Electron Dance

The Trouble With Serious Games


This week’s viral video masterpiece is a surreal Russian dash cam road rage incident. Thanks to longtime Electron Dance reader Ketchua, it hit my Twitter a couple of days ago and the ensuing laughter brought tears to my eyes.

Then I started thinking about the context around the video, why it was funny and how it's an analogue to the problem of games that act all serious.   

Here’s the video if you need a refresh or, possibly, you haven’t seen it yet.

Although I laughed, there was another emotion hanging around in the background. A little shame as I was initially convinced it was real. No, I’m not saying it isn’t real, I’m just saying I have more doubt now than when I first watched it.

What I saw was an incident of road rage in which a gang beats up a lone individual.

But you laughed, I laughed. There's context which morphs this scene of road rage into comedy.

  • The gang is unexpectedly dressed up as goofy cartoon characters
  • This is a shared video, so you're not alone in enjoying this guilty pleasure

I started thinking about how developers of the AAA high-fidelity shooter want to be taken seriously, even though these games are just factories for shooting galleries. Let's consider the context around a shooter.

  • This is a game
  • This is not real
  • You're not alone in enjoying this guilty pleasure (consensus)

So despite shitty story, the far-fetched concept of a one-man army and the criminality of drenching people with bullets indiscriminately without asking questions or offering to spare lives... players are pretty much okay with this. Despite all the beautiful skinning and pitch-perfect voice acting, it's still just a game, you dolt.

I'm reminded of Jonas Linderoth's presentation on “the limits of play” in which he used Erving Goffman's framing theory to suggest there might be limits to what kind of story can function within a game. He suggests that transplanting a serious story into a frame of play seems to trivialize the subject matter and can cause offence.


That’s why Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development, 2012) is successful in being uncomfortable in places, even though it doesn’t pull off many of its tricks, because it deliberately instigates a clash between frames. I don’t think you should act so blasé, the game whispers. It takes the shooter context and overlays it with a brutal, dark story. It challenges the player to put those two contexts together – and we can't.

The best we can do is run a relay race between story and shooting because most of the time the game does exactly the same: here's a cutscene, now here's a gun battle. At rare moments, the game succeeds in melding those contexts, which produces something weird and uncomfortable, something we can't put our finger on – provided we hadn't already given up on this game and it's multiple personality problem. It's possible that other games can harness deliberate dissonance to upset the player, but we can infer from the failure of Spec Ops that it is not at all easy.

In that Russian dash cam video, a road rage incident is transformed with a few cartoon costumes. Videogames have the opposite problem: they can never take their cartoon costumes off.

But this all rests on what we mean by videogame. Oh my God, I know, I went there, but you made me do it with your linear storytelling, reader. The shooter is associated with having fun. We clean areas of enemies because cleaning with bullets is fun. Shift into interactive fiction and the fun component isn't necessarily there: if the story tests us, we will still go back and endure it if the narrative is compelling. There's no competing “ludic” context.

Let's rewind back to Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011). The core mechanics of Cart Life appear to be playful but they are mundane and repetitive. It led Nick Fortugno to admonish Cart Life with the line “drudgery != fun” as the climax of his Well-Played takedown of the game at IndieCade East last year. But if the mechanics were fun, we'd be complaining that Cart Life trivializes the brutal poverty of real cart life. I mean, if you're still looking for the Citizen Kane of Game, you're not going to find it on a leaderboard.


It’s another reason why I have trouble applying the word “game” so liberally, because it carries a poisonous framing that can undermine attempts to grapple serious subjects with software. I get that plenty of people are trying to upgrade the word “game” to greater heights, but it has inertia in the public eye. The mainstream market and runaway mobile successes like Angry Birds (Rovio Entertainment, 2009) and Temple Run (Imangi Studios, 2011) all point towards games as a synonym for fun.

One final point. What I also find particularly interesting is how this might relate to the modern trend of damaging the fun. Experiences like NaissanceE (LimasseFive, 2014) and Dark Souls (From Software, 2011) aggravate the player and consequently feel more serious. By weakening the “game context”, a more serious context bubbles up to the surface. If Limbo (Playdead, 2010) were not frustrating, would it still retain its art house appeal?

I could go on all day like this but it's about time someone else wrote something. I'm sure you bastards have some counterexamples and all that, so go hijack the comments and write about them.

Jonas Linderoth on Limits of Play

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  1. I think there is something to what you’re getting at here:

    * This is a game
    * This is not real
    * You’re not alone in enjoying this guilty pleasure (consensus)

    But I wonder in what sense this – those three bullet points above – stand in any way distinct to other entertainment mediums?

    I don’t want to over-simplify but suffice to say I have heard similar arguments about film and novels during my time in the genre (SF&F) community, and aside from the “guilty pleasure” point the same key points of audience engagement could be levelled at, say, novels of the literary realist era.

