Novel Discomfort

Demon's Souls

I like to be uncomfortable when I play video games.

I guess it’s strange to genuinely desire discomfort, but as it pertains to video games, I find myself more and more in agreement with this sentiment. Recent outings with what I would consider, as a seasoned gaming veteran, to be generally unremarkable, formulaic work in game design have led me to ponder why I can pick up and play 10 games, yet only be truly captivated by one or two of the interactive experiences they offer.

The obvious answer is that some games are better than others, but is “better” really an objective concept, or is it simply a matter of measuring a game based on what is personally valuable to me, or anyone else, in a videogame experience? If quality is indeed objective, why do gamers and critics consistently bemoan sequels for being largely the same games as their predecessors, even when those predecessors were received with astronomical levels of acclaim? If quality is truly objective, shouldn’t a game with the same features, gameplay, and narrative delivery found in a previously extolled title be equally well received?

Quality is not objective, and in the above example, a very particular factor of subjective value comes into play, and it does so for many gamers. This factor is novelty. To me, novelty is an important component of the games I play, and influences how much I enjoy them. This fact plays a role in my preference of single-player or cooperative gaming over competitive multiplayer, original IPs over sequels, and genre-blending titles over conventional ones, as well as any game that emphasizes new ways to play or new strategies in game design.

This may seem obvious, as repeating the same actions and experiences ad infinitum should be torturous, but gamers actually do this all the time. Call of Duty players repeatedly shoot enemy soldiers, God of War players slash at mythical creatures for days on end, Final Fantasy players select “attack” thousands of times per game, BioWare aficionados talk more than a Valley girl on speed, etc. We do enjoy repetition sometimes, so maybe this common scapegoat is not deserving of the frequent chiding, and maybe quickly chalking up one’s level of interest to novelty is too much a simplification of the emotions at work during play.

I used the word discomfort earlier because it communicates an emotional response that is only elicited once a certain degree of aberration has been achieved. A game may be slightly different from the standard, yet still not interesting as a direct result of its nuances, but a vastly anomalous game can be either loved or hated solely because of its uniqueness. This unfamiliarity is discomfort without qualitative assessment — simply a lack of established comfort with the content, gameplay, or other aspect(s) of the experience. Whether a good thing or a bad thing, this novel discomfort is easily recognizable when encountered, but in my experience is most effective when it literally perturbs the individual behind the controller.

Games like Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep or Final Fantasy 13 do little to vary the formulas gamers have been presented for years. I personally have spent very little time with them as a result. Conversely, something like Demon’s Souls, also an RPG, is engrossing for all the ways it shakes things up, not the least of which is making the player extremely uncomfortable while playing. Foreboding atmosphere, fear of death, lurking phantoms, and messages from other players’ game worlds, among other things, make the game highly unsettling, and as the overwhelmingly positive critical and community reception has shown, it works remarkably well.

Heavy Rain is another title that does an excellent job of making players feel uncomfortable throughout the experience. It does so with disturbing themes not often tackled by video games, including child death, divorce, kidnap, murder, and drug addiction. It also employs play mechanics that are meant to give players a degree of influence over a long series of highly stressful, emotionally affective situations, but ultimately leaves them at the mercy of the overarching story, as authored by the game’s designers. The way it gives players control over multiple characters at different times, specifically ones whose motivations and actions are in conflict with one another, can also create a real sense of discomfort in players who are more accustomed to conventional videogame storytelling.

Completely unconventional in that regard is Jason Rohrer’s recent 2-player storytelling tool/game system, Sleep Is Death, which presents no narrative on its own, but leaves the task up to the “controller” (a new-age dungeon master of sorts) of each individual game session. While the moderately haphazard behavior of characters in Heavy Rain can be disempowering to players trained for years on typical game design, Sleep Is Death removes even more rules of interaction, creating a blank slate that can be used to deliver some of the most powerful of interactive gaming experiences.

This can be discomforting because games with fewer rules seem less contained, less safe, with more opportunity to have one’s well-being violated. This may very well be a large part of the appeal of open-world games, which the industry has seen a great push toward in recent years — that the world provides more possibilities and more unknown elements than a limited, structured game world with numerous rules governing play therein.

This all leads me to think about the reasons we play games in the first place. One is to experience the fantastic. For a seasoned gamer, the virtual experiences that were once extraordinary are not so anymore. Interest can wane, as it does in my case, without constant freshness and increasing distance from the recycled themes that reside within our gaming comfort zones. These comfort zones can relate to any aspect of video games: story content, gameplay mechanics, aesthetics, etc. Anything that challenges our sense of familiarity with the medium can put us in a state of alert, preparing us to encounter novel stimuli. In this way, novelty directly translates to discomfort as a measure of attentional agitation, automatically increasing our interest in what is being presented.

The simple truth is that for a fair share of gamers, especially progressive, veteran gamers like myself, convention in gaming is becoming increasingly uninteresting, while the unknown, untested, and unfamiliar can still maintain the wild appeal that enthralled us during our childhood. Games that cause us  discomfort achieve this visceral captivation, and then some, better than other titles. To put it another way, if I’m not in tears, worried, terrified, or else on the edge of my seat, what am I playing for?


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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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