Tag Archives: fun

Are We Having Fun Yet?

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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The Elusiveness of Fun

What is fun?

No, not what’s fun to do, what does “fun” mean? Johan Huizinga, a Dutch guy that wrote a lot about play and what play means, said in his Homo Ludens that “this last-named element, the fun of playing, resists all analysis, all logical interpretation.” He goes on to lament that there’s, to his knowledge, no direct translation in a Western language that really captures what “fun” is (and if you check Wiktionary, you’ll find the translations lacking in words that really capture what fun means).

So “fun” is weird, and writing it so many times has made me start to question whether that’s how you spell it. But yeah, fun is a thing, and it’s part of what makes play, well, play. If you’re not having fun, you’re not really playing, are you?

Fun’s essential to games, then. I don’t play Settlers of Catan or the Game Of Thrones Board Game just because I feel like manipulating and betraying my friends/family/girlfriend, I play it because manipulating and betraying my friends/family/girlfriend are fun (sorry, friends/family/girlfriend). Some people don’t find those games fun, and for them it’s less playing and more of a slog.

Like I said, “fun” is weird.

Video Games, particularly those with a narrative, find themselves in an odd place when it comes to fun. Because video games have to, by nature, be fun on some level. Even something like The Last of Us, which isn’t always particularly enjoyable due to its serious nature, retains a measure of “fun” to it wherein it is, well, pleasing to play. But other games can get by with a weaker narrative simply because they’re fun. There’s nothing innovative or narratively fascinating about a plumber rescuing a princess, but Super Mario Bros is no less compelling for it.

Capturing that fun is where things get interesting. The Division recreated a swath of Midtown Manhattan but does so little with it that there’s little fun to be found in exploring a virtual New York. Clunky controls that inhibit immersion (why can’t I jump off this parapet to a surface a foot below me?) get in the way of any interest in the game’s vague story. Destiny, on the other hand, is stupidly fun on the micro level. Sure, that game’s story’s also lackluster, but developed Bungie has figured out a shoot-melee-jump cycle that’s so darn enjoyable. Because Destiny is more fun on a beat-by-beat basis, it’s more compelling than The Division.

But here’s the weird part about fun: it’s kinda arbitrary. I know people who find Destiny’s shoot-melee-jump cycle tiresome and I’m sure there are people out there who really like The Division for its core gameplay. We joke about people “hating fun” but then again, isn’t “fun” a matter of opinion?

So now we return to that first question: “what is fun?” Amusement, sure, but if games like Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us can be fun on some level then we’re looking at a very different sort of amusement. Engaging? It works, sure, but Fruitvale Station was engaging as all get out and not at all fun. Enjoyable comes close, but runs in to the same issue as amusement. Huizinga didn’t really define fun alone so much as in relation to play, and he has some very clear (and useful) descriptions as what play is.

Think about when you (or I, if you read this blog a bunch) refer to a movie as “fun.” What’s that mean? Civil War had an incredibly tragic climax, but it’s still fun, right? Least I thought so, since some people find Marvel movies to be droll.

Way I see it, fun is something really hard to to capture, that really lacks a solid meaning. Play is fun, I suppose, and fun is play.

No, that’s not much of a final statement, but it’s late and that’s all I’ve got right now.

Plus, I wanna go back to swinging on ropes in Uncharted 4 because that is a lotta fun.

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Doth Mother Know You Weareth Her Drapes?

Yes, another entry about The Avengers. I’m fully aware it came out two weeks ago and I should probably stop going to watch it every so often, but, well, no. The movie is, simply put, great. It sets a new standard for comic book/superhero movies and, more than that, proves that a movie of this nature can be of the same caliber and quality of those dainty arthouse dramas. ‘cause yes, the script is exceptional, acting top notch, and direction impeccable. But, far and beyond everything else (including Scarlett Johansson), The Avengers is just plain fun.

The recent trend in ‘pulpy’ fiction (y’know, genres like action, scifi, fantasy, superheroes, etc; those ‘entertaining’ movies) has been to add copious amounts of grit to the formula. These days it’s not enough to just have a simple romantic adventure, you have to make it dark and amp up the edginess. A quick look brings up Nolan’s Batman movies and fare like District 9 or The Hunger Games. Not to say that these movies are necessarily bad (in fact, they’re pretty great), they’re just indicative of this current trend.

Joss Whedon and The Avengers merrily threw that to the wind.

This movie isn’t a character study, it’s not a depressing deconstruction of superheroes in real life nor is it some grandiose observation on how people would react to a world-conquering alien invasion. No, it’s an adventure! Start to finish, The Avengers is first and foremost an adventure. We’re talking an adventure like Star Wars or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid! An adventure like each of the Avengers’ own movies were, just taken up to eleven and then some. The Avengers is a pure adventure.

We can take Star Wars as an archetype of an adventure. There’s peril and plight aplenty, but it doesn’t leave us moping and brooding; every tragedy is a catalyst for the next course  of action. In The Avengers we have our tragic moments. But it doesn’t slow down the adventure, it gives our characters depth and a motivation to rise. Whereas in films like The Dark Knight  a character’s death sends out hero into deep self-inspection; a death in The Avengers spurs them on to, well, avenge it and save the day.

Why? You should know this; because it’s an adventure!

The movie is made of fun. It’s somewhat grounded in reality but doesn’t let that hinder the delight of the film. We get to watch a team of superheroes save the day with all the awesomeness and wisecracking it entails. If you’re me, you would have had a massive grin on your face throughout most of the movie (each time you’ve seen it) and every now and then muttering words like “frick yes!” or just cheering.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for the brooding hero. The Dark Knight firmly proved that, if done well, the dark and tortured hero can create a compelling and engaging story. And The Avengers proves that there’s still space for a movie that sets aside the grim solemnness for fun.

But here’s what’s so good: The Avengers pulls it off. There are movies out there, fare like Transformers: Dark of the Moon or, say, The Losers that are fun movies in their own right, but don’t quite leave you thinking “man, that movie was great”. See, as much as The Avengers runs on fun, it backs it up at every turn. Like I said in the beginning (and in previous entries), it’s well developed. Characters aren’t cardboard stand-ins and the plot isn’t just some vehicular shell. Without this foundation the fun would be unwarranted and shallow.

Sometimes, the current trend can be bucked and bucked well. In a day when big blockbuster fare tends to be epics like Avatar and Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, weird/creepy supernatural romances (Twilight) or mindless action films (Transformers, Fast Five, etc), it’s refreshing to see a proper adventure doing so well. But The Avengers surpasses other recent adventures (Ghost Protocol and John Carter come quickly to mind) in that it’s so consistent.

What’s my point? The Avengers is an adventure and it’s fun. Furthermore it’s a great example of summer movie fare that has depth and astounding quality without sacrificing thrills.

So I’m gonna go watch this movie for the fourth time in a few hours. This is a movie that bears watching over and over again because well, it’s so dang fun.

 

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