Essays, Not Rants! 217: 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.