From the Archives: Why Do We Play?

A philosophical question for you today, prompted by a thought-provoking discussion I had with a friend the other evening.

It’s a particularly interesting question with regard to visual novels, which are regarded by some as not being “games” in the traditionally-understood sense, but it also applies to the interactive entertainment medium as a whole.

The question is a pretty fundamental one for anyone who chooses to make gaming part of their life, whether it’s as a casual hobby, something they share with friends or their favorite form of entertainment.

It’s this: Why do we play?

This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2012 as part of the site’s regular READ.ME column on visual novels. It has been republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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What is it that makes us want to sit down in front of our computers or TVs, fire up a game and indulge in it for varying amounts of time? What is it that makes us want to talk about these games with friends, write about them, extoll their virtues on social networks, take part in competitions, cosplay and/or write fanfic?

The answer isn’t a simple one because it’s different for everyone. The answer someone who spends their evenings playing popular multiplayer shooters gives would be different to the answer someone who plays Facebook games gives, and would be different again to one given by a person such as I — someone who prefers narrative-centric experiences above all else.

Here’s my take: I like experiences that are somehow “memorable” — experiences that stay with me long after I’ve stopped being actively involved with them. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a narrative experience — I still think fondly back on a period when my friends and I got ludicrously competitive over Bizarre Creations’ Geometry Wars 2, for example — but for the most part, my favorite games of all time (or, more accurately, the experiences I found most memorable) stuck in my mind primarily because of their story and everything surrounding that — setting, characters, and even the exact mechanical/technological means through which the tale was told.

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Let’s take the visual novel I spotlighted in this column last week as an example: Alcot’s My Girlfriend is the President. Were you to approach this title from a “game” perspective, you’d be left significantly wanting. The game features relatively few “decision points” where the player can interact, and these only affect the flow of the story in the first “act,” where they determine down which of the four female leads’ paths the story proceeds. After that, any choices which crop up mostly consist of choosing exactly how the erotic scenes, uh, “conclude.” The story otherwise proceeds almost entirely on autopilot.

And yet that doesn’t stop it being an immensely entertaining, thrilling and emotionally engaging experience. Even though the player’s role is mostly limited to repeatedly pressing a key to advance to the next line of dialog, that doesn’t stop it from being compelling, at least not if that’s the sort of experience you’re willing to invest your time in. Its bizarre premise, loveable characters and hilariously overblown plot made it an incredibly memorable experience for me, and one that I will doubtless remember fondly for many years to come. There was “takeaway” from it, in short.

Other visual novels I’ve played over the years also have a significant degree of takeaway. 4 Leaf Studios’ Katawa Shoujo, for example, was a more subdued, sensitively-handled experience in which I found several intensely relatable characters. In 0verflow/STACK’s School Days HQ, my takeaway was that all is not necessarily as it seems at first glance — sometimes you need to look at situations and characters from several perspectives to get a full appreciation and understanding of them. And in D.O.’s Kana Little Sister, Freebird Games’ To The Moon and Team GrisGris’ Corpse Party, all of which we’ll look at in more detail in future READ.ME columns, the core takeaway was the realization that yes, it is most certainly possible for obviously abstracted, unrealistic “game” graphics and simple text to pack as much of an emotional punch as something more realistically or explicitly handled.

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All of the above-mentioned games have a pretty limited amount of what we’d traditionally call “gameplay” — of them all, only To The Moon and Corpse Party have any illusion of “freedom” and even those two titles follow a rigidly linear narrative path — but remain highly memorable, engaging experiences. I, personally, would specifically recommend them to people over and above more well-established titles that are objectively “better games” or “more interactive” purely because I found the takeaway from them to be almost infinitely more satisfying.

At the same time, I appreciate that not everyone feels the same way, perhaps because their answer to that fundamental question “why do we play?” is different. Someone whose answer is “to prove my skills” or “to compete against my friends” will not have the same degree of takeaway from a visual novel as someone like me who, in general, prizes narrative over interaction or mechanics.

Even someone who gives the seemingly obvious answer of “to have fun” won’t feel the same way, because more often than not — deliberately nonsensical, comedic titles such as My Girlfriend is the President aside — visual novels are not designed to be “fun.” In many cases they’re designed to tackle challenging themes that have little to no “commercial viability” (as triple-A publishers and focus groups understand it, anyway) — or simply to focus on the unfolding story rather than provide the player with an experience that challenges their mental or physical dexterity.

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Ultimately, your answer to that question “why do we play?” is unimportant to anyone other than yourself. Interactive entertainment is such a diverse medium nowadays that pretty much any answer you give will point you in the direction of a satisfying experience. For me, some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in recent memory have come from visual novels — and if you’re a narrative junkie like me, you might just be surprised at what you can take away from these seemingly simple titles.

Next week, we’ll be taking a look at another recent (Editor’s Note: in 2012…) English-language release from JAST USA: Nitroplus’ Cthulhu mythos-inspired, giant robot-powered Deus Machina Demonbane, supposedly one of the most influential visual novels of all time. Until then, take care to avoid any catastrophe flags!


This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2012 as part of the site’s regular READ.ME column on visual novels. It has been republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

If you enjoyed this article and want to see more like it, please consider showing your social support with likes, shares and comments, or financial support via my Patreon. Thank you!

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