Casually glancing through Twitter at yet another Last Of Us II inspired thesis, a rather morbid curiosity these days, I observed a typically passive aggressive discussion conducted in the usual confrontational tone, that has become mandatory for those that feel secure behind the anonymity afforded by their juvenile Twitter handles and comical profile pictures. Amongst the grim propagation of hostility and various accusatory “ism’s” dispersed by people that would be offended by Pingu, yielded a veritable miracle of modern social linguistics: a calm, measured response. A brief yet significant moment that raised an important observation regarding how or more explicitly “why” you play TLOU II. Though the specifics of the original Tweet has since been consumed by the great monolith of social media, the salient points are that someone stated, among many things, that the TLOU II wasn’t good because it wasn’t “fun”. With another individual immediately refuting that claim arguing that it wasn’t intended to be fun. This statement baffled me.
An indication of a great game is traditionally measured by how much fun you are having playing it. Why play any game if it isn’t inherently fun? Seems counterintuitive. Are “fun” and “entertainment” mutually exclusive? What is the fundamental distinction between them? Is there one? Having not played TLOU II I can’t really comment on the accuracy of the assertion that it is or isn’t “fun”, but can attest to the notion that fun isn’t necessarily a prerequisite, but it does help. It’s also entirely subjective. One man’s fun is another man’s golf! I can’t for instance say I had fun watching “A Nightmare On Elm Street” when I was far to young and impressionable to actually watch it, but I was still enthralled by it. Yet with a game, an interactive experience specifically designed to encourage fun, diminishing or completely negating that intention seems contradictory.
Fun is surely a derivative of entertainment, a consequence of the latter’s influence on the participant. The entertainment being the game and the fun, a naturally occurring result of the journey the player takes during the game. As strained and arduous as that excursion maybe, if you’re not experiencing even a modest quantity of fun you’re going to lose interest rapidly. Games can be challenging. They can be disturbing, even frustrating at times. They can depict environments so effusive that it’s difficult to separate, back to the banality of our own reality. Red Dead 2 is perhaps one of the most technically brilliant games I have ever played, and yet remains unfinished because I just wasn’t having fun. Which makes you wonder whether being entertained is enough in a game?
With a movie or novel possessing an innate exuberance isn’t really statutory when the narrative doesn’t rely on the direct reciprocity of the individual watching/reading. With a game details, narrative developments, character motivations are expressed in a much more personable way. We are the characters. Their struggles are our own. It’s not narrated to us by some incorporeal voice, it’s experienced by us. Through us! And if journey isn’t provoking that impetus we need to persist then there really isn’t any point?!
Whether or not something is fun or merely entertaining is all relative I suppose. A bit like trying to distinguish between rain and sleet. In either case you’re still going to get wet!
Gaming is an expensive hobby. One that isn’t getting anymore affordable. I’m not just talking about the broad state of the global economy, but the intimate considerations. The domestic responsibilities: food, clothing, utility bills, my daughters numerable hobbies that require some monetary investment. Not to mention those delightful household catastrophies that results in an impromptu swimming pool forming in the kitchen and a hefty surcharge from the plumber. Along with other notable issues and financial variables, there’s sparsely anything left. Once those precious funds have all but been exhausted, there’s very little room for frivolity. And quite honestly time simply doesn’t permit the opportunities it used to to engage with them consistently. With the imminent arrival of the next gen consoles, which only further compounds the issue, the mature thing would be to accept the naturally occurring shackles of senility and forget this juvenile recreation. But I can’t. The idea of getting a new games console still invigorates me. Especially if I’m one of the first to own it.
I’ve only ever done this once, with the PS4. Though quality content was noticeably absent in it’s infancy, to own one still felt distinct. I don’t regret it. Gaming is my vice, if it can even be considered a fallible human trait. I don’t do drugs. I don’t smoke. I drink infrequently and never excessively. I’m boring and I’m fine with that. This may very well be the last games console I’ll ever get. Whether that’s informed by the ever changing landscape of gaming media or my own domestic circumstances. I want to experience that sensation one last time. It may in fact be the last generation of consoles period! The way in which we play and consume games is fundamentally changing, and not necessarily in a way that is in my best interests. Of course technology evolves, progressing at such an exponential rate. But the reliance on the Internet to even allow some games to function is an alarming dependancy. Certainly there will be advocates that support this shift from physical to digital media, but the purist in me just can’t endorse it implicitly.
