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Jared Hester

First and foremost how do you distinguish “interesting” and “fascinating”? I am unsure of what you mean by this regarding “The Stanley Parable”. And regarding games in general if “that fun needs to be fascinating” what would be fun that isn’t fascinating? Also what specifically is this thing(s) that game makers “who want to believe that they must go beyond fun in order to be taken serious” can’t reach?

“Games need to be fun” is a platitude perpetually restated without any of the espousers of this mantra taking the time to define what “fun” is, or at the least their working definition. It’s a vague statement that is mildly useful for game creation and critique. It’s akin to saying “paintings must look pretty” or “music should sound good”.

Rather than being fun, constructing a quality game is built upon crafting engaging and rewarding experiences. A series of tasks that may be difficult, frustrating, or emotionally taxing, tasks that by no means could be considered “fun”, can still coalesce as an engaging experience that enhances a game. You began to scratch the surface of this theory with:

“The fascinating part is the physical activity involved in attempting to acquire possession, the dynamic between players as they co-ordinate an attack, and the heroics that tend to emerge from scoring. In other words it’s not the points that bring about the thrill of scoring a try. It’s the hard work of pushing through an opponent team to get there”

These aspects are not always fun, they can be incredibly stressful and trying, especially for the losing team. Yet players continue to persevere as long as the experience is captivating. Not necessarily captivated by what is happening in the moment, but by the possibility of the future, the result of their actions. (I prefer using the word captivating because it is well suited to describe visceral and intellectual engagement while fascinating lends itself to the latter)

At the end of the experience if the player is left feeling like they accomplished something, that their time and effort was not in vain they’ll often say that they had “fun.” But this is a lazy way of circumscribing the sum total of their emotional and intellectual states in a way that only lets us know that they found the experience worthwhile.

While I found it very stimulating intellectually, The Stanley parable is not a robust implementation to explore the ideas it addresses. It is a prototype that could serve as the basis for a larger game with a richer set of agency mechanics to better enable experience the full extrapolation of the auteur’s ideas. The player is not tested vigorously due to an inherent flaw in the structure of the game or the ideas behind it, but because the environment is too limited to give the player a high level of choice. When mechanics are based upon abstracted mathematical rules it’s easier to build systems that allow for a diversity of experience than when every narrative twist and turn must be crafted by hand and each additional choice may cause an exponential level of complexity the designer needs to account for and polish into an engaging experience. It’s the intractable problem of designing a high quality narrative that allows a meaningful level of player agency.

The primacy of game mechanics, specifically play mechanics, in terms of the overall experience is overblown in the video game industry. Mechanics are the methods of agency that form the foundation of an interactive experience. They need to be more than play mechanics to support and enhance the player’s participation in the world/story of the game; they must be ludo-narrative.

My hypothesis is your criticism of the mechanics added to GTA comes from your perspective on its fiction. While I happen to agree that the swimming activity was little more than busy work, I loved the business owning and empire building. In my mind I was guiding CJ’s journey from rags to riches, slowly building his empire. With each business acquisition and every collection of earnings I increased my agency and dominance over San Andreas. The clothing aspect was largely inconsequential to me, but I know people who found it essential to mold the appearance of their character to match their conception of his nature. Mechanics that fight the player’s conception of the fiction damage the authenticity of the story and lessen the impact of the experience.

When games increase in scope and scale the play brain is often superseded by the aesthetic response. Certain genres lend themselves to this more than others, but once it has happened mechanics shift from standing on their own as the primary determinant of the quality of the experience to critical components of the aspects the player is truly invested in – the characters and their evolution, the structure of the world, and the scope of their influence on their environment.

It is not that games are not a storytelling art form; it we have been conditioned to a structure and style of storytelling that is ill suited for this medium. Games inherently support a fundamentally different kind of storytelling. I don’t believe that we have explored all the ways to effectively tell meaningful stories through games and by continuing to misappropriate heuristics from other media many developers are impeding their discovery and refinement.

