Quest Updated: ‘Watergate’ Is Fun, Unfortunately
I spent a few hours earlier this week, between reading academic articles and Moby Dick, playing a browser-based game with a concept that caught my eye. As I often do when I’m stressed, I use weird little browser-based, bite-sized games as a kind of shock therapy to shake my brain back into thinking beyond meta-narrative and words like nekyia and oomphalos.
The game that caught my eye was Watergate: The Video Game. You take the role of Bob Woodward, the journalist who dug deep enough to uncover what is now infamously called the Watergate Scandal. The game is a retro-styled point-and-click adventure, and I was very excited to try it. The point-and-click medium is perfect for a short game where investigative journalism is the genre of choice. But something went wrong. It wasn’t what I expected either.
I know little of the Watergate scandal, apart from the fact it was where Trickie Dickie got caught out for bugging and other such nefarious activities. I was expecting a game that could tend towards incomprehensibility because of my lack of knowledge about the actual events. I mean, how often can you use history (i.e. Wikipedia article on Watergate) as a walkthrough? I was worried I would be faced with a challenge of my knowledge, expected to make jumps in logic unavailable to me.
There were unexpected jumps in logic, but not through any sort of journalistic wiles. Instead, the game signalled very early on a different aim, when your editor gives you an Elven Broadsword because “it is dangerous to go alone”. Instead of a game about hard-hitting journalism, I played a game about hitting Nixon hard. In the face, in a tribute to Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!! (apparently, the boxing is so epic, it needs a double exclamation mark).
Perhaps I am broken, but the humour actually spoiled the game. Yes, I had a good chuckle at the unexpectedness of digging up graves and meeting Mario and Luigi. It felt quite Python-esque. But I feel like the game would’ve meant something if it took itself seriously. Ironically, it took the title of “game” too seriously and limited itself to being a fun experience in a very conventional, light-hearted sense. It is as if the creators decided the best way to engage with what could potentially have been a boring slog through the routine of journalism was to dispense with realism entirely.
I think this says a lot about the label of “game”. Game has a telos: it aims to provide fun, not just enjoyment. One can enjoy Schindler’s List, or Russian literature despite their evident lack of what we, in a technologically-fixated, sarcastic, ADD cultural context, tend to view as fun. The term game implies a certain kind of enjoyment and fun. Thankfully, many game developers have, at minimum in the story department, seen through this. I could wax lyrical on the many excellent, challenging and thought-provoking games out there, from Braid to Portal to Bastion to BioShock. Certainly, in the gaming community the term “game” has slid into a meaning free of the ties of juvenility (is that a word?) or simplicity it may have once suggested. But clearly, it still hasn’t quite made the jump.
And Watergate does just this. It takes something serious, and rather than showing how something so serious and weighty could be explored in an interactive medium, it resorts to humour and irony to resolve it. This has once again made me wonder about the naming of games as “games” rather than some other term. It would be very hard to craft a new, generally accepted term for gaming; instead I feel there needs to be a further reclamation of the name, or at least an addition of some kind of signifier that these aren’t just for fun in the simple and simplistic way I described it above. Because fun needn’t be the kind of fun mentioned above. And games need not be silly, or resort to irony to be enjoyable.