The PlayStation offering a digital only alternative seems like a sensible business strategy, one that enables those that exclusively buy digitally a console that suites their specific needs. Now that’s fine, but if there is another generation of games console would they extend the same courtesy to those that want physical? Probably not.
In 7-8 years from now, during the theoretical release of the fictional PS6, I will be in my early 40s. Chubbier around the gut. Greyer around the temples. And even more jaded than I am now. Chances are that my presumably arthritic joints would swell in contempt at the very notion. Realistically the PS5 is my last chance at experiencing that same sense of adolescent fervour I felt as a kid. What’s so wrong about that?
Ah loading screens. The time honoured transitional that disguise the initialisation in a game. Sometimes benign. Often infuriating. These laboured compliances have endured as a necessary intrusion that have impeded player progression for decades. Though far less prevalent now, or at least not as extensive, these customery intermissions could become a thing of the past. A primitive function ridiculed by future generations. Studied by archaeologists the same way they’d examine ancient Eqyptian tombs to understand how primitive civilisations lived. The advent of the PS5 boasts an impressive custom SSD so advanced that it could potentially end load times as we know them. No more agonising delays during an intense boss fight you’ve already failed against. Having to wait and rectify that mistake. Almost instantaneous gameplay. And I’m okay with that.
Its hard to feel particularly nostalgic about an antiquated system that, though essential does somewhat slow the momentum of a game, thereby blemishing the experience. There’s nothing evocative about waiting for my shower to warm up or my food to cook. But the issue not only lies in games that boast huge environments that can be approached objectively and freely. Propagating fluidity and personal autonomy in a fully immersive explorable terrain, but also in linear narratives. Having a prohibitive interim of loading screens that perennially slows down the momentum of the story every time you die reduces your participation for protracted stretches. I’m reminded of my time in Skyrim. The anxiety of entering burial crypts guarded by ancient Draugr, wielding rustic weapons to defend their tombs. Opening a door to the next ritualistic passage, waiting patiently as the loading screen depicts the static image of a dragon, nestled atop of a protruding spire. It’s wings sprawled, bracing for an attack from some unseen adversary. As the camera slowly zooms in enhancing the dragons malicious features, stopping just close enough to see it’s dark, lifeless eyes. Until you realise that the game has failed to load for the fifth time in an hour! Good times. Well memorable at least.
There are rare instances where these laboured interludes have become somewhat indelible. The slowly creaking doors in Resident Evil for example are iconic. Some even offer an interactive experience like “Ridge Racers” Galaxian mini games or even “FIFA’s” practice arena, that allows players valuable respite to practice key skills. Most however are simply logistical obligations. Content to display static images or animated symbols until its finally time for you to take over again. Though they’ve been an inherent part of gaming for longer than I’ve been playing, there absence won’t be missed. Much.
“The Last Of Us II” is at a crucial impasse. The growing annomosity that has swelled between the developer and the “fans” has reached a critical stage, where some kind of mutual armistice seems unlikely. We’re at a point where critical reasoning and objective perspectives are being distorted by an isolated, though vocal contingent that have beset the online community with a profusion of abusive harassments, escalating a situation to what can only be described as a reckoning! The death threats directed towards actress Laura Bailey only deepens the lingering division. Though this behaviour doesn’t accurately reflect the opinions expressed by the majority, it does diminish them. Endorsing this kind of negligent bile simply because of the scripted actions of a fictional character she has portrayed in a computer game, is the equivalent of blaming “Downfalls” Bruno Ganz depiction of Hitler for the deaths of 6 million Jews. And if you think that’s an embellishment, then you probably shouldn’t check out some of the comments fluttering around on Twitter!
The active facilitation of blind hatred has become so repugnant that you truly have to question the mental stability of some of these cretins. Bereft of all rational instinct, these hostile views have only propegated the volitile nature of public discourse further. Constructive analysis of the games faults is something that has alluded much of the criticism in the wider gaming firmament. The censure directed to NaughtyDog and anyone associated with the game is frankly intolerable. Instigated by an obsessive culture that thrives on this kind of hostile behaviour. It is possible to dislike a game without conveying those opinions like J K Rowling degrading trans-advocates. Thoughts are fluid. Instinctive. Harmless. It’s only when we assign words to those thoughts that they become harmful. You have every right to be upset, just think about what you’re writing before you type!
