Should games be interesting or fun?

Nobuki Yasuda’s intuitive approach to critically assessing games


Nobuki Yasuda recently wrote a couple of posts on Japanese games criticism site Automaton about the word ‘omoshiroi’, which sometimes translates to ‘fun’ and sometimes to ‘interesting’, and the word ‘tanoshii’, which is also usually translated as ‘fun’ but is more in the sense of ‘enjoyable’.

In English-language games criticism and studies there is a fair amount of angst over the word ‘fun’. Is it a useful term? What gets lost if we stop using it? On the one hand, it’s a vague word that privileges a certain kind of pleasure over others. The privileging of fun usually favours the dynamics of games as a commercial industry and a masculinist culture. On the other hand, when developers say that their peers don’t focus enough on what makes a game fun to interact with, they often have a real point (go read Raph Koster to get a good primer on this side of the issue).


A vocab guide

It is difficult to do justice to the full semantic range of the words that Nobuki Yasuda brings up in his articles on this topic. I like to think that what he’s doing is eschewing vocabularies that could be generated by academic games writing, and embracing the way that ordinary people describe games that they like or don’t like. That doesn’t mean deciding not to think about games more critically; rather, it means thinking in a way that more readily includes the perspective of players themselves.

In the end, we get four terms (two dichotomies) that are central to games writing as value judgement (as opposed to games writing as critical analysis):

omoshiroi (adj.) fun, interesting — ant. tsumaranai (adj.) unappealing, uninteresting
tanoshii (
adj.) fun, enjoyable — ant. tsurai (adj.) tough, harsh

I think of these terms as a matrix:

Omoshiroi


Yasuda’s use of the word ‘omoshiroi’ is just not at all what you’d expect going from a straightforward English translation of the term, but I actually think he’s more honest about what people mean when they say a game is ‘interesting’, or which games get recognised as ‘interesting’ and which are passed over. A game gets described as ‘omoshiroi’ because it appeals to someone’s past experiences, argues Yasuda. Journey is given as an example of a game that is not omoshiroi to him, because it doesn’t reproduce an existing game pattern with a twist. That’s okay he says: not all games need to feel omoshiroi.

In fact, he argues that developers need to resist the urge to try and make a game that is omoshiroi. If you do so, he cautions, you will end up reproducing the same kind of thing that already exists. Cameron Kunzelman recently tweeted about something similar:

https://twitter.com/ckunzelman/status/486713687810387968

This is an important definition to bear in mind if, like me, you usually translate omoshiroi as ‘interesting’. I’m accustomed to hearing ‘interesting’ applied to a game precisely because it’s doing something different or unexpected. On the one hand, I want to put this difference down to the language gap. The full semantic range of the word ‘interesting’ is not covered by ‘omoshiroi’ anyway.

On the other hand, I’m reminded of some of the discourse around Problem Attic, the idea that it has never achieved the recognition it deserves because it’s illegible; it’s strayed too far away from pixel platformer design conventions to be easily understood. Maybe we could say that it’s not omoshiroi to very many people, even though those same people might be able to accept that the game is interesting in other ways.

Tsumaranai


Tsumaranai can be simply translated as ‘boring’, but there’s something more specific happening here. Yasuda gives tsumaranai as the antonym of omoshiroi, but Journey is not ‘boring’. It’s tsumaranai, but it’s also tanoshii, according to Yasuda. A game is tsumaranai to Yasuda if it is too simple, or too retrograde. The basic idea of the game, or its surface appearance, might fail to attract your interest, but you can still play the game and discover that it’s tanoshii. So tsumaranai is unappealing or uninteresting.

Yasuda didn’t give this example, but I think Flappy Bird might be a key example of a tsumarana-tanoshii game. It looks like trash, but is exceptionally good fun once you start playing.

Tanoshii

These first two terms are described by Yasuda as a kind of intellectual thing, as opposed to tanoshii and tsurai which are more about base emotion. A game doesn’t have to be tanoshii to be omoshiroi, but it can be both; the top row and the bottom row are not mutually exclusive.

Tanoshii is an impulsive response. It might be a game making you go ‘woah’ or just pulling you in and grabbing all of your attention. In that sense, it maps clearly onto the kind of thing that Koster readers might be looking for. However, I think Yasuda’s tanoshii is actually very different to Koster’s fun. It’s more of a pleasant, relaxed kind of emotional state than the crunchy puzzle-solving that seems to be favoured by Koster’s theory. This becomes more clear as we look at its opposite, tsurai.

Tsurai

Tsurai is the direct opposite of tanoshii according to Yasuda. It means ‘tough’ or ‘harsh’. A lot of omoshiroi games are tsurai, since the work the developers are doing in an omoshiroi game is usually about taking an existing pattern and adding a challenging new twist. FPS games are omoshiro-tsurai, and this was the preferred pleasure of pro arcade gamers of the 1980s and early 1990s. “This is the number one sin of old gamers”, remarks Yasuda of tsurai games.

The word ‘fun’ can be applied to games that are extremely difficult and require a pre-existing level of aptitude to even play at a mediocre level, but the word ‘tanoshii’ cannot. Looking at how the word is written, this does make some sense; it is written with the character raku, which on its own refers to ease and relaxed enjoyment.

If I was right earlier about Problem Attic not being omoshiroi, then this demonstrates that the top and bottom row are not mutually exclusive, because Problem Attic is quite deliberately not tanoshii either. As well as being tsumaranai, it’s also tsurai. In my opinion, this still doesn’t mean that it’s bad, just that it has these painful qualities, which makes sense given the themes of discomfort and displacement.

Wrapping up

When Yasuda says that games don’t have to be omoshiroi, I think it’s in part because so many omoshiroi games are tsurai. Why should a game be difficult just to be enjoyable? There are many other pleasures that can be gained from a game. There’s an elevated cultural status given to omoshiro-tsurai games in core gamer culture, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything necessarily wrong with a game that is tsumarana-tanoshii.

Yasuda’s matrix here seems super useful here, because it shows possible interrelationships between pleasures and pains in gaming without decrying a game for having aspects that are painful. To make a good game, you don’t have to eliminate the possibility that it could be experienced as tsumaranai or tsurai. It’s okay to have those pains present. A game doesn’t have to be both omoshiroi and tanoshii in order to be good.

I think you could argue that Yasuda’s matrix is limited in its scope, and doesn’t cover all of the pleasures of gaming — what would we do with Dear Esther, for example? But I do think there’s broadly a lot to be gained from breaking down ‘fun’ into different pleasures and pains that act with and against one another, as long as we accept that not all games have to be fun or interesting.


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