The Point of Pointless Games

I often hear gamers say that if a game doesn’t have an overall purpose, they won’t touch it. For instance, there are people out there that buy games if and only if they have a compelling story they can play beginning to end. Forget the multiplayer; these gamers only want to experience a convincing narrative all the way through to get their fix.

While there’s nothing wrong with being the type of player that only is interested in games because of their stories, often these gamers are the same type of people that cry foul at games that really have no point.

Now I’m not talking about puzzle games like Lumines or Bejeweled here. Games like these, while not containing a story or anything, do challenge players in a way other genres of games cannot, giving them their purpose. I’m talking about franchises like Animal Crossing, Minecraft, and Left 4 Dead.

I’ve heard players often mock these games because they really have no goal beyond letting players waste their time in the games’ respective virtual worlds. “Hardcore” gamers cry foul at the fact there’s no competition or endgame in titles such as these, making them lose all meaning when compared to competitive games like Halo and Call of Duty or narrative games like Uncharted or God of War. I’m here to tell you that sometimes the point of games is that they have no point, and that’s okay.

Let’s start with Animal Crossing. For those who aren’t familiar with this game, in Animal Crossing, players are dropped into a small, randomized town full of fruit trees to pick, bugs to catch, and animal neighbors to befriend. You have no money when you start out, but the friendly raccoon store owner Tom Nook says he’ll buy a house for you, but that you have to pay him off eventually. With no choice but to agree, you purchase your home and are told you now have a large amount of money to pay Mr. Nooks before you’re allowed to upgrade your home. So, as a player, you spend your days selling fruit and bugs to Mr. Nook while exploring the virtual town and making new digital friends until you can upgrade your home and buy new decorations and furniture for it.

And that’s the whole game.

Animal CrossingThere’s obviously more detail to it than that, but that’s the gist of it. You pretty much live a second life in this colorful world inhabited by animal neighbors, slowly paying off a mortgage that doesn’t seem to end until you get bored and stop playing. Realistically you could spend 20 minutes playing this game every day, as I’m sure the developers intended, for the rest of your life, just doing your thing in Animal Crossing.

For those of you that haven’t played it, there’s probably a reason for that: It sounds horrible. That’s what I thought before my girlfriend convinced me to get it. I eventually caved and bought it, and we spent an entire summer playing it together, exploring each others’ towns and trading items. There was no endgame. There was no competition. There was no story. But Animal Crossing is a great experience.

What makes it great is how casual it is. The game only demands a few minutes of your attention every day, and if you can give it that, you’ll be rewarded with an expanding home, new animal friends, and a cleaner world environment. If you stop playing for awhile, your neighbors may move away, and your town could end up overrun with weeds. The idea that your beautiful village could end up trashed compels players to keep giving Animal Crossing their attention.

But the game is still amazing. Never once while playing did I think, “This would be so much better if I could compete with my friends for a bigger house” or “I wish there was a story, or a way to beat this game.” Animal Crossing is its own genre. It’s a second life you can live outside your own, and even though it has no real point, it’s relaxing, charming, and, most importantly, fun, and that gives it more purpose than tons of story- or competitive-driven titles out there.

Next up is Minecraft. While most can agree this is the indie game of the century and that it hit a perfect niche that probably won’t be replicated for several years to come, there are still people out there that won’t touch it because of their claims that the game is pointless.

And, to be honest, it kind of is, but that’s perfectly okay.

MinecraftIn Minecraft, players are dropped into an infinite world where they’re free to build using resources found in-game and collect food to survive the monsters that come out at night. There’s no real goal (at least there wasn’t until The End was created, but that’s a different story) besides just staying alive. The game goes deeper than this when you consider creative mode and enchanting, but the basic premise stays the same: find stuff, make stuff, repeat.

The game has no story. Multiplayer is all cooperative. There’s no real point. Yet this game is still one of the most successful of this generation, and for a good reason. Minecraft is a creative toy you can play with just as much as it is a game. Like virtual Legos, you build destroy, and play, but there’s no real purpose. What’s wrong with that?

To those that say Minecraft isn’t a real game and doesn’t deserve the attention it has received, maybe you need to give it a shot. Or perhaps you have and just aren’t creative enough to fully enjoy it. Either way, gamers need to realize there is an audience that doesn’t need competition or a compelling story to play, and that that’s perfectly acceptable.

Finally, I end with Left 4 Dead. I’m sure those of you that have played this are saying to yourselves, “Left 4 Dead isn’t pointless. It has a (loose) story, an ending, and even competitive multiplayer!” The reason I’m mentioning it is because I was one of the gamers who viewed L4D as pointless up until the day I played it.

Left 4 DeadIn Left 4 Dead, up to four players take over the roles of the protagonists Louis, Bill, Francis, and Zoey (or Nick, Ellis, Rochelle, and Coach in the sequel). Armed with a just a medkit, a flashlight, and a couple weapons, each player works together to reach a saferoom at the end of each chapter, and eventual rescue at the end of each campaign, five in all. Each campaign can be beaten in about 45 minutes, sometimes less, meaning the game can be completed in a single sitting, and a short one at that. While there is a very loose story that strings you along (you and your friends are immune, everyone else is infected, and you need to get out), the game is essentially an excuse to let players shoot zombies with your friends. If you’re coming into L4D expecting a blockbuster zombie tale, you’re playing the wrong game.

Left 4 Dead centers around cooperative play. If you run off alone or let your friends die, you will not survive on your own. It’s essential to keep everyone healthy and together if you want to win, and that can be tougher than it sounds. The reason I never thought much of this game is because when I played it with a few friends, sure, we had fun, but I never felt compelled to see these characters escape the zombie plague. I played L4D in a story-driven mindset, and that was the wrong way to approach it. When you get right down to it, Left 4 Dead is mindless, violent fun, and it’s great.

I purchased the game on a whim one day, deciding to give it a fair shot. Entering L4D with a different idea of its point and goal for players made me see it in a whole new way. I fell in love with the level design that changes from playthrough to playthrough, keeping the game fresh. The gun mechanics are simple, but so it the game overall. It’s casual enough that anyone can pick it up and play, but difficult enough to keep even the most hardcore of gamers on their toes. The game hits the perfect balance of being inviting to all. I’ve played through both Left 4 Dead games’ campaigns more times than I can even count by this point, and I look forward to many more playthroughs to come.

As you can see, even when a game is “pointless,” it still has a purpose, and usually, when you sit back and relax, you realize that purpose comes down to one thing: fun. A game isn’t much if it isn’t fun; as long as that remains the point of every title in the industry, regardless of genre, I’ll never turn down a good pointless game again.

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