Last month, Scott re-imagined Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian as a videogame. The grotesque imagery and uncomfortable narrative style paint a bleak and appalling portrait of America's westward expansion, leaving the reader disturbed and uncomfortable. Let there be no doubt, this book is not an uplifting or fun read, but it is an invaluable and remarkable piece of literature every person interested in the Mythic West should peruse.
Could a videogame even begin to tread on such dark subject matter? There are plenty of readers who cannot finish Blood Meridian, surely the completion rate of the videogame version would be much lower considering players expect games to be fun or entertaining experiences. How many times have you heard a reviewer decree the ultimate worth of a videogame depends on the answer to this question: "Is it fun?" As I have said once before, I believe the expressive power of videogames is limitless, but popular notions characterize videogames as inherently 'playful.' This 'imperative of fun' stifles creative content and must be subverted or coopted when designing a game that is not actually enjoyable in the traditional sense.
Creating a game that is not fun might be a horrible design choice. Don't get me wrong, the 'fun factor' of a game is crucial when I assess a games worth, and I believe 'play' to be a completely legitimate endeavor for adults as well as children. But I can also appreciate a contemplative and depressing book or movie every now and then. Revolutionary Road, Requiem for a Dream, and Waltz with Bashir are all thoughtful films worthy of praise despite unsettling most viewers. How accurately can videogames invoke suburban malaise, irrational cruelty or oppressive tyranny? Can a videogame be less concerned with empowering a protagonist and depict instead their road to desperation and failure? There are, of course, games with disturbing content, but none as contemplative and unrelenting as some of the examples mentioned above.
There are a few ways to get around a fun focused player. A narrative 'bait & switch' could make a player think they are in a jovial environment only to reveal the story is far more bleak. "Surprise! You're actually stuck in an insane asylum!" Braid's 'switcheroo' at the game's end is a great example of this tactic. One could also embed the story in a less depressing environment. Maybe the character is having a very bad dream in the middle of a traditional adventure. The achievement or trophy system may also serve to distract the player from a more disturbing experience by wrapping them in the comfort blanket of familiar goal accomplishments. "Achievement Unlocked: You Lost Your Family's Savings on a Horse Race." But do these insertions of fun sell the experience short?
War games have managed to create fun experiences in decidedly not-fun environments. There is a distinct wall between the player and the sobering reality of war. A Gamasutra excerpt of Paraglyph Press' A Theory of Fun for Game Design suggests gamers see mathematical patterns in any given situation, health or experience point contributing to in-game success for example. "This is why gamers are dismissive of the ethical implications of games." Creating a game where the player should not or cannot dismiss the ethical implications is problematic. Players can separate a WWII game from its source material and designers help out by not including a holocaust survival mini-game.
Call of Duty 4 breaks the player-experience divide by asking the player to partake in an all too real aerial bombing scenario midway through the game. The visuals in this segment, visible on the right, are disturbingly similar to computer guided missile systems commonly used in the military today. When playing this level, I was reminded how easily destruction is wrought by people who are encouraged to give their actions about as much thought as I was giving to killing combatants in videogames.
Maybe this thought experience is self-defeating. Why should players finish a game that is not actually fun to play? At the very least a game's mechanics must be satisfying. If a game's mechanics can be enjoyable enough to encourage continued play, a game can potentially cover some very dark subject matter. Even heartbreaking movies can be beautifully composed. If there is a good story to tell, and it is told well, then perhaps there will be many who will gladly play tragic and unforgettable experience.