World building is a form of storytelling unique to games that I see as a conceptual evolution from Science Fiction. While works of Science Fiction change something about the structure of the world and its denizens and explores the ramifications of the change, games allow you to experience those ramifications and interact with them. The way a world is created determines the scope of its stories. An excellent world crafter can design a game so that the stories that can be told within it all relate to a specific theme or address a set of questions posed to the player allowing them to experience dimensions of a story they never could in any other medium.


Hi Jared,

Interesting is a generalised term. Fascinating (in the context of this article) means a specific interest or compulsion to master a system.

'Games need to be fun' isn't a platitude. It's a fact born out by numbers. Completion and engagement rates don't, unfortunately, lie. While certain developers might wish it otherwise, it simply is what it is. As for definitions of fun, I did in fact supply one a few posts ago (and reiterated here). Fun is the joy of winning while mastering fair game dynamics.

What's flaky is the "constructing engaging and rewarding experiences" line. That really means whatever the speaker wants it to mean. It's a marketing story, but one that tends not to survive beyond release nor breed franchises.

I would also refer you to articles that I wrote on the subject of busywork and tolerance. The idea that the emergent experience is allowed to be constructed from non-fun dunamics is particularly bad game design (see:why adventure games died) and is a license to deliver poor experiences to players.

I always say that fun lies in mastering dynamics, not actions. A single pass of a ball is not in and of itself fun (usually) but it can lead to fun.

I also avoid the term 'mechanics' because it's both objectively meaningless and misses the in-motion aspect of videogames. Dynamics is a much better fit.

As for CJ, I find people often rationalise the effect of those elements in the game, but do they finish it? No, to the tune of 70% or more. Videogames are unique as an industry in thinking that it's okay that most users give up playing because developers love to rationalise rather than define.

One of the reasons why 'engagement' is a preferable lens to 'gameplay' in this context (see previous on that) is that it exposes this myth.

And no, the play brain is never superceded. Thaumatic experiences work with the play brain.

Thanks for your response,

Joseph DeSimone

Your initial claim that “some kinds of fun are more appealing than others” is universally true, but not universally distributed. Preference varies between individuals. There are no kinds of fun entirely more rewarding for every human than all others. There are commonalities, and strong ones, but to say that you cannot be fascinated by virtual drama in the same way that you can by FIFA 2012 is plain and simply absurd. That one must be offered “an empowering role with the prospect of heroics or leadership” does not necessarily translate to the role of a star. We may enjoy being the smartest, strongest, ablest protagonist, but not being so endowed does not incapacitate our ability to enjoy.

Furthermore, when you say “the skill of placing is not fascinating,” you are completely misappropriating the distinction between economy and action. The action in poker, and in most activities save physical competition, is mental. There are physical actions undertaken, and they may be boring, but who. fucking. cares. Even in sports many actions have no meaningful reward in representational play. My heart rate need not be accurate for a striker or fly-half to enjoy filling their shoes. Many of the actions that I am rewarded for performing, such as successfully passing the ball to a teammate who then scores, are as much mental exercises as physical actions. Economy and action are so closely intertwined that distinguishing them seems a mere academic difference. It’s unimportant that they can be separate. They almost never are. Understanding where fellow players are on the field, a not unsubstantial part of success, is far more of a mental exercise than anything your narrow definition could allow to be called activity-based.

Your comments on GTA:SA are relatively in line with my own. Your following rule of thumb, however, is so wildly false as to create in me a great sense of disbelief. How can you explain the success of FPS such as System Shock 2 or Ghost Recon? There are a slew of games that violate your ratio, many of which provided the impetus for the industry as a whole to grow into something more sophisticated and rewarding than an engine for copies of Commander Keen and Doom (apologies, id). Also, the explanation for why a game like Starcraft wouldn’t work if you could possess the body of a soldier isn’t that it would inherently be disastrous. It’s that the game was designed in such a way that playing as a soldier would disable you from making choices with the requisite speed and accuracy that success demands. There is absolutely no reason to believe that such a game cannot be made, and you certainly do not provide one.