    You do go into the – hack, splutter – ludic elements of games later in the same post, and there’s certainly something as-yet nebulous about the – hack, splutter – youthfulness of games as a medium, but where the line is drawn between a critical audience’s sense of intellectual insecurity and the – hack, splutter – maturity of creators I am not able to argue.

  2. “But I wonder in what sense this – those three bullet points above – stand in any way distinct to other entertainment mediums?”

    I think there’s a world of difference. So much so I’m going to drag it out with this loooooooooooooong sentence.

    Actually no. What I’m really doing is talking videogames down to the level of existing media.

    There’s this arcane concept that games are “interactive” and make you feel part of action, in the story, a participant. The old narratologist chestnut that these virtual worlds will put us inside them, immerse us in a way books and movies can’t. Now that seems to happen but only in a very superficial sense. We break off a part of ourselves into that digital, non-real realm and concentrate on the game, the score, the mechanic. For all the talk, most of the time this “king of entertainment media” ISN’T delivering anything different. I don’t think Dishonored is a better story for being in a game – it’s an interesting world, but is the story better for being an interactive showpiece versus a film, say? A film would manage to temper the violence of most games with more softness and character than games do – which are frightened of action downtime, something that has been drummed into developers for years.

    I’m poking at more mainstream, here, but I think we’re going to find it difficult to find serious meaning in a game that also wants to be a lot of fun. These are competing contexts and usually the winner there is the play context. I’m don’t think slapping a clever story on top of a cutting-edge FPS is going to produce a better story than the equivalent film or book. I think the latter two are far more likely to change people’s lives than OOH AMMO or whatever set of mechanics the game is based on.

    We can read what we like from games, but if the ordinary consumer doesn’t get half of those messages compared to what they’d get from book/film well… this whole thing is a bust. This doesn’t mean the stories in games are terrible – I really like Spec Ops for all its flaws, Torment makes me wet and Immortal Defense blew my mind – but in what way do these games make the stories better?

    By the way, I am a little drunk when typing this.

  3. That’s okay! I’m a little drunk too!

    I get the assumed distinction but it ain’t inherently there in the list. But look at me, splitting hairs.

    As to stories, and meaning, and depth, and revelatory moments, and experiences that shake a human being to their core – how common are those in any medium? How common are they amongst human beings enjoying any piece of entertainment once they’re out of their formative years (Star Control 2 blew my mind as a teen; Spec Ops would’ve done so too)? Perhaps more to the point, how often do people miss the point of films or books or music? Rage Against the Machine is a band beloved of lager thugs and suits; the film Starship Troopers is often not recognised as a satire of fascism (I didn’t realise as a fifteen year old!) any more than the novel is recognised as an endorsement of a pseudo-fascistic technocratic state (I… kinda did as a fifteen year old!).

    I don’t even know what I’m arguing for or against. And anecdotal points in parentheses don’t count for shit, I guess. Ugh, drunk arguing. It works less well when you aren’t face to face. But I look forward to reading further comments when sober.

  4. I look forward to writing further comments when sober.

  5. *This is a game
    *This isn’t really real
    *I am not alone in enjoying sending Sarkeesian death threats

    This might be satire.

  6. I think that you shouldn’t try to compare if a story works better in a media or another. You can take as an example the film adaptation of a book that you want. The story works better in the film or in the novel? They’re different and that’s all. If you’re adapting a film from a book, you’ll have to change things because of the media and you’ll have to omit or add others.

    You’re right about the “fun” thing, though. Videogames are usually associated with playing or having fun more than books or films. But in the core of it I don’t that there are many differences either. There are books or films which main concern is that you have a great time with them, and the same can be applied to videogames. Then there are other directors/writers that want to make you think, and the same thing is happening with videogames, even if some people try to deny them the state of videogame because they “are not fun”. By the way, it’s the first time that I see someone doing the opposite, denying the state of videogame because it can be detrimental to the videogame itself.

    But even if we don’t like it, “serious” videogames and Angry Birds are both videogames. The same thing happens when comparing Von Trier or Haneke’s films with other crappy films like Sharknado or any B or Z film. They’re all films, only that they are different kinds of films.

  7. The issues surrounding “fun” games and the appropriatness of “serious” stories is definitely interesting. As a frequent reader of RPS, I recommend everyone read Quintin Smith’s “butchering” of the game Pathologic, and the comments he made about whether “fun” is necessary for a game.

    However, I am much more interested in a question you touch briefly on in your article: What does the medium of gaming add to a story?

    This frequently leaves me scratching my head. The difference between books, movies, visual novels, and audio shows seems obvious to me. Books can effortlessly transition between internal monologue, general descriptions, and fast paced action. Things are visual and move in movies, allowing for all sorts of story telling that would be difficult with words. I could list similar advantages and disadvantages for audio shows and visual novels.

    But games – especially computer games – have always seemed a bit weird to me. There is the argument of interactivity, but that interactivity often detracts from the story. The initial appearance of openness can only hide for so long the fact that all games must be finite, and some options will always be left out.

