“Just one more level.”
If you’re familiar with video games or how they operate, you’ve probably heard this phrase before. If you play them, you might have even said or thought this to yourself in the past. It coincides with a type of goal-oriented thinking that many video games encourage or even force upon players. And whether a “level” refers to some form of Player / Character advancement or completion of a particular zone, it’s hard to find a game where the term isn’t applicable.
Accomplishing a goal is rewarding; That’s a fact of life. We’re humans, and enjoying our accomplishments is a key part of the psychological gears that keep us moving as a species. But I wouldn’t be so quick to call goal accomplishment “fun”. I accomplish goals every day – I make my bed, cook myself eggs, walk to Barnes & Noble, do my work, lift weights, and much more, but I don’t identify “fun” with all of those activities. Sure, to a certain degree, they all feel good to do because I know I’m working towards a real and tangible goal, but I still wouldn’t call making my bed “fun”. There’s something missing there.
And yet I think anyone can recognize when they’re having fun. A good way to check is to think about if you’re having fun, and you’ll know if you’re having fun because you know when you’re having fun. It’s… kinda hard to describe.
The sensation is different for everyone, but it’s often some combination of a little feeling in your gut that beats through the skin, a smile forming behind the eyes, a bit of giddiness that pushes you to the edge of your seat as your heart rate forces that quick jump in your breathing, the moment your soul lights up and the world melts away because, man, that was awesome.
“Fun” in video games does happen. For some, it happens quite often. I’m not here to tell you to drop your PS4 onto the pavement from your 24th story apartment. But there is a kicker here: The central trend between “fun” and video games that I’ve noticed over my life is that the biggest hits of “fun” happens when you’re hit with something unexpected – something you never saw coming – that blows your brains out of your skull and right onto the kitchen counter.
The first time I can remember feeling this is when I felled the first giant in Shadow of The Colossus. For those unfamiliar, this is literally the first enemy, where you, a frail young man with a horse, a steel sword, a bow, and seemingly zero combat training, face a giant, 6-story tall bipedal beast armed with a massive club. And with zero input from the game, you just understand what to do.
You grab the fur on the monster’s legs, climb, hand over fist, up its back, and it tries to shake you off. Your left hand comes loose, but you hold on, one fist clutching a desperate tuft of fur, inches from falling, and you plant your foot on its neck. And you stab into its head. Send black blood spurting from the skull. It stains your cheek. You stab deeper. And moments later beast hits the floor, dead, and you, a slackjawed, 8-year-old boy in a Spider-Man Tee and red gym shorts, sit back on the amber couch in your cousin’s living room, transfixed. Woah. That just happened.
But we can’t be 8-year-old boys forever. The “fun” of a game comes from the surprise, and from its ability to hit you with something you didn’t know you’d love until you loved it. Usually, this happens in the first leg of playtime. The first act, the first story, the first few encounters – after that, the shock starts to fade away, and you’re left with the dull need of completion. The one more level.
And that’s not good enough for modern games. They need you to keep playing. They live on it. They need you to pay for their DLC, to pad their playercounts for their annual investor reports, to buy their loot boxes, to fill their holes. They need you to need that one more level.
So letting you have “fun” almost becomes dangerous. Because when a game that was once fun stops being fun, you understand that feeling has gone. So you drop it and look for something else.
So wouldn’t it be better for me, a AAA game that needs millions of players to make its money back, to reduce the amount of fun you have? To hit you with as many level systems as possible, right from the start?
So we delete fun. We add more levels.
Oh, Sure, There’s the game area, But then there’s your player level too, Then there’s your weapon level, Then your enhancement level, The quest you’re on, The weekly quest, There’s the chance you’ll get a loot drop from that next raid boss, Which respawns in twenty minutes, Which is just enough time for you to replay that last mission for the three-star bonus
It’s okay, Just keep going. Look, Your friends are here too, They’re waiting for you, This world loves you, We love you, We all love you, We always will
Just don’t leave us, Not yet, Just keep running, Keep flying, Keep killing, Keep dying, Even if it’s just for one last fight, One new helmet, One rare drop, One quick win,
One more level.
“Just one more level.”