Thursday, September 16, 2010

What's the point?

I recently read an interesting post regarding games. It was: "Everything in a video game should happen in some form of advancing the action." Now, given this was in a discussion of RPGs, my immediate reaction was to profoundly disagree. However, before I hit the "reply" button, I realised that this somewhat hasty post actually raised a very interesting question - what is the aim of a video game? So in this 100th post for my blog, I'd like to discuss precisely that topic.

Someone could quite easily ask what is the point of a book, movie, piece of art, or many other forms of media, and people would give vastly different answers. In all cases, there are many elements that go into making these creations, and in some cases, there might be an underlying theme or agenda that it is trying to advocate or explore. Political and social issues are often addressed in these forms, but games have yet to delve deep into this realm, at least not as a key message within their delivery. But that's not to say that they could not do so in the future, even though this may raise issues of social responsibility if this starts to happen on any significant scale.

No, this wasn't just about aliens and mechasuits

Regardless, is there one thing that every aspect of a video game should try to support? Do other forms of media/art have a single thing which every aspect should attempt to reinforce? I've read that the driving force of a book should be the author's premise - a key element, value or moral that they are trying to convey - and that each element of the writing should support this premise. I imagine I would find it hard to identify a premise behind most games, it just doesn't seem particularly applicable. This isn't to say that games can't pose some interesting moral and social questions for players as part of their experience (and some games have done this), but they aren't currently used as a defining aspect of games at this point in time.

Coming from my inherently biased viewpoint, my first reaction was a desire to argue that the driving force of a game should be narrative, but I almost immediately realised this was also a grossly flawed perspective. There's no (real) story to games like Doom, Unreal Tournament 2K4, or DotA, or most puzzle, racing, sport, or even multiplayer-centric games. However, that doesn't make them bad games. In fact, games can be fantastic while containing absolutely no narrative elements whatsoever. Narrative can be a strong aspect of a game that can help make it great, but it is not the be-all and end-all of what makes a great game. People don't spend countless hours dispatching enemies online in their favourite FPS due to any narrative reason, they do it because it is fun.

Games are not these

If I had to give a catch-all that could be applied to every game, then I believe this should be it: "Everything in a video game should happen in some form of advancing the player's engagement." A game designer should at every stage be attempting to keep a player engaged with the act of playing their game, whether through gameplay, graphics, story, dialogue, sound, cinematics, level design, items, achievements, or any other aspect that makes up the complete package of a game. If a player is engrossed in their gaming experience, then this is an indication that all the elements that form to make it fit together in s seamless package that demands the player's continued attention. If someone still wants to keep playing even though they've been glued to their screen for hours on end, then that is the sign of a well-crafted game, no matter what the genre.


  1. Good article and congrats on your 100th blog post! I think plain old 'fun' is a major driving force in games that shouldn't be underestimated.

  2. Oh, I agree. Games should always be fun, and I was almost going to put that down, but I realised that it could be hard for modellers, sound artists, composers and many other people involved in game design to contribute to making a game "fun". Plus, if a game is fun, you're going to spend hours playing it!

  3. What exactly do you mean by narrative and "real" story?

    I would say "fun" is the driving force in most games today. I would not be surprised if the vast majority of gamers considered this an inseparable element of gaming. They are wrong, but you can't really blame them.

    congratulations on the 100th post! I haven't read this blog for very long, but I've enjoyed since I found it. I would only request that you go a bit deeper into some of these issues. Not because the current posts are superficial, but because I feel you could contribute so much more to these discussions. This topic especially has so much more that can be explored.

  4. What's the story of the original Doom? Does it actually have any real effect on the game apart from maybe changing the art style slightly across the episodes? I know I'm picking on a game with very little story, but there are so many games where the story is a distant consideration of the game. It is then frequently shoe-horned into the development at a late stage, resulting clunky writing to join together a series of set pieces, giving a video game equivalent to the movie Mission Impossible 2.

    Narrative is not just the plot of the game - its everything that helps create the reality of the game for the player. It's the dialogue, journal entries, background chatter, cutscenes, heck, even things like loading screen text and art style! It's all the elements that help tell the story of the player's journey and the world in which they are making it.

    I'm not sure I understand why you think you fun is not an inseparable element of gaming. If the player does not enjoy playing a game, then surely that is a fairly significant failing?

  5. I'd rather hear about toolset tricks etc. This kind of stuff doesn't really have a value beyond a bunch of people arguing and then staying further entrenched in their positions than before.

  6. Enjoying != Fun. "Fun" is playing Super Mario Galaxy. Playing a horror game or watching a movie where you end up crying isn't "fun". I'd switch out "fun" with "engaging". Games need only to be engaging, not necessarily fun.

  7. Comments on design issues only lack value if people don't allow themselves to consider other points of view or take them into consideration when doing modding. Analysing why certain things do and don't work and more importantly, WHY, is every bit as important as general modding tips and tricks with any toolset you might be using.

    A good point regarding engaging vs fun - and part of why I picked that my word of choice in my initial post. Perhaps enjoyment is more widely applicable than fun. That said, I've had "fun" watching horror movies or playing "horror games" (though I'm not sure what classifies as a horror game anymore), but I guess I've not had "fun" watching a tear-jerking movie, even though I have enjoyed some.

  8. Horror movie was a bad example, I agree that they can be fun. Games like Passage, The Path, Radiator mods and on are better examples. Perhaps the best example would be any game by Mark Essen, games that are generally frustrating and annoying to play but still prove an interesting experience.