Now I’m not a Druckmann apologist by any means. The controversy surrounding former creative director, and all around literary genius Amy Hennig and her sudden unexplained departure from the company, that may or may not have something to do with Druckmann has tarnished my perception of him. Sifting through his social media only re-enforce’s my judgment about his dubious character. He comes across as insincere. A myopic observation considering I only have random Tweets and unsubstantiated speculation to support my intuition. He seems like the kind of person that filters comments to reflect their own burgeoning narccism. Surrounding himself in a bubble of passive enablers that massage his ego. People that would assert that he was some kind of scholar. A pioneer that will be admired for his bold vision long after we’ve all reached the game over screen. Cultivating the illusion that he is impenetrable to criticism. “You didn’t enjoy the story?”. You’re sexist. “You didn’t like characters skulls being used as a golf ball?”. You’re transphobic. He is defended vehemently for its trailblazing furvour and challenging the established conventions in computer games. Personally I don’t think he is half as good as he hubris tells him he is.
To me there’s nothing worse than an entitled white guy, exerting his privilege and pretending that what they’ve written, however good, is the most important work ever committed to the English language. That killing a key figure from the last game is justified because of the character’s adaptable ethical standards. That he was willing to kill indiscriminately to preserve their own self interest. When really all it does is epitomises the banal concept that people that use violence as a means of resolution are no heroes. Personally I would never have accepted that anyone in this cruel world to be inherently good or evil. There were characters capable of good that were ultimately forced to do unspeakable acts to survive. Understanding of the morality that they are constantly forced to compromise.
Such inflammatory social debates leave little room for compromise. And unfortunately whatever constructive criticism that could be ascertained through an open, composed discussion has been undermined by the irrational resent of those who believe their opinions are right and their destructive words can’t be seen by others. But they can. I’ve always found it curious how people feel emboldened by the partial anonymity afforded by social media. To express themselves in a way that they never would to someone in person. That doing so online is in anyway an acceptable means of expression. That somehow civility is a prison that can only be sated by an outpouring of hate? I truly hope that isn’t true.
Every game has it’s boundaries. Certain eccentricities that may prevent a player from fully exploring an environment. For instance a door that can’t be opened. A path blocked by seemingly innocuous and totally negotiable debris or an NPC stood in the middle of a road remonstrating the loss of an item or persons that will not step aside until you, a random stranger procure the missing trinket. In most cases these environmental concessions are logical impediments designed to moderate player momentum. That encourage you to engage with your surroundings. To really explore and embrace the vicarious pursuits of your character in a fully formed alternate world. The game doesn’t want you to rush things. It wants you to sample and sip, get a taste of its world. RPG’s are notorious for utilising banal abstractions as a means of corroling player impulse.
A great game however will give the impression of player autonomy, even though every decision is entirely predetermined. Skyrim for instance, despite its significant floors is a perfect example of a game that stimulates the prerogatives of its player. After escaping the games structurally confined opening, Skyrim emancipates the player, allowing us considerable latitude to embark on whatever journey we desire, without the manufactured limitations of its composed narrative. The Witcher 3 is another example of a game that conceals its innate scripted persuasions in an environment that feels organic. The objective is as always to save the world, but isn’t conceptually a time sensitive priority. You can amble from one errand to the next, lining your pockets with gold, or whatever a Witchers’s equivalent for a pocket is, some kind of pheasant lung I’d presume, without the guilt that you should be doing something more important.
Gaming is an inherently selfish hobby. It doesn’t lend itself well to an intimate pursuasions of the individual playing it. We each interact with these worlds in distinctly opposing ways that doesn’t always adhere to the limitations imposed by a games narrative. When there’s an emphasis on the severity of a particularly contentious, world altering cataclysm it kind of breaks the immersion of a fully functioning, open world map when it won’t let you explore the next area until you’ve completed some trivial errand. I’ve got a world to save here guys?! Finding a game that balances the fixed narrative with the spontaneous proclivities of the player without diminishing the formers regimented story arc into a benign, extraneous circumstance is a rare thing to find. And perhaps not entirely possible. Maintaining that engagement through the primary story as well as our own wandering curiosities is difficult to accomplish, but the duality I enjoy the most.
There’s a subtle, yet critical distinction between an open world and free roam. And it’s rather unfortunate that they don’t coincide as often as they should.