    The first option that springs to my mind is To The Moon. I bring this game up because it is widely praised for having an excellent story. As someone who has played the game multiple times, I must wonder – what does the story (which I enjoy) gain by being a game? Your actions have no effect on the story. Most of the game involves walking around and clicking through all the dialog boxes before the game lets you continue (in games with worse writing this would be described as the worst form of gameplay possible). I honestly feel like the story would have more or less the same impact if it was a novel or a comic book.

    On the other hand, there are games like Brothers: A Tale of Too Many Semicolons. Title aside, this game feels like best example for taking advantage of the medium. There are a number of interactions early on that feel natural, and definitely engaged me as a player. But the moment that got to me the most was definitely:

    Throughout the game, only the older brother can swim. The younger brother must cling to his back to cross water. Then, near the end of the game the older brother dies. On your way back home the younger brother is forced to cross a body of water. I ran around for ten minutes before realizing that you must use the buttons normally reserved for controlling the older brother in order to cross the water. Man, that really hit me in the sadness department.

    I like this example because it is something that works much better in a videogame. I have read books and watched movies where the protagonist says, “that person’s power lives on inside of me,” but it can only carry so much weight. When I was actually forced to do it in a videogame it really got to me.

    I think this confusion over what stories work well in games is partly because the medium is so new. But, while I have some examples like the Brothers example of games doing something I don’t think is possible in another medium, I still don’t know how to construct such situations. How would you teach a creative videogaming course? I have no idea.

  8. @BC: That’s right, get the #gg crowd worked up in the comments. Good work. =)

    @dahk: Hello and thanks for your thoughtful comment! I’m a big detractor of the Citizen Kane line, and it’s thrown in here more as a challenge to those who believe in it. I think games are good at doing certain things, but there’s such gravity towards the type of narrative that we encounter in books and film, with internet pages full of criticism about the stories in these The Last of Us (e.g. Errant Signal’s TLoU video is primarily about its plot). I think it’s perfectly okay to have interesting stories intercut with gameplay – AAA is fine doing its thing – but my point is that just changing the story to be serious is not going to make it a masterpiece. That fun element is going to weigh heavily. (For a particularly bad example, Velvet Assassin, but there the story is mauled too. I HEAR. Not actually played!)

    The more serious the game, the more obvious the disconnect between the fun and the story, as Spec Ops deliberately amplifies. To some extent, this piece just another entry in my ongoing difficulty with the generic “game” label. You might argue Proteus has something in common with AAA shooters because they both are about joy, albeit in a different ways; Cart Life isn’t. Some people gamed its systems and got fun out of Cart Life and gamed its systems, but I’d argue that completely wipes out its core.

    So we don’t disagree, because I’m not really arguing with you =) HEY IT WAS SHAUN WHO BROUGHT UP OTHER MEDIA. We should pick on him.

    @Sandy: Wow I haven’t read that piece on Pathologic for a long time. I’m getting closer to playing the game, honest to GOD.

    I’ve been mulling over the issue of what the games bring to story a lot over the years. I think it’s clear what stories bring to games: they make for more inviting, interesting experiences. But has it really worked the other way around?

    I’m sorry I can’t comment on your unread spoiler from Brothers: A Tale of Too Many Semicolons as I haven’t played it yet and, who knows, I may do.

    There are two different points I can make without getting mired in writing an essay in the comments window. First, Stop Crying About Choice: all game stories are hypertext, so they carry more information than the a standard linear book would do. Second, Cart Life: for those people that get into the game, the activities the player commits to make the story beats very powerful. Third, I haven’t discussed interactive fiction much, which is why I don’t classify this as a third point even though I called it third.

  9. On an entirely separate note, I was blind drunk when I wrote that and that places another piece in the puzzle of what happened to me on Friday night/Staturday morning. I honestly don’t remember a thing but along with the post on the blog spot I did the following (sorry Shanu I already emailed this to you):

    I got really drunk (like didn’t know where I was the next day drunk) last night.

    After sorting myself out I have found the following bits of evidence:

    – I rented then bought the same film with Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd on Xbox Video
    – Left the house and bought 8 cans of Kronenbourg at some point in the middle of the night and drank them
    – Unlocked the ‘win 50 games of Last Titan Standing’ achievement on Titanfall
    – Donated 200 dollars to the Pathologic kickstarter.

  10. Feel free to pick on me! After everything that’s been going on lately with #gg, I feel that I’ve gotten off lightly by, er, not getting involved.

    As for mentioning other mediums… yeah, sorry, I guess I did tip things off track with that. Though it seems to me that the conversation around ‘games as art’ and ‘serious games’ and ‘where is Citizen Game’ and ‘please take my hobby seriously’ is often rooted in people who play and write about games looking at people who enjoy and write about other mediums and thinking “how nice it would be to be taken as seriously as they are”.

    (I would imagine that is less the case with academic study of games, at least based on what I know of it from the Academics are Coming.)

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