Game Time With Mister Raroo logo[Returning to his GameSetWatch-exclusive column after a break, gaming's very own Garrison Keillor, the permanently sunny Mister Raroo looks at why, although many gamers are accustomed to certain types of structure in games, the moment-to-moment enjoyment of playing may be even more important.]

Just Noodling Around

Recently I was trying to describe the Playstation 3’s delightfully odd Noby Noby Boy to some of my friends, but the same question kept coming up: “What do you do?”

I tried to explain how basically you control a kind of a stretchy noodle that can make itself longer and shorter, and you can direct the noodle to eat objects in its environment only to expel them out of its rear end. Noby Noby Boy is certainly more of a plaything than a game, and this concept was difficult for many of my friends to grasp.

As for me, some of my favorite video games are those in which there really isn’t a point to them. I can lose myself for hours in a title such as Electroplankton on the Nintendo DS.

Though many people may not understand the appeal of what is essentially a musical toy, Electroplankton’s allocation for seemingly infinite sound combinations is like heaven for me. There are no levels to complete, no Achievements to unlock, no story to keep track of. Some gamers may get frustrated and ask, “How do I win? When does the game end? What am I supposed to be doing?” Instead, I can just have fun with musical experimentation.

Catching bugsIn fact, being left with no bearing is perhaps too much for some gamers to handle. Even games that have overall objectives and goals, such as Animal Crossing or The Sims, can prove upsetting to some individuals because the games lack any true direction other than that which players create.

Looking further at a game like Animal Crossing, most gamers eventually find their own rhythm and work toward general goals like collecting bugs or paying off their mortgage, but what about the games in which there really is no rhythm to find? I’m not a fan of games that hold gamers’ hands as they play, but I can understand why many developers feel the need to guide players so as to avoid frustration.

Sometimes it’s nice to not have a reason to play a game other than for the sake of enjoying it. In fact, in some cases it’s not so much that I even “play” a “game” in so much as I immerse myself in an experience. Take a piece of software such as My Aquarium on the Wii, which is truly nothing beyond a virtual aquarium. You decorate an aquarium, select which fish to put into it, and pretty much just watch them swim around.

It’s even less of a proper game than Noby Noby Boy and Electroplankton in that it lacks almost any type of interaction. As the title suggests, it’s your aquarium, and that’s about all there is to it. However, even though My Aquarium isn’t even what one would consider a game, I believe it holds the same potential for providing players with satisfaction as any other video game does.

Letting the Next Level Stay There

It’s not difficult to realize that games like Electroplankton and My Aquarium represent in-the-moment experiences above all else. Other than perhaps unlocking some additional features, these types of games provide little to look forward to in subsequent plays. That is, while other games may have additional levels or worlds to explore, combatants to fight, or puzzles to solve, a title like Electroplankton provides nothing more than what the gamer is experiencing at any given moment. To me, that is not a bad thing.

Raroo's level is lowEven though the “non-games” described above are easy examples, I believe the truth of the matter is that any video game has the potential to be enjoyed in a similar fashion. Sure, this sounds obvious, but I don’t think the vast majority of gamers stop and smell the flowers in the games they play, so to speak. Rather, gamers are often looking ahead to reaching a certain goal.

I tried playing Final Fantasy XI for a few months and even though I had a splendid time exploring the online world of Vana’diel, my personal life left little room for dedicating a lot of time to the game. Just about every player I encountered in Vana'diel was obsessed with one thing: Leveling up their character as high as possible.

For me, there were only a few reasons to do the same, with the largest being to have access to riding chocobos, which made traversing the landscape much quicker and easier. But for the most part, I was content to spend my time traveling between the game’s different cities, exploring the countryside, and just enjoying escaping from the real world, if only for a short while. By the time I stopped playing Final Fantasy XI my character’s level was still embarrassingly low, but I had a nice time playing all the same.

The Parts Versus the Sum

I believe the enjoyment that comes from playing video games is king above all else, but there exist gamers whose main concern is to boost their virtual reputations. More specifically, the Xbox 360’s “GamerScores” and Playstation 3’s “Trophies” seem to be the focus of their game playing.

Fulfilling in-game objectives just for the sake of unlocking Achievements or earning Trophies just doesn’t appeal to me, but it has caused countless individuals to spend tedious hours playing games they aren’t necessarily having a good time with.

Even worse, some people will chose to play games with “easy” Achievements even if there is absolutely no pleasure to be had in the gaming experience. Perhaps the argument can be made that the satisfaction that comes from fulfilling Achievements is worth the hassle, but with so many fantastic games to play, it seems silly to spend one’s precious spare time doing something that’s not very rewarding.

Just enjoy playing!Personally, I’d rather just play a video game for the pure satisfaction that comes with doing so. Of course, like all other forms of art, there exists a great deal of diversity within the medium of video games, and different gamers play for different purposes. Still, it seems with each passing day I have an increasingly limited amount of time available to enjoy my favorite hobby, and I’d rather not waste it doing something that I don’t like.

I can appreciate games on many levels, be it their control schemes, art design, music, storylines, characters, gameplay mechanics, and more, but if none of these factors equate to me enjoying the act of playing a game, then in some ways they’re all for naught. I don’t play to boost my virtual reputation or grind my virtual character to the next level. I just play video games because I like the act of doing so.

I can enjoy the overall experience and appreciate elements such as plot pacing or character development, but for the most part I just want to lose myself in the moment and enjoy the games I play.

Sometimes the games I end up liking may not sit atop the higher echelons of aggregate review score sites such as Metacritic, but personal, moment-to-moment enjoyment doesn’t always fall in line with professional scores. So although I can recognize that Castlevania Judgment is far from being an exceptional game by any standard, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a blast whenever I play it.

While I believe the encapsulation of video games as a whole is important, for me my satisfaction mainly lies in the time I’m actually playing. If video games are a journey I’m taking the time to embark upon, I believe that as many steps along the way should be worth my while. Some people may view their trips through video games in terms of the destination, but to me it’s the actual parts, not necessarily their sum, that may actually matter the most.

[Mister Raroo is a happy husband, proud father, full-time public library employee, and active gamer. He currently lives in El Cajon, CA with his family and many pets. In addition to writing for GameSetWatch, Mister Raroo irregularly writes content for his blog, Moments. You may reach Mister Raroo at mister.raroo@gmail.com.]