Of course, they are. Now hear me out for a sec.
In an age of Achievement hunters and Trophy whores, it’s easy to say that video games as an entertainment medium have lost their luster. It’s much harder to back up that claim, but the question remains: have we lost sight of what makes video games fun?
Setting aside nostalgia (which, believe me, is as hard for me to do as it is for you), let’s look at what made video games “fun” back in the day.
I will say (quantifiably) that no video game has been as hard as the original Battletoads on the NES. Demon’s Souls, Ninja Five-O, and Ninja Gaiden have come close, but no cigar. They’re painful, yeah. But proportionally, no game has come close to the hellish density of each horrifyingly memorable level of Battletoads. So why the hell did we play it? Better yet, why the hell am I still playing it?
It’s because most games used to live and die by difficulty. In their earliest days, games consisted of one or two mechanics (think Lunar Lander, Helicopter, and their ilk). And that was it. To achieve a decent playtime, they’d crank up the difficulty as they went on, providing fraying stress on top of the early onset carpal tunnel you were already developing. The fun you experienced was a direct result of trying and trying again.
The excitement came in proving to yourself (or your brother, or your friends, or your brother’s friends because you had none of your own) that you could best a machine. Rack up enough points, type in your initials (sorry, Andrew Scott Stephens and Frederick Anthony Green), and wear that smirk all damn day.
Today, though some games are challenging, few are made to provide the same challenging experience in the same way, and even fewer are sold on that basis. When we buy games today, we expect a robust story to carry our attention and multiple gaming mechanics to keep our fingers busy. It’s a paradigm shift that makes games more about player response than player input.
Assisted by great strides in technology, video games have come into their own as storytelling devices, and they’re assisted by that paradigm shift. The intersection of presentation, story, and control can make for compelling emotional experiences (e.g., a shit-ton of feels). But does being impressed by a game increase its fun factor?
Let’s take the case of Nintendo, who are perhaps the last (well, they’re at least the biggest) bastion of games centered almost solely around “fun”. Games like Super Mario 3D World and Donkey Kong Country Returns are, underneath the surface, a lot like retro games. They’re as familiar to us as their past-gen predecessors, yet as fresh as the first time we played the original Donkey Kong Country. At the same time, they’re impressively presented: anybody who played DKCR remembers the silhouette scenes and set pieces that defined the coolest parts of the game. But the modern gamer might pooh-pooh them because they’re not “serious”; the only emotional response they elicit is nostalgia.
Nintendo might be a day late and a dollar short in the industry, but they still prove that video games can be about pure entertainment while giving us something to remember them by.
To wrap it up, I’d like to say that video games are as much fun as they used to be–at least, proportionally. Technological leaps and the evolving art form of games today make them almost unrecognizable from their roots, but that doesn’t mean they should be (or are) any less entertaining.
Do you have a counter-argument? Or did I just say what’s been on the tip of your tongue? Break it down with a comment below.