Technical Inadvisory: How can you tell how much fun a video game is?

If you scream with joy/anguish when you win/lose the game, it’s probably a hyper-stressful game. — AFP Relaxnews

It’s 7am as I write this, and the 24-hour convenience store won’t open until 9am. (Look, opening times have gotten weird since the coronavirus.) This means I have two hours to burn until I can head out and get my breakfast.

Fortunately, I have the perfect thing to keep me occupied during that time: Rune Factory 4, a video game about managing a farm while befriending/marrying anime characters in an idyllic small town, and also a video game about fighting monsters in sprawling dungeons like a proper JRPG adventurer.

I actually played this game when it was first released on the Nintendo 3DS back in 2013, and I’m playing it again now that the special edition is available on the Switch. Safe to say, it’s one of my favourite games, and I’ve sunk in hundreds of hours in its gloriously anime-infused world.

Thing is though, for several years I’ve had trouble articulating what’s so special about Rune Factory. When I told my friends that it has farming and dating sim mechanics, they said they’d rather play a dedicated farming game like Story Of Seasons: Friends Of Mineral Town, (aka Harvest Moon: Friends Of Mineral Town, available on Steam and Switch) where they don’t have to get into a fist fight with a fire-breathing dragon just to date a girl.

When I told my friends it has a fun little story with anime aesthetics, they pointed out they’d rather immerse themselves in the anime highschool romcom/murder mystery that is Persona 4 instead. (That’s on Steam too, by the way.)

When I tried to recommend the game based on its visuals... well, I had to stop myself from laughing. Rune Factory looks very cute with its mix of 3D models and 2D painted backgrounds, but all my friends who play games for their visual fidelity are busy enjoying Ghost Of Tsushima on the PS4.

So why do I love this game, when it doesn’t break the mould in terms of classic “video game quality” metrics like mechanics, narrative, aesthetics, and presentation?

Well, I’ve had a lot of time to think about this, and I want to propose a new metric for understanding how much you’d enjoy playing a video game: its engagement levels, or the comparative type of attention and time you spend playing.

Hear me out: when we talk about games, it’s easy to try to measure how “good” a game is, usually by throwing bigger numbers around, i.e. quantity = quality.

A first person shooter (FPS) that runs at 60 frames per second (also FPS, strangely) must be twice as good as a game that runs at 30 FPS, right? An open-world RPG with 120 hours of content must be 240x better than a small story-driven indie game that can be completed in 30 minutes, I guess?

Of course not. While I’ll easily spend a solid one to two weeks absolutely devouring whatever shiny-new super-awesome critically-acclaimed AAA-quality story-driven 1080p-resolution blockbuster game that just came out, afterwards I’d always return to my regular selection of “comfort food” games that I’d play for 15-30 minutes a day. They’re usually small budget games, or even free-to-play (F2P) mobile titles, that don’t offer too much in terms of visual fidelity or production value, but don’t ask too much from me either. And both “blockbuster” and “comfort food” games are enjoyable in their own way.

First, let’s talk about these “low engagement level games”. For me, these are usually F2P mobile games and many games on the ol’ 3DS – basically, any game you can play while casually watching some reruns on TV or otherwise idling about.

Pokémon Café Mix (Android, iOS, Switch) is a good example of this – it’s a simple puzzle game where you match icons to reach a score. It’s cute, simple, bright, and perfect to play on the bus to work. (Note: for sanity, I assume you’re not driving the dang bus.) I’m not going to dock the game points for not capturing 100% of my attention with a high-stakes dramatic storyline, because low engagement games don’t need to.

In contrast, “high engagement level games” actually do require that you be mentally present to enjoy its content. Heck, maybe schedule a free weekend around playing them so you can get fully immersed.

My go-to examples are exploration-type games like Breath Of The Wild, where I want to explore Hyrule without distractions, or story-driven games like Paper Mario: The Origami King, where I want to appreciate the goofy plot, weird characters, and beautiful papercraft world before I eventually get around to saving Princess Peach. Because of course she’s in peril again. Of course!

I feel it’s important to understand the difference between engagement levels, and to understand that one isn’t better than the other. Sometimes you want a game to relax and unwind with, and sometimes you want a game you can focus on and get invested in.

And sometimes you want a game that raises your blood pressure, which is why the category of “hyper-stressful engagement level games” exists. These are games that are built on challenge, and are usually the favourites of self-identified “hardcore gamers”.

Basically, if you scream with joy/anguish when you win/lose the game, it’s probably a hyper-stressful game. In my case, most competitive PVP games fall into this category, as well as anything in the broad Dark Souls genre.

Y’know, while I’m at it, I might as well propose a category called “post-engagement level games”, because I’m making these terms up as I go and you can’t stop me. These are games where you spend more time thinking about the game than actually playing it. Minecraft can be this for me – I think I’ve drafted up more plans for elaborate Minecraft cities in various Minecraft tools than built actual houses in-game.

If you spend your free time reading the game’s Wiki, it’s a post-engagement game for you. If you actually edit the Wiki, then Heaven help you, you’re actually married to the game.

The theory of different engagement levels might be an interesting way to talk about games, and it definitely explains why I like Rune Factory 4 so much: as a hybrid farming/dating/anime fantasy/action JRPG, it engages me on many different levels.

The laid-back pace of the farming means I can idly enjoy the game while watching TV (low engagement). The drama of the narrative means that, when I want, I can sink hours into the story missions and lose track of time (high engagement). And the in-depth crafting and skill system means that, even when I’m not actively playing the game, I’ll be daydreaming of different ways to level up my farm and cook different meals to power up my character (post-engagement).

Speaking of which, it’s time for me to head and get breakfa- wait, it’s 6pm already?!? How??

Oh well, might as well play more Rune Factory 4 while I wait for dinner...

(Raised by wild Nintendo consoles and trained in the ways of the computer scientist, Shaun A. Noordin tries to use his knowledge of web development, technology and video games for the greater good. Or for entertainment and amusement, whichever is easier. He has a lot of advice to share, but they’re all inadvisable to follow.)

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