[Featurama] Why Aren’t Games Fun Anymore

In preparing to play Max Payne 3, I had set out on a quest to complete Max Payne 1 and 2. This wasn’t too difficult a task; not only are Max Payne 1 and 2 fantastic games with manageable lengths for quick playthroughs, I know and love them both and can quote Max’s spectacularly cheesy/awesome monologue ad infinitum.

SIDE NOTE: My favorite line in the series is from the final level of Max Payne 2, in which Max picks up the fallen weapon of the main villain and declares “I was gonna give [him] his gun back- one bullet at a time.”

This was a feat I easily (and gleefully) accomplished, and with that same amount of glee, I headed to my local Gamestop on a wet Monday night for the midnight release of Max Payne 3. I knew I wouldn’t be playing the game until the next day, but for some reason, I needed it.

SIDE NOTE: Are midnight releases boring for anyone else, or are they exciting somewhere? I’ve been to three midnight releases each in different Gamestop locations spanning across nine years, and every single one has entailed getting an arbitrary number and awkwardly standing around outside trying to make small talk with the other psychopaths up buying toys after dark.

It’s no wonder, with this level of excitement, that I gunned my way through Max Payne 3 in an almost shockingly short amount of time. I was rocked and shocked and thrilled and awed and I wore a big grin on my face for much of the adventure, but for some reason, I didn’t feel the satisfaction at the game’s conclusion like I had with the games preceding it.

The reason why was something which had been on the tip of my tongue, but never quite spoken, when I was asked what I thought of the game as I played: it’s spectacular, but it’s not all that fun.

I know, I know: grabbing a goon, diving through a window, and shooting up a dance floor in mid-air is awfully fun. I don’t mean to say the game is a snorefest, nor am I implying that it’s going to drive someone to suicide.

Way back when, I was in an Irish literature class and studying the works of playwright Martin McDonagh. McDonagh’s works are categorized by brutal, blunt, and black humor offset by pockets of sudden, disturbing violence. The general flow of his works was eloquently vocalized by my teacher as, “Hahahah- oh God.”

I dare you to find one other game journalist who has a picture of an Irish playwright in one of his articles.

This style is defined by ripping the rug out from under the viewer just as they think they can relax and enjoy the work they’re experiencing. In Max Payne 3’s case, this came through in the form of slick, stylized action often interspersed with moments characterized by shock, horror, revulsion, or despair, with the first three typically brought about by Max’s enemies and the final descriptor almost constantly brought about by Max himself. How, then, is it possible to walk away from the experience with any kind of levity if the strong feelings of horror still stick with you?

Sure, shooting up a ton of dudes is cool, but can the experience be characterized as “fun” if the payoff is discovering a huge, gory pile of brutally murdered civilians?

Max Payne 1 and 2 played it the opposite way, generally. The underlying story was always kept serious- at heart, there’s nothing funny about a man who from a pit of desperation attempts to find bloody satisfaction after drug addicts slaughter his wife and baby- but interspersed would be pockets of levity. Max Payne 1’s comic book cinematics, starring whichever random employees could be plucked from their cubicles to try and look serious; Max Payne 2’s show-within-a-show featuring the game’s (male) writer dressed as a dapper, perpetually grinning Englishwoman; the incessant references to Norse lore and the possible implication that Odin himself lay within the cast of characters. These are great, legitimately funny moments. They provide relief when the tension of combat and the weight of Max’s despair become too much.

So, about seven hundred words in, I approach my point:

Max Payne 3 made me realize that too many games aren’t fun anymore.

Yes, I realize that is not in the running for top front-of-the-box quotes.

Rockstar Games is already an offender in this regard. Grand Theft Auto IV was a dark turn for a fun franchise, and in David Kushner’s Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto, former Rockstar employees are cited as saying that the game was “so dour” and that “it’s become a very serious franchise.” Speaking from a personal standpoint, GTA3 was a landmark game for me as a child (when I was far too young to be playing the game) and I had been a die-hard fan of the franchise for a while; nowadays, however, I declare myself a Saints Row loyalist.

