The dog days of summer are to video games what late winter is to film and the 1990s were to literature. For the most part, it’s filler between the spring and Christmas release periods. The triple A titles have already come and gone, the arcade lineup has dried up and the indie marketplace is still awaiting the next humble masterpiece. As frustrating as it can be to be staring at the calendar awaiting the fall, the seasonal lull marks an excellent time to go back and (re)play some old gems. Doing so shows one how much games have grown and how much potential they continue to show, but it also shows how changes in design philosophy have changed the way that games are made. And many of this year’s releases have lacked the fun that was characteristic of an older generation of games.
This isn’t to say that games aren’t fun to play anymore, just that the narrative of 2012’s major releases have been considerably darker and heavier in tone. Mass Effect 3, Darksiders 2, The Last Story, Diablo 3, and Deadlight could not work if they were more “fun.” That isn’t a mark against them. They are, after all, approaching mature and complicated themes. If games are to be taken seriously, they can’t be making serious things “fun.” However, infusing darker, edgier, and more serious elements in contemporary design philosophy should not come at the expense of fun. Fun should not be allowed to become obsolete.
What I mean by fun can be summed up by the game that I’ve just finished during this year’s seasonal slump: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. PoP is brightly coloured, the Arabian Nights aesthetic is almost absurdly bright and beautiful, the levels are structured as much like a jungle gym as a Middle Eastern palace, and the characters are warm and generally likeable but they also joke and jokes are made at their expense. The game isn’t silly or even comedic, but it certainly isn’t dark. The sequel, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within shows that, in fact, a grittier, gloomier aesthetic doesn’t work.
In Sands of Time the fate of the world is hanging in the balance, but the lead characters still bust each others’ chops. The palace and everyone in it are destroyed, but there’s a wondrous grandiosity to it. The game holds stories of death, love, betrayal and a swath of other “serious” matters, but it never forgets how awesome the next series of jumps will be or how funny it is when the Prince asks why he spends so much time talking to himself. Even the use of the Prince as a narrator, telling us “a tale like none you have ever heard” reminds us that this is a story meant to be as entertaining as it is enlightening.
As great as it is to see games tackle more cerebral subject matter, something is lost when a whole year goes by with so few “fun” games. Even those releases that try to be lighter in tone like Lollipop Chainsaw and The Book of Unwritten Tales are so direct and self-referential that they aren’t light-hearted adventures so much as they are a jab at the gloomy atmosphere recent games have perpetuated. The crushing weight of Sheperd’s burden or the auteur sensibility of Suda 51’s parody have a place, and it’s great to see games take on that kind of identity, but recent games have sacrificed fun and delight for grit and depth, almost to their detriment. Serious does not have to be dark, awe inspiring does not have to be gaudy, and goofy does not have to be stupid. Fun does not have to mean shallow.
Granted, games as elegantly designed as Prince of Persia were a rarity even in their own day, but many of the 16-bit Final Fantasy games were able to balance fun with depth, as was The Legend of Zelda was before Ocarina of Time. In a rush to grow up, developers have been quick to shove some of their traditions under the bed and try to forget about them. Growth is good and change is necessary, but I would hate to see it come at the cost of something that brought so many people to games to begin with.