Should Games Be Serious? - Apozem Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Should Games Be Serious?

I hate blog openings. There's no real easy way to start a blog. You want to catch the reader's interest (usually with a personal anecdote of some kind) without talking too long about how your dog relates to Skyrim.

So, today I think I'll pass on the opening and skip to the content part. I recently finished playing Grand Theft Auto IV: Episodes From Liberty City. It's a two-pack of DLC content, both of which are pretty awesome. I loved being able to spend more time in Liberty City.

This blog isn't about the relative merits of Episodes From Liberty City. I already reviewed Lost and Ballad separately. If you're curious about my opinion on those games, check those out. They're interesting reviews, I promise. I may do a separate blog about them later.

No, this blog is about something I noticed while playing The Ballad of Gay Tony. You'll need some background on Grand Theft Auto to understand why this bothered me so much.

The main campaign in GTA IV is fairly realistic. Niko has limited health. He fights with pistols and small machine guns. Body armor doesn't regenerate. The idea is to make you feel like a real person, not an invincible super-criminal.

For the most part, this approach to gaming works. The idea behind the realism in the gameplay is that it feeds into a gritty story that tries to teach a profoundly serious lesson about the nature of America. Grand Theft Auto IV is carefully constructed to force you to consider America's flaws and hypocrisies. Everything reveals a deeper meaning.

That's the tone of the main game. The second DLC pack (Ballad) is different because it's a lot less serious. There's no deep underlying theme (except maybe to not borrow money from Russian gangsters). There's no profound message in The Ballad of Gay Tony. It's just two guys trying to survive in Liberty City and sell some stolen diamonds.

Case in point, that's you hijacking a train car.

The lack of gravitas frees up the gameplay to be lighter. If there's no need for realism, then there's no reason to keep around the realistic elements from IV's main campaign. So Rockstar put in a few things that are absurd.

I'm talking specifically about the missions and weapons in The Ballad of Gay Tony. They're awesome. In the main campaign of IV, you don't get to the good weapons until you're forty hours in. In Ballad, you get the silenced P90 (favorite GTA weapon ever) within the first few missions. The rest of the DLC is a trail of destruction left by heavy machine guns, C4, and automatic shotguns.

The new weapons break the sense of realism like a twig. There's nothing realistic about riding atop a train and shooting explosive shotgun rounds at helicopters. However-and this is the crux of what's bothering me-blasting helicopters is fun as hell.

I like the story in Grand Theft Auto IV. I like that it's gritty and realistic. I like that it forces you to use crappy weapons like a pistol because that makes the story seem more plausible. Rockstar did nothing wrong when they designed the main campaign of IV.

At least that's what I tell myself. The truth is that when I play The Ballad of Gay Tony and blow up a yacht with an assault chopper, I have more fun in those two minutes than in the first ten hours of GTA IV's main campaign. Throwing realism to the wind and blowing stuff up is undeniably entertaining.

What does that say about the main game in Grand Theft Auto IV? Does its gritty nature cause it to be less fun? Is the profound story an anchor around the neck of fun?

Think about it. What games have a deeper meaning and are fun? Take Jonathan Blow's critically acclaimed Braid. That's a game neck-deep in complexity, but it's not what you would call fun. Sure, solving the puzzles is enjoyable, but they are not compelling enough to merit gameplay on their own. You play Braid for the message. You don't play it for the gameplay.

At the opposite end of the spectrum you have the Mario series. Super Mario games have little to no story ("Go rescue the princess!"), but they are a lot of fun. Jumping on platforms and scaling crazy levels is a blast. There's a reason that Nintendo has made these games for thirty years.

Part of the fun in story-shallow games like Mario is freedom from thinking. Sometimes it's fun to play something mindless. Don't bother with a deeper story, kick back and shoot some dudes or stomp on some turtles. There doesn't have to be a reason, just entertainment.

This may be too general an assertion, but it seems that meaningfulness and entertainment are two qualities diametrically opposed to each other. You can either have a deeper meaning (GTA IV's main campaign) or mindlessly entertain the player (The Ballad of Gay Tony). I don't see a way to achieve both.

Maybe I'm wrong. What do you think? Can games be meaningful and entertaining at the same time? If so, what games successfully do this?

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