Dialogue Options: Do you have to understand a game to enjoy it?

Hello and welcome to Dialogue Options (opens in new tab). Our weekly show where we take our gaming theories and opinions and we put them to you. This week, I run the risk of descending into an embarrassing admission of all the games I didn’t really understand, as I ask whether games need to make sense, for you to enjoy them.

I am around four hours into Control (opens in new tab), I have no idea what is going on, and I absolutely love it because of that. I have been picking up every note and file that I can – I’ve even been zooming in on the notice boards, which for the most part just has me reading book club announcements and guitar sales posters – all in the vague hope of trying to figure out what is going on. As happy as I am traversing the claustrophobic corridors of The Oldest House, it’s these little tidbits of information, and the chiming in of Jesse’s inner monologue, that is leaving me desperate to make sense of it all.

Similarly, now we have the Death Stranding release date looming over us like a beached thing, and everyone is scrambling to demystify the information being drip fed to us in the meantime. Whilst it seems the core objective in Death Stranding (opens in new tab) is straightforward enough – travel between the United Cities of America in an attempt to reconnect a disconnected society – it has the trademark Hideo Kojima twist of being elaborate, which is a nice way of saying, hard to follow. 

Though it seems that Kojima has recently gone out of his way to disprove my next point, which is that all of his games, which can often be confusing and full of particularly long cutscenes, are enjoyable. It’s difficult to say whether that’s because, or in spite of, how difficult to parse his games can so often be. 

Understanding a Metal Gear Solid storyline is like trying to tame a wild horse. It’s constantly trying to throw you off, and even when it succeeds in doing so, it just keeps going. However, when Snake (*cough* and Raiden) aren’t being betrayed by their comrades and country, they are fun characters to play as. Watching Raiden slip in seagull poo makes me forget that I only understood 5 minutes of the 5 hours and 24 minutes of cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 2 alone. But much like the protagonists of Metal Gear that are blindly following orders, I too am just doing what the game tells me too – and having a good time because of it. 

It’s a mystery

(Image credit: 505 Games)

We don’t play games to be in a constant state of confusion. Even if it isn’t conscious, our minds will always strive to make sense of even the most nonsensical. When I played Kingdom Hearts 2 in my early teens, I resigned myself to simply seeing it as a game where I got to visit different Disney worlds and fight a few enemies along the way. If I had attempted to understand the interweaving narratives, particularly as someone who hadn’t played the many spin offs, sequels, prequels, non canonical side stories and mobile games that the franchise has churned out, it would have seriously hindered my enjoyment of the game. At the time, I attributed my struggles to grasp the storyline to my youth and to being new to the franchise, but even now I don’t really know what it was I played through. I enjoyed it, sure, but I don’t feel any emotional connection to the Kingdom Hearts games outside of a childhood affection for it.

Whilst some games revel in confusing players with their labyrinthine plots, others are so ambiguous, they seem devoid of any storyline at all. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of a game that allows you to fill in the blanks and come to your own conclusions. Inside (opens in new tab), a game from the developers of Limbo (opens in new tab), is a mere three hours long and contains no dialogue. No written words; no explanations as to who you are, where you are or what you’re doing. It doesn’t force feed you story, in fact, you could probably play this puzzle platformer without identifying the existence of one. But therein lies the enjoyment. For those willing to spend time outside of those three hours deciphering and theorising, you can come to your own conclusions. Then, if you like, you can argue those conclusions with others, and ultimately conclude that you’re the only person who really got it.

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

“The Witcher games present a narrative that almost seems to exist in spite of you.”

Where games like Inside and Limbo present you with a blank canvas, games like The Witcher 3 (opens in new tab) are so rich and complex that it barely fits in the frame. The Witcher games present a narrative that almost seems to exist in spite of you. The core storyline is simple and the missions are easy to follow, but if you really want to understand the intricacies of The Witcher, you need to do your homework. 

When I first played The Witcher 3, I entered Novigrad with no previous knowledge of the franchise, and no real understanding of exactly what has the Nilgaardians and Redanians so angry. But the extra information you get from reading notes and talking to NPCs opens up a more complex world full of politics and betrayal. If it had all been laid bare in the main storyline, I probably wouldn’t be half way through the second book in The Witcher series right now. Plus, having a better understanding of the storyline than others makes the game in question feel special. 

Drawn in

(Image credit: Sony)

Whether you’re being drawn in by the mystery of Control and Death Stranding, or the lore of The Witcher 3, games that aren’t quick to reveal their hand are undeniably intriguing. There’s a confidence that comes with a developer expecting you to put in the work to decode their messages. As though they’re promising you that in the end, it will all be worth it. So, can you really say you enjoyed a game if you never fully understood what you were experiencing? And does it matter, when trying to figure it out is half the fun?

I am curious to hear if there are any games you loved, but never fully understood. Alternatively, are there any games that you hated because they made no sense to you? Let us know in the comments below, I will see you there, and thanks for watching.

Check out more of our Dialogue Options, such as our discussion on the future of decision based games (opens in new tab) or our exploration of whether open-world games are really as open as they appear (opens in new tab)

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