Thusly, I enter these recent works of Rockstar Games into my list of Games Which Are Becoming Too Serious.

Why are companies doing this? It all seems to stem from the idea of pushing games into the category of “art,” but I think a diatribe from one of my professors is relevant here:

“The question here is ‘what is art?’ And that’s a bullshit question, really, which only ever results in circle-jerk answers, because the definition of ‘art’ is different for every single person. Take the filmmaker: a director can devote five years of his life working on a film, sacrificing his health, his friendships, his family, everything, for this creation. And imagine the film is truly great- what does he get? A two hour long product and if he’s lucky, ten minutes of applause at a film festival. The viewer’s definition of art would be the film, of course, but it can’t be that for the director or he’ll go crazy. For him, it would be the process of creation. And both are valid. But their definitions of art are wildly different.”

He got away with salty language by being Irish. Is this an incredibly offensive image to Irish people? Whoops.

What I mean to say here is: the pursuit of driving gaming towards becoming an art form is leading some creators to believe that the way to do it is grimdark the shit out of their games. This is not really all that necessary, however.

Take Flower, thatgamecompany’s pollination simulator (?). There is nothing dark about Flower. Flower is so optimistic about the world that I would turn to its preview music on my PS3 dashboard after playing Heavy Rain in order to relieve the tension (and/or stop crying). But is Flower a work of art? I, and seemingly many others, would argue yes. And when this definition is used, citing Grand Theft Auto IV as a work of art actually seems rather silly whereas in another light it could make perfect sense.

Weight and emotion and darkness for the sake of turning gaming into an art form will not necessarily do the gaming industry much good, so for the developers who are swinging games in that direction for that reason, or at the very least for trying to make this a more “serious” medium, I say: stop. Or, at the very least, take a break and give us something light once in a while.

I am unabashedly a fan of Suda 51, and while I am rarely impressed by the quality of his works’ raw gameplay, I always respect his commitment to creating experiences light, off-the-wall, and/or rarely by-the-numbers. His repertoire beyond a shadow of a doubt contains heavy themes (one of the first games he was involved with, Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special (that is the title, I am not making this up), ends with the main character committing suicide because he only wrestled to fight of depression), but Suda attempts to hold the heaviness which plagues so many games at bay by twisting the dark themes into striking, often bizarre black humor. He is one of the people who is making Games Which Don’t Take Themselves Too Seriously.

I dare you to find one other article on the Internet which has pictures of both an Irish playwright and a sad wrestler.

This is the glorious category of games which remember that games are games, and games are fun. These are the Deadly Premonitions, the Saints Rows, the Minecrafts. These are the games which, instead of making you scared or depressed or tense, allow you to unclench that knot in your stomach brought on by the Big, Scary World and forget that the Big, Scary World is right on the other side of your bedroom window. These are the games which allow you to be a superhero, a paramour, a genius, a mining wizard, a mystery-solving Japanese schoolboy.

These are the Atlus games which effortlessly combine dark and light in their writing, the Platinum Games games which allow you to tear enemies apart in as stylish a manner as possible, these are the Capcom games which let you become a super-flashy defense attorney. These are the games I play when I want to remember what games were, and are, supposed to be.

I’ll never claim that “serious games are bad,” and I hold many of them near and dear. But I’d appreciate it if, just maybe, the game industry as a whole could remember to quit being so gloomy- and to maybe crack a smile now and then.

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  • droyjenkins

    I think we need more serious games, they’re great, fun experiences. I’m tired of telling people I’m a gamer and asking me if I play Mario or dance central. There are so many light hearted games out there, we need more serious mature games for the medium to grow.