As someone who was raised by an artist practicing abstract collage, I thankfully do not suffer from the mistaken idea that storytelling is the only valid form of art. Yet your assumption that developers “can’t, but also [...] don’t need to” go beyond fun by introducing storytelling elements is baffling. Perhaps it comes from a lack of understanding of how pervasive storytelling is and what constitutes a story. Media can convey stories without ever saying a word. Good art design tells a story. Heck, bad art design does as well. A story is being actively pushed upon you. You may choose to ignore it, but that’s often more difficult than it appears. Frogger, an incredibly simple game that happens to agree with your assessment that games need only be fun (and in my opinion succeeds to this day), has a story to it. It has a story that can be phrased in many ways, and some of them are actually quite compelling. Where is the frog going? Is he, like Nemo’s dad, trying to find his tadpole son again? Is he crossing the street to murder his wife and her new lover? Or is he just a dumbass frog crossing a busy road? Even that last one is a story, if not a terribly compelling one.

Your distinction between fringe gamers and “muggle” gamers is also needlessly reductionist. Do you imagine there is no overlap between those two? Are muggle gamers casual gamers or are they the gamers who only play Call of Duty, all day long? The difference between only those two examples is staggering, yet both fit neatly within those who “only look for that which they already expect.” I know much of this must sound like an attack, and quite honestly is, but please clear up this one point if no others.

Lastly, your definition of a game is narrow at best. It may be true, and I feel sorrow for you if it is, that you only derive pleasure from intense competition. However, for the bulk of humanity, joy isn’t only derived from successfully completing a task or attaining a goal. Lives would be naught but misery if that were true. The sensations of love, wonder, and pride may in some way be tied to success, but they are by no means inseparable. Games do not have to be fun, and that fun does not have to be fascinating. Candy Land is a game. It is not a sport. It is not a mental exercise past the age of four. It most certainly is not fun. But all the same, it remains a game.


Thanks for the comment Joseph,

As with Jared's comment, what I've termed as fascination in this post is quite specific.

However it's *very* important to understand the difference between economy and activity based games and the need to focus on one or the other. They are most definitely not the same thing, nor even close.

System Shock, Ghost Recon and the others are activity games with some economy. Your point about why Starcraft wouldn't work is the same point that I made: "75% of the player’s attention is focused on issuing 100 similar orders and many other management activities."

I refer you to my previous posts on the need for fun and how games and stories actually work (and don't). While storytelling experts love to conjecture that, through the magic of conflation of terms, they can redefine what a story, reality just doesn't work that way.

So we get examples like 'everything tells a story' which sounds awesome but what does it actually mean? Does it mean that impression and plot are the same? Or can we say that a picture is a picture and meaning is meaning, and mixing that with narrative is just hopeful intellectualising?

Just because the word 'story' has multiple meanings it doesn't mean that all those meanings translate across all instances. That's the only productive way to look at it.

Practitioners may wish that players behaved like actors or complex narratives weren't ignored. But they don't and they are. It's not an issue of technique or technology, it's psychological. When playing, players are playing, not acting.

Some (as you did in your comment) try to characterise this as narrow or limited, but this goes back to the point I made about developers who wish they could go beyond fun. It's a bit like stand-up comics wishing they could beyond laughter.

My point, consistently, is that all art forms have boundaries of form - but those are not limits of creativity nor formula.

Thanks again,

Joe Cooper

While there are a lot of silly ideas out there - I think this idea that one imagines they're actors is one of them - it's worth noting that numerous games usings story-telling effectively and are classics because of it. Listen to story can itself be treated as a role and a person can be entertained by a game product that features it.

A theme throughout all these discussions - are games art? can they tell stores? is X a game? is pluto a planet? etc. - is that people aren't actually trying to come up with any useful definitions. They just see a kind of pedestal and they want their favorite thing to be on it.

We have a plethora of different types of interactive entertainment products that we lump together as "video games", but if we have to pretend they're all the same thing than that seriously holds back the development of any kind of useful theory or model.

And if we're refusing to realize that they're different things because, like the "pluto is a planet" folks they see the change in classification as a "demotion", than we're just going to have dumb "debates" where people do nothing but spout rationalizations for things they wish to be true.

Observing a story is not playing, and a story is not a game, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, nor is there any reason doubt that fact that numerous "video games" are heavy on story-time and numerous people love them to death for it. And if we understand what's what and how these components relate and don't pollute our terms in an effort to make everyone feel good, than we can probably do things things better, not worse.

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