Long, long ago, when "Fallout Fans" was still used as an insult, a Bethesda Forums thread was linked on Duck and Cover – where I and other Fallout Fans hanged out. In that thread, someone was expressing their gratitude to Bethesda for making Fallout 3. You see, that someone has lost his father while young… or he never knew his father to begin with? Memory eludes me. In either case, since a big part of Fallout 3 main questline involves looking for your father, it was some kind of cathartic experience to him. Back then we all had a hearty laugh at the "stupidity of Beth fanboys" and I thought no more of it. It took me many years before I realized the true meaning behind that post.
You see, Fallout 3 is objectively a terrible game. It has a terrible system where your choices largely don't matter at all. It has a terrible story which is at best just an excuse to have a game, and at worst completely nonsensical. It has terrible writing, and its characters are so terrible that the only memorable one is memorable because of how stupidly annoying/annoyingly stupid she is. Even the final defense of Bethesda fanboys, the "world immersion", falls completely flat because the game world is just a bunch of random shit thrown together without any thought at all in what looks like a literal sandbox.
And yet our unfortunate fatherless poster found something of great value in the game. Hovewer, he only found that something because of his own personal circumstances. Personal circumstances which are largely unique to him. This was the real meaning behind the post that eluded me for so long: it is perfectly possible to enjoy something that is objectively bad because of your own subjectivity. Hovewer, subjectivity works only one way. No matter how deep and moving the game might have been to the fatherless poster, to anyone without this particular bias the game was still terrible.
To illustrate the point better and to segway to my next point, let's talk about Diablo 2. I love Diablo 2. I also know Diablo 2 is a terrible game, largely for the same reasons Fallout 3 is a terrible game. The system is so bad that practically all character builds are the same. The story is, again, at best an excuse and at worst makes no sense whatsoever. The writing, well, suffice to say that it generously uses "evil" as an adjective AND a noun, completely unironically. Half of the fourth act is missing, and you have to beat the game twice before you can actually play it.
But it's fun. Picking builds and learning how they work is fun. Putting these builds into practice in-game and seeing your character slowly become more and more powerful is fun. Killing mobs is fun. Picking up items, whether to upgrade or sell, is fun. Then you can turn the excess gold into more items via Gambling, that's also fun. Who knows how many hundreds of hours I wasted on Diablo 2. But here's the thing – this fun is an extension of the "subjectivity" I mentioned above. Or in other words, just because a game is fun doesn't mean it's a good game.
It's interesting how vehemently opposed to this idea most people are. "Fun is the point of gaming," they say, "so a fun game is a good game." Let's not get too meta and try to explain what really is the point of a game, instead let's look at readily available counterexamples. Fun is also the point of movies. All but few people would agree that Avengers: Endgame was a fun movie. Yet also all but few people understand that it will never make it to the Cannes Film Festival. Or let's try books. Is Harry Potter a fun series of books? Over half a billion people seems to think so, but not many of them seem perturbed that J.K. Rowling was not awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Let's go back to Diablo 2. I listed a bunch of examples why it's fun. But what really are these examples? All it basically boils down to "sense of progression" and "operant conditioning chamber"(skinner box) That's it, that's most of what's fun about the game. I repeat an activity and sometimes get a reward for repeating it. This makes my lizard brain release happy chemicals which make me feel good. I also get the longer-term satisfaction of my effort being rewarded(levels, skillpoints, beating acts, difficulties) If all this sounds extremely cheap and manipulative – that's because it is. Because Diablo 2 is a bad game that tricks you into having fun with basic psychological manipulation.
And with all that out of the way, we finally get into The Rabbit Hole.
Think of how manipulative Diablo 2 is, but in the context of the fatherless poster from my first example. Obviously, Bethesda did not deliberately design Fallout 3 to appeal to people who lack a father figure in their life. But someone could do it – and if they did, would that be any less manipulative than a skinner box? Of course "Fatherlessness" is not really a viable market, at least not for videogames that cost over a hundred million dollars to make. There are, hovewer, ways to appeal to – in other words, manipulate – humans that are intrinsic, just like the skinner box itself.
Humans will play the game for the story, out of sheer curiosity of what happens next. They will play the game because of NPCs that they sympathize with or antagonize. They will play because of sheer graphics fidelity. They will play because of music, which has little effect on its own but is a force multiplier for most other factors. They will play for the social aspect of multiplayer, even if rest of the game is crashing and burning around them. Hell, some of them will play just because a game supports their political agenda or other beliefs. In context of gaming, all of these can be considered a form of psychological manipulation at the level of Diablo 2's skinner box. They're tricks to make you have fun.
"A game is an activity in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal." This definition of what game is by Greg Costikyan still stands as unchallenged today as it did when it was used for the first time 26 years ago. These are the core elements a game needs to be one: decisions, resources, tokens, goal. But everything else? The story, the characters, the audio-visuals, the social aspect? Completely superfluous. Smoke and mirrors used by the developer to "trick the player into having fun".
The problem is that making a mechanically good game is hard. The more decisions, resources, tokens and goals you add the more exponentially complicated the game becomes, the harder it is to balance, the more buggy it will be. And unless you license out someone else's game, you need to make it all up yourself. You need to make spreadsheets, and spreadsheets of spreadsheets, and run test numbers, and try to predict everything the players will possibly try to do, and then they will do things you didn't predict anyway so you have to fix and iterate, over and over and over.
Or you could take the easy way out. Make a story. With colorful characters. And nice graphics, and music that reaches crescendo exactly at the right moment. Have a catchy quote or two while you're at it. Have an arc where a dog dies. People will bawl their eyes out and will forever remember your game as "the one that made them cry". No need to spend months coming up with systems that confuse stupid players, even the biggest idiot can feel sad when a dog dies. And the best part? People will call your game a masterpiece just because it made them feel something, even though it has almost not "game" in it!
No, I am not saying that all games should be completely devoid of all these other factors and be like Tetris or Pong. I too enjoy a good character, story or a guild as much as anyone. But I also realize that these are at best secondary factors when determining a game's objective quality. It's nice to chew on popcorn while watching a movie and it's nice to not cut your fingers when reading a book, but you don't judge a movie based on taste of popcorn or a book based on how smooth the paper it's printed on is.
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