This week, I finally replayed The Last of Us in full or the first time since it came out seven years ago. It’s not an easy game to play, and one I’ve put off for a long time. But The Last of Us Part Two came out on Friday and I figured I oughta finally replay the first one that I love so much (and cited on my university rationale, so, y’know). I’ve started Part Two and, man, it’s striking how far video games have come in seven years.
But this post isn’t about that.
This one’s about fun.
Fun is weird. Play is odd. There are people who try and figure out how to describe it, people like John Huizinga and Bernard Suits and many others. It’s elusive, something I’ve discussed on this blog before, and much of that is due to how we use language to describe ‘fun.’ Something being fun can be described as entertaining, and you could also see it as being joyful. This would rule out a lot of heavy non-fiction and ‘serious’ movies; we aren’t really ‘playing’ when we’re watching Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man, are we? For the sake of simplifying a complex argument, maybe let’s just focus on games, since those necessitate an active role by the participant — and are also things that one stops if they aren’t having fun.
While talking about The Last of Us Part Two with a friend of mine, and he said a review had described it as a ‘misery simulator.’ Please understand that this is amidst a conversation about how we’re looking forward to the game, and in this context ‘misery simulator’ is a good thing.
So, uh, why?
I’d argue that one reason why games are fun is because they are mechanically satisfying, that is there is pleasure to be had from using the rules of the game well. Board games like Scythe or Game of Thrones are fun because, even though they’re really hardcore with interlaced systems and require thinking several turns in advance, throughout all that strategic stress there is that satisfaction that comes from things working out. You’ve been given a puzzle consisting of the game’s rules and the other people and your job is to solve it. The better your solutions, the better the game.
Schoolyard tag is fun not just because you get to run around, but you’re running with a purpose. Figuring out how to avoid who’s It so you that become It yourself, the mechanics of the game is a very simple puzzle played out by reflex.
Expounding on that, a video game is ‘fun’ in some ways because of the mechanics. Borderlands has a really satisfying gameplay loop of shooting bad guys and getting loop and it’s fun to do. The Sims’ sandbox for you to play out lives is designed in such a way for gameplay to be smooth and rewarding. The Last of Us, even as gutwrenching as the story is, is still ‘fun’ in that there’s a delight to be had when you manage to sneak past a group of Infected or getting out of a particularly hairy encounter. Even if it’s thematically crushing at times, it’s still gratifying to play because the game lets you be good at it.
I’m only a few hours in The Last of Us Part Two, I’ve been taking my time and making sure to really enjoy it. Thus far, it’s terrific, and exploration has been a lot of, yes, fun. I know the game is going to take a dark turn (but I don’t know when, where, or how), but I know I’ll probably keep playing because, well, I wanna know what happens, but also because, yeah, the game’s fun to play. In that even if things get really rough, it’s still immensely gratifying to play.
So yeah, I guess I am having fun.
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