Editorial: Embracing The "Game" In Video Games

by Jeff Marchiafava on Nov 25, 2011 at 07:00 AM

Gamers have a lot of praise for their favorite hobby. Many, in fact, would probably argue that video games aren't just a hobby. Video games are art, as intellectually stimulating and culturally relevant as any classic masterpiece. Video games are also the future of entertainment, a storytelling medium destined to eclipse the humdrum, non-interactive formats we suffer through today. As much as I love a good story, however, I'd rather just play a game that remembers to be a game.

For the record, I don't disagree with the opinions espoused by high-minded gamers. Video games are art in my opinion, and they are capable of telling amazing stories. I just don't typically enjoy those types of games as much as ones that embrace their "game-iness." Here are a few examples of what I'm talking about.

If the realism in your game makes it less fun, you're doing it wrong

Fun Trumps Realism
Over the years, many developers have traded in cartoony mascots for more realistic settings and characters. I naturally gravitate toward these types of games, but have come to the conclusion that realism should never hinder entertaining gameplay. For instance, Mafia II might be the more authentic depiction of organized crime life, but I still prefer the stupid activities of Saints Row. Flinging your body into oncoming traffic in hopes of racking up a high score makes absolutely no sense from a narrative perspective, but I'll be damned if it isn't a lot of fun. Other open-world games like Just Cause 2 don't even try to emulate reality (infinite parachutes sure come in handy), and are all the better for it. I'll take a big, diverse sandbox over a meticulously recreated city any day of the week. L.A. Noire was a breakthrough for video games in many respects, but I spent more time playing GTA IV, and had more fun while doing it.

What's more fun than realistic racing? Crazy, stupid video game racing

Simulation or Stimulation?
Open world games aren't the only games that get bogged down in realism. Take the racing genre, for example. There's a common belief with racing games that the more realistic a racer is, the better it is. I appreciate a realistic racing sim as much as the next gamer, but my favorite series is still Burnout. Gran Turismo outshines Burnout in every category a gearhead could care about, but I've had more fun and excitement forcing my opponents into oncoming traffic than I'll ever get from tuning the perfect automobile. On a similar note, I recently picked up Forza 4 and Driver: San Francisco. I'm sure I'll play plenty of Microsoft's premier racing sim, but Driver was the first title I popped in my console, and the game's ludicrous premise ("I'm in a coma but I can jump into other peoples' bodies and drive their cars? Sure, why not?") provides one of the most entertaining mechanics racing games have offered in years.

I'll take a well designed objective-based game mode over a scripted campaign any day

It's Okay To Be A Game
All too often developers forget that the structure of a game doesn't have to be hidden behind the scenes. Gamers like playing games, and part of the fun comes from figuring out a ruleset and maximizing your performance within those constraints. Horde mode, which is probably the most popular and oft-repeated FPS mode of the past few years, has an unabashedly overt structure that harkens back to the earliest days of gaming: Defeat X enemies to complete a wave, then begin the next wave, featuring more difficult enemies. Horde mode strips out the narrative, set piece moments, and cinematic presentation so heavily favored in modern games and challenges players instead with the classic goal of achieving a high score. Turns out that's still a fun way to pass the time.

I don't know how managing a skill tree works into Skyrim's fiction and I don't care, as long as I have fun perks to unlock

My favorite game of this year is probably going to end up being Skyrim. Bethesda has truly outdone itself with the newest installment of The Elder Scrolls, pushing both its storytelling and presentation to new heights.  But that won't be why I sink 100+ hours into this massive RPG. While I'm enjoying the story and the exhilaration of exploring a deep open world, the appeal of leveling up, crafting new items, and gaining new powers fuels the core of my Skyrim addiction. These are all aspects that date back to pen and paper RPGs, and they are components the developer showcases instead of trying to bury them for the sake of story or simplicity. Skyrim may be buggy and the animation and voice acting may still pale in comparison to more cinematic experiences on the market, but Bethesda knows how to make a game for people who love playing games.

To my chagrin, much of the industry seems to be heading in the opposite direction. Many developers are preoccupied with chasing after the perfectly crafted experience, which more often than not negates the freedom afforded by the interactivity of video games. Roger Ebert got a lot of flak when he suggested that games and art are two different things. While I might not agree with his definition of art, I do believe that sometimes developers spend so much time trying to capture realism, tell a convincing story, or ape cinematic spectacle, that they forget to make their projects games first and foremost. Their final products still have plenty of value, but I'll always prefer the game that's the most fun to play.