  • Yamilia Avendano

    I’ll agree that GTA should maintain its fun rather than go with the serious route the series took with 4. I became a Saint’s Row loyalist after 4 as well. But I love serious games, too (at times). I feel that a developer should know when to make a game serious and when not to. I’ve never played Max Payne though, as an entire series. I love the serious ones because they help move video games forward as a respectable medium… But fun ones are always necessary too. Video games don’t have to ALWAYS be serious and they don’t ALWAYS have to be just fun.

    Interesting fact on this topic: did you know Uncharted was originally going to be fun and goofy like Crash Bandicoot? But they changed direction to make it all realistic.

  • droyjenkins

    I applaud Rockstar and other devs that go against the grain by making games with a mature, serious tone. They will always have a fan in me, I’m too sophisticated a person to be entertained by just light hearted humor. If I wanted that I’d just watch cartoons.

  • http://www.installation4.com Fuzunga

    Yeah, this is something I’ve been thinking about recently. I agree, mostly. The industry seems to want to move in a direction that I call “interactive entertainment” where video games become interactive movies or something like that. What ever happened to video games being games?

    Anyway, I think in this particular case you can attribute the change to the developer, Rockstar. Any time the developer of a franchise changes, it won’t feel exactly the same. Did you play Alan Wake? I’m curious if you found it more like the first two Max Paynes than MP3.

    • Zack Wheat

      I really loved Alan Wake, and its “did they intend for that to be goofy?” vibe mixed with (in my opinion) quite strong writing made me a very happy camper. I never thought about it while playing MP3, but I would definitely mark it as more in line with the MP1 & 2 vibe than MP3 is.

      To emphasize, however, I did love MP3. It’s just, like, there are legitimate fan theories that Odin himself was among the cast of MP1 & 2. That sort of fantastical thing does not a Rockstar Games game make.

  • Tyler Humphrey

    @Fuzunga: Alan Wake is great. It definitely has the sillier sensibilities of the original Max Payne series way more than MP3 does.

    As far as the topic at hand, I can’t help but agree with Zack. I’ve thought about that a lot in the past where games are currently trying to delve into being as immersive as possible, capture realistic physics, and generally trying to be more “real.” It’s not that these games aren’t great, but I miss the Jak & Daxters and the Banjo-Kazooies of yesteryear. That’s part of the reason Saints Row: The Third is so fun. It’s a video game and it revels in it.

  • Tyler Humphrey

    Oh, and before I forget, GTA IV and RDR are some of my favorite games of all time. It’s not that I don’t enjoy serious games. When they’re done well, I think they’re amazing. The thing I don’t like isn’t the games themselves, but rather the movement in the industry. Fresh, colorful IP’s just aren’t around en masse anymore and it’s disappointing.

  • Nolan McBride

    I’m going to be the douche that disagrees with this. I would probably have a different opinion pre-Max Payne 3, but anyways.

    I’m all for the idea of games going insane. Gonzo, bonkers, etc. I loved Saints Row The Third because I love the idea of pushing boundaries and using the sort of limitlessness afforded by games. I don’t know another medium that can create experiences that come close to rivaling games. I want to see boundaries pushed. But I think this dichotomy of games are fun/games are serious is silly and is predisposed to personal taste above anything else. They are also not mutually exclusive unless you (general you, not you Zach) can’t have fun with different types of subject matter.

    I like to have fun and engage with less serious (but still substantial) entertainment a lot; I am a horror and genre hound. My DVD/blu-ray collection is mostly composed of horror, sci-fi, and comic book movies. I’ll admit that I generally don’t enjoy documentaries because I’d rather talk about an issue through a lens (…genre). But that’s my personal taste and I wouldn’t argue that film needs to be less serious. I think it comes from the experiences we’re used to in games as well as adjusting our view to allow other ideas.

