The Struggle to Enjoy Video Games

A video game’s primary purpose is never to repel its audience. I would venture to say that outside of certain forms of painting and sculpture, artists rarely seek to provoke repulsion. It’s unfortunate then that some video games do present players with obtrusive barriers — obvious flaws — that prevent them from fully enjoying the experience. In these cases, enjoyment becomes a battle against the game itself, and a form of self-deception by the player who only wishes to appreciate what might otherwise be reasonably salvageable components of the entire experience.

Gamers may have once thought they had it easy, believing in the simple binary choice of liking or disliking a video game, but the difficult truth is far more complex than that. As games have evolved technically and artistically, their constituent parts have become more distinct entities within the framework of the whole, and thus create opportunity for not only a sense of harmony between facets, but also the potential for a disturbing dissonance in the overall gaming experience. The conscious effort to overcome these dissonances is fundamentally and at least momentarily game-breaking, but in the mind of the gamer, where differing values are placed upon certain aspects of play, extended perseverance can essentially eliminate that negativity by the time the experience culminates and the credits roll. But what gets a player to that point?

On occasion, it’s simply impossible to press forward past such deterrents. An anecdote:

Final Fantasy VII

I admit freely and somewhat shamefully that I never finished playing through Final Fantasy VII. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that FFVII fell victim to a transitional gaming era that most games could never transcend. The masterpieces of this time were constructed in a development shoebox, so to speak, limited in scope and vision to the horizons of the time. As wonderful and visionary an era as it was, the products of the period would inevitably age in a far less than flattering way. I did not play FFVII during this era, so while other titles of this time — which I did enjoy in their youthful heyday — can be recalled and revisited with adequate fondness and forgiveness for their gray hair and wrinkled skin, FFVII, when I tried to enjoy it nearly a decade after its release, pushed me away with dated visuals and cumbersome play mechanics.

What remained was the game’s story; a tale worth telling survives longer than a simple “game.” So… I found the game’s script online and read it — all 300-something pages of it. I’m sure any other dedicated, yet astonishingly stymied gamer would do the same.

Narrative in games is often an encouraging factor, leading players (who in this case may be more appropriately termed “the audience”) to dismiss games’ shortcomings with play mechanics, graphics, or audio in favor of an engaging plot. Many games survive this way; Mass Effect, the early Silent Hill games, and even the Metal Gear Solid series featured storytelling that far outweighed their actual gameplay. More recent examples include the wonderfully entertaining, notably ugly, and mildly horrific-to-play Deadly Premonition, as well as the visually dated Nier, whose camera and other controls frustrated more than a few players. Like my sad experience with Final Fantasy VII, however, sometimes these detracting elements prevent players from reaching the big narrative payoff (and we have to resort to extreme measures).

Silent Hill 2

Other times, a game’s core mechanics may be solid and satisfying, but another aspect of its design obscures what greatness might lie beyond. Something game critics often cite, but less frequently explain, is pacing. There is an inherent promise of progress in all video games, and when one fails to deliver on that promise, it can leave players unfulfilled, uninspired, and unwilling to continue. There are many ways a game’s pace can falter, and this malady of design is far more difficult to avoid than simply writing a better story or bump-mapping a cave wall.

Even games as great as the Big Red Potion Game of the Year, Demon’s Souls, or the critically acclaimed Red Dead Redemption can suffer. The abnormally unforgiving difficulty players faced in Demon’s Souls was a conscious design choice that appealed to many gamers, but also prevented others from ever exploring the game’s intriguing world, and Red Dead Redemption‘s arduous horseback conversations and lapses of time and distance between missions caused many to miss out on more engaging aspects of play, and what some claim to be one of the best stories of 2010. Perhaps the most common offender, though, is RPG grinding — senseless, forestalling filler in a genre built around narrative — which can easily lead to abandoned adventures and shelved controllers. Here, the combat mechanics may be excellent and enjoyable, but asking players to repeat the same actions ad infinitum borders on offensiveness, and can ultimately cause resentment.

So why should gamers accept transgressions such as these, forcing themselves to bear periods of displeasure as part of a pursuit that is supposedly meant to be enjoyable? Because we’re missing out on something better if we don’t? Because these gaming pains will be justified by some expected reward that may or may not exist? Some challenges along the way will undoubtedly make later successes more gratifying, but when the overall experience reaches a breaking point for a player, what is left to validate that 60-plus-dollar purchase? At that point, is the game worth anything, or is it simply a prison from which we hope to escape via content we may never see?


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Author: Eddie Inzauto View all posts by
Eddie has been writing about games on the interwebz for over ten years. You can find him Editor-in-Chiefing around these parts, or talking nonsense on Twitter @eddieinzauto.

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