniel’s regular look into what makes games the way they are. Feel free to let him know how wrong, or right, he is in our comments section.


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[author image=”http://cliqist.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/nathaniel.jpg” ] Nathaniel Liles is a freelance writer, writing major, and indie musician based in Southern Indiana. While procrastinating or avoiding real-world responsibility, Nathaniel enjoys playing rhythm games, action RPGs, and very colorful games with many bright, flashing lights. You can listen to Nathaniel sing songs or download his music for free at http://nathanielliles.bandcamp.com/.  [/author]


Nathaniel Liles
Nathaniel Liles is a freelance writer, writing major, and indie musician based in Southern Indiana. While procrastinating or avoiding real-world responsibility, Nathaniel enjoys playing rhythm games, action RPGs, and very colorful games with many bright, flashing lights. You can listen to Nathaniel sing songs or download his music for free at http://nathanielliles.bandcamp.com/.
Nathaniel Liles