I liked Dear Esther. The writing could get turgid, and all too often, after arriving at an unexpected dead end, I found myself retracing my steps for a quite a way. But that cold, windswept Scottish island Dear Esther is set on will stick with me for a long time. It’s almost as if someone made a game out of Marianne Dreams, the children’s novel by Catherine Storr; it has that same haunting emptiness, that same lighthouse-in-the-mist evocativeness. Broken ships lie rusting in the surf, while crumbling shacks cling to the clifftops above. All you can do in Dear Esther is walk around. But that’s alright with me—everything looks so beautiful that walking around alone is a treat.
Many people, however, did not like Dear Esther. Many complained that it wasn’t really a game. Some actually got rather indignant about it. And they’re quite right—Dear Esther isn’t really a game. Yes, you play it on a computer, you control an avatar, and you can choose where to go on the island. But there’s nothing to do. No puzzles, no locked doors, no items to pick up or abilities to gain. There’s no challenge.
As far as I can tell, gameplay-light games like Dear Esther are becoming more common. Adrian Chmielarz, an indie game developer, has even blogged that it is time “we killed gameplay to make better games.” His post, as you might expect, angered quite a few gamers on the internet. Someone reposted it on NeoGAF, a videogame-focused discussion forum, where it was quickly torn apart. Here are a few of my favorite comments from that thread:
"Kill gameplay? Dude’s insane." — Raptor
"We need to kill story." — Orayn
"The artgames movement is the single worst thing to happened to videogames since Horse Armor DLC." — wonzo
"I don’t want a ‘deeply emotional’ experience. I just want to have fun." — Goya
I’ve always been interested in the potential of videogames as an artistic medium. Games like Dear Esther, or the quirky, hectic Thirty Flights of Loving, excite me. But I can sympathize with those gamers that see their favorite pastime as under siege by pretentious pseudo-intellectuals looking to make art. I think Goya, that last Neogaffer, really gets at what bothers people. For many, games are just meant to be fun. If they aren’t particularly interested in games as art, then they stand to a lose a lot as games get less “game-y” and more artsy. I certainly wouldn’t call Dear Esther fun. And I think that’s because it’s missing that thing that is so integral to a fun game: challenge.
I get the sense that challenge in games is often misunderstood. Challenge isn’t about bragging rights. Of course, it can be sometimes—who wouldn’t enjoy telling their friend about the secret level they got to by executing some extraordinarily difficult jump? But if that were all challenge is about I don’t think people would care about it so much. Challenge has an inherent value, an inherent fun; it isn’t about slogging through something really difficult just so you can earn some kind of achievement and feel proud of having worked for it later. It’s not a session at the gym. Challenge pushes us to learn more about the systems in a game, and when we use what we’ve leaned about those systems to succeed at that challenge, we feel clever. We have fun. And that’s during the game, not afterwards.
Recently, I’ve been playing a lot of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, mostly just because I enjoy it so much. It’s not an easy game, and I’ve been playing it on Classic difficulty, which can be brutal at times. According to a description of the difficulty levels I found on 2K Games’ forums, playing on Classic difficulty means that, among other things, the aliens have more health, greater accuracy, and unshackled AI (which, in practice, as far as I can see, means that they will constantly lob grenades at you). But the larger amount of health is key, because that was what forced me to change the way I play.
On Normal difficulty, I found my own grenades could do quite a lot of damage to most of my alien foes. But on Classic difficulty, I was encountering aliens with so many health points that my grenades were inconsequential. It was only then that I discovered another use for my grenades. They could destroy cover—and my soldiers were more likely to score extremely damaging critical hits if they were shooting at aliens out in the open. From then on, I found myself doing pretty well; whenever I ran into an alien in heavy cover, I would try to grenade the cover and then take the alien out with my sniper.
Maybe it isn’t the best example. But I really enjoyed figuring out how to use grenades in XCOM, and I would never have gotten there if the game hadn’t been challenging. The aliens’ increased resilience forced me to become more familiar with the game’s mechanics, which was rewarding in and of itself; playing XCOM became a more complex and interesting affair as I started thinking about which kinds of cover are destructible and which are not, and how close I have to get to something in order to grenade it. I also felt pretty satisfied with myself for having discovered how grenades should be used. On the less challenging Normal difficulty, I could get away with just blowing the aliens to pieces directly, which was still fun, of course, but it wasn’t as much fun. When people talk about gameplay, “deep” gameplay is usually good gameplay; at least with XCOM, it was the challenge of Classic difficulty that ended up making the gameplay that much deeper for me.
My guess is that developers making non-traditional games—art games, story games, or casual games—stay away from too much challenge because they worry that it will A) keep people from playing their game or B) ruin its pacing. I think that’s a reasonable worry—and they’re still making beautiful games. But I also can’t help but wonder if that’s a cop out. I like art games, story games, and casual games. I bought myself Dear Esther, Thirty Flights of Loving, The Walking Dead, and Journey a couple weeks ago, intending to play them all over this winter break and write profound things about them. But, unsurprisingly, I’ve found myself playing and writing about XCOM. I think people are getting pretty good at creating artsy, interactive fictions like Dear Esther and Thirty Flights of Loving. But perhaps the real challenge, in the end, is making a thought-provoking and emotional but still very much “game-y” game.