If you're going to play Serious Sam, Croteam's riotous PC/Xbox FPS, through to completion, it's hardly going to leave you with any thorny existential questions to ponder. It's a game that's giddying in its simplicity. Several billion (well, many dozen) enemies spawn and charge/shoot at you, and you shoot back at them, endlessly circle-strafing and pumping the trigger in a gloriously dumb haze of gunfire and death yelps. And that's it, over and over, for the entire game. Zero subtlety. Minimal variation. On paper, it's deafeningly flat. It's the action-hero equivalent of LOLspeak. So, if you play Serious Sam through to completion, you are actually left with something to ponder: what the hell am I doing?
Consider me. Oh, go on. I like to think I have flatteringly high gaming standards. I do my best to play only the best. I coo like a connoisseur at well-crafted complexity. But I also have the attention span of Heat magazine; an unskippable cut-scene has me mashing the buttons and belming like a simian Caesar, snorting and whining the very nanosecond I stop being entertained. I find gaming's obsession with futuristic soldiers, muscular hero-fantasy and open-world hoo-ha to be as tedious as eating a sack of flour. And yet, there's a particular style of game - the crowd-control genre - that amputates hours of my free time, despite contradicting what I so often seek. Four hours into KOEI's battlefield beat-'em-up Dynasty Warriors 6, I'm still having a swell time, despite having done little other than batter make-believe Chinese men in the face with a spear. What the hell am I doing?
Anyone watching me play Dynasty Warriors 6 for four hours would probably be left with nothing but disgust, and maybe a glimmer of pity, at this podgy fantasist sat on his couch, his better judgement having flown south for the winter. Jabbing away at the same three buttons like some lab monkey jonesing for his next cigarette. But in my head, something spectacular is happening. I have become a stellar badass, scattering enemies like bowling pins with just a few pokes at the joypad. And this is the answer to the above question: effectuality. Repetition is a core criticism aimed at such games, but variety counts little if you don't feel engaged. And games like Serious Sam and Dynasty Warriors engage with swarms of things to lash out at. Your actual role may be literally one-dimensional - that of a one-man army - but the feedback is immense. It's the power of the penny jar, that pot of spare change you gather over time that always reaps a surprising wad of cash when its contents are counted out. No single interaction in a Dynasty Warriors game matters much at all. But when you spray defeat with every swipe, there's some brutal, blockbuster brain-maths at work here that provides an animal satisfaction.
It's like jumping into a puddle. Or swatting a house of cards. Or crushing handfuls of bubble wrap. These are examples of fun physics, tactile treats that make your inner primate smile. Even though Serious Sam doesn't really feature physics, it can feel awfully physical, and fun for it. Which is why current-gen development, with its '1000x physics!!' manifesto, still has to walk the same line that games have always had to. Both Kameo: Elements of Power and Assassin's Creed knew that showboating worlds populated with myriad characters would wow us as we lollygagged their previews, but it doesn't matter much if they're not being bounced around like hundreds of Maltesers on a trampoline. A box falling down some stairs may be realistic to ninety decimal places, but it doesn't make me feel awesome. The question I have to ask is: can it make 100 men go simultaneous aargh fall down amazing? Such violence may be cardboard or cartoony, but it certainly works wonders in insect-alien invasion shooter Earth Defence Force 2017. Fire a rocket into a huddle of giant ants, and they'll erupt into a cloud of pirouetting corpses, some of them being flung for miles. Havok doesn't necessarily buy you those kinds of grins, or that sensation of power.