    But saying Max Payne 3 isn’t fun? That’s opinion, not fact. That’s taste. The series is one of my favorites and goes back a long time, but I couldn’t have been happier with the direction of MP3. We already got two great games full of bizarre noir (this is a genre…I just made up), but Max is versatile. This character/universe/gameplay opens the door to talk about subjects we don’t discuss much: substance abuse, addiction, etc. These things we’re already there but kinda off to the side. I like that MP3 takes them and gives them narrative significance rather than just mechanical. I want more character studies. I want more games that deal with the things we don’t talk about. The only way to limit games is by limiting the things they can talk about and how they inevitably approach those. MP3 finds a way to do so without (in my opinion) sacrificing fun.

    Also, I think we still have plenty of “fun” games going around, as you even mentioned. Saints Row, Shadows of the Damned (or any Suda51), Asura’s Wrath, Ratchet & Clank, Catherine, Borderlands. I was looking up more but I realized within that that I would need to define “fun” which is the real problem. Everyone enjoys different things. Everyone’s idea of fun is different. Also, everyone’s expectations for the medium are different. This debate drags in the debate of story vs. gameplay. Because though I find the gameplay of MP3 satisfying, I can see someone who sits at a different spot on that line (not the other side because you’ve already admitted to enjoying the game’s story) not feeling the same. I tend to get more invested in story and gameplay as an extension of that. Again, taste.

    What I fear and what I think you fear (please god feel free to correct me) is the trend of games moving towards blank personality and lifelessness. Endless military shooters (though Spec Ops has my attention for other literary reasons) make for a dull market. I want vibrant colors and equally shaded mechanics. I’m with you. But I also want other games that try different things, including approaching quote unquote mature subject matter. Maybe it sucks that MP3, the version everyone wants, will never come about. But I couldn’t be happier because I already have two great games and I think the third moves forward in meaningful ways.

    All I’m trying to say is that everyone’s idea of “fun” is not the same, which is really the problem. Some of us like to pop in Requiem for a Dream, sit back and enjoy. But that’s just masochism.

    Anyways, I like the discussion this raises. Good work, sir.

    • Muaz Zekeria

      I feel smarter for having read your rebuttal…haha I said butt…

  • tanto

    Gaming is crashing, we all know this………..rockstar is part of the problem

  • droyjenkins

    Rockstar isn’t the problem. They’re one of the best devs/publishers in the industry. It’s the devs that rehash the same thing over and over again thats killing gaming. That and casual games.

  • phizzle

    you got the max payne 2 quote wrong and makes you look stupid cuz of the line before LOL tard

  • http://www.primesquest.com Zach

    There is definitely a separation between larger budget games who are under strict control of their investors, and the in house all holds barred style of development that seems to be coming back.

    The problem is that games need to be tailored to the largest audience possible, which usually results in sanding down their rough edges in order to make everyone happy. Personally I feel that it’s a dead end… I’d rather work on a game that I enjoy playing than one that is statistically better but I can’t stand to turn on.

  • Matthew Kim

    God I hate Rockstar so much.

  • George Linfield

    For mentioning Martin McDonagh you deserve a medal. Love his work. Interesting you should mention him in your article too. Last year I wrote a piece on McDonagh’s ‘The Pillowman’ and the importance of art as portrayed in the play and came to the conclusion that art is essentially just a bi-product of the process of creation, and that it is creation and the perception of the end product that really matters. I think his work certainly has a lot in common with gaming today, which is probably part of the problem since it isn’t exactly happy-go-lucky cutesy animals jumping around in his work.

  • Torens Mule

    (1) If it’s all you do, or close to it, you’ll get bored. Analogy: If all you ever did was play your guitar, you’d likely get bored of that too. Variety is the spice of life.

    (2) People change. This is the category I fall into. Here I am with a lovely computer that can play any game available, yet what a waste. I have no interest in video games anymore as I find the activity sedentary, as well as horrible for my posture ;) Sure, I’ve tried different genres of games, but they just don’t have that appeal that they once did. Yeah, I’m getting older, life’s too short to be starring glossy eyed at a computer screen.