Transparent Seas

Mitch Bowman's internet domicile.

The Balancing Act: Compromising Between Fun and Art

It’s becoming increasingly clear that games have begun evolving past the point of being merely entertainment software. In their progress towards attaining status as a proper artistic medium, it has ceased being adequate to be simply entertaining. We now expect more of our games than ever before.

No doubt, many developers have stepped up to the plate, offering us amazing audio-visual masterpieces, easily transcending the categorization of mere software. We’ve been given entire worlds to explore, interesting characters to meet, and epic tales to shape with our actions. These are by all means incredible achievements, but they come with new challenges to be faced.

Perhaps the largest of these challenges is to not lose sight of what makes something a game in the first place, as our narrative depth and aesthetic richness progresses forward. After all, for something to be a game, it must be fun.

As we’ve seen in films, sometimes art and entertainment can be at odds with each other. The explosion-filled blockbuster action movies that bring in the billions of dollars are pretty thin on artistic depth, and some of the most incredibly moving pieces of cinematic art ever created are downright painful to sit through. Was anyone really amused by Schindler’s List? For most people, these two types of movies are enjoyed in very different ways.

So how does this apply to games? Well, until very recently, most games have fallen far more on the Expendables side of things, rather than the Schindler’s List side. Emphasis has always been put on entertainment in games, because being fun is an intrinsic part of what it means to be a game.

Recently, however, we’ve seen some games that lie closer to the middle of the spectrum. The indie platformer Limbo is a perfect example of this. It’s a game that strove to be more than simple entertainment, and it would seem it had to make some compromises; in becoming art, it had to become less of a pure entertainment product.

What do I mean by that? Well, let’s look at the difficulty level of Limbo. For an XBLA/PSN title (traditionally a home for much lighter/more casual fare), Limbo is quite a hard game. While it’s possible that this is simply a conscious choice the creators made, out of a desire to challenge their players, there’s another answer I’d like to think is far more plausible.

If you’ve played Limbo, think back to the atmosphere of the game. It’s a very dark game; a sense of foreboding and helplessness lies over it. Even without any dialog, we can tell that it’s about a small boy lost in a very dangerous place, and all the emotional trappings of that theme are emphasized in Limbo’s aesthetic and overall feel.

Why not, then, have the gameplay reinforce this feeling, too? Well, therein lies our rub. As soon as the gameplay mechanics are being employed as a tool to make the player feel something, they cease to be purely a means of entertainment. More accurately, they become something much more than that.

Fortunately, Limbo did a fantastic job of navigating this potential minefield. Any temptation to make the game unfairly difficult to emphasize their artistic point was held at bay, and the game remains a highly playable platformer, with some of the usual genre conventions that allow us to not die at every turn.

How long will it be until we have games that fall much further onto the Schindler’s List side of the scale, though? I personally haven’t played any games that I thought really ruined their fun-factor by hammering too hard at their artistic objectives (I’d love to hear about them if they exist), but it’s only a matter of time until it happens. As games become more established as a means of artistic expression, creators will be increasingly tempted to prioritize their artistic vision over the entertainment value of their game.

Unlike in other mediums, I don’t think such projects will be very warmly received, because games have much more of an intrinsic attachment to fun – to play – than any other medium. Thus, the balance, the compromise, and the artistic restraint shown by games like Limbo will become an increasingly important characteristic of game design.

The flip side is that games that really nail this balance will be vastly more rewarding than games that choose to stay firmly anchored on the entertainment end of the spectrum. It may be true for many more years that the most successful, mass-marketable games – the Call of Duties and the Gears of Wars – will remain much the same as Hollywood’s action blockbusters, preferring instant gratification over more introspective fare. But for those who want a bit more impact from their experiences, there will hopefully arise more games that walk that fine line between fun and beauty with an expert step.

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