Fairness Is Overrated

No one really wants to play a fair game. Video games are unfair, but in our favor, which is what makes them fun, right?

No one really wants a fair game. For the most part, we want a game that skews to our advantage so we can finish it and move on to the next game. It’s unfair, but it’s unfair in our favor, which makes it fun. Generally, when a game is unfair to our disadvantage we call this out as a negative, something to be rectified with a patch or update. However, after having recently played Shadow of Mordor and Alien: Isolation, I’ve come to appreciate how unfair those games can be. They prove that balance and fairness are overrated because the most exciting moments in these games stem from the systems that are stacked against us.

In Shadow of Mordor there are times when you’ll get into a fight that you simply cannot win. This is especially true in the early game, when we’re missing many of our more powerful abilities. There is the inevitable moment when things spiral out of your control, and your hunt for a single weak captain turns into a fight against five strong captains and the horde of orcs that they'll be bringing with them.

No fight starts off this way. No fight begins beyond our control. Rather, every kill, no matter how lowly or lonely our victim may be, has the potential to escalate a situation to the point of inevitable disaster, and those larger conflicts are disasters, make no mistake. We are outgunned and out maneuvered, with no time to attack between dodging the spears and arrows and swords and explosives hurled at us. It is all we can to just to survive, but we can only do that for so long. It’s a chaotic and confusing battle, with so much stacked against us that it feels legitimately unfair, but that’s what makes it exciting: That escalation of scope, that slow unraveling of our perfect plan. This is a game that forces us to participate in a train wreck of a fight that we can’t escape from.

What’s exciting about Shadow of Mordor is that for once in a big-budget game, we’re a genuine underdog and our survival is not guaranteed with a magical “Continue from checkpoint.” Well, okay, it kind of is, since we do just come back to life after defeat. However, my larger point is that we’re allowed to die and fail and that there are actual repercussions for that failure to give it meaning. Time doesn’t reset when we respawn, it continues forward to our disadvantage.

This imbalance is a good thing. People like it when the odds are against them. It’s a testament to our love of imbalance that people are actively trying to make Shadow of Mordor harder, that they’re disappointed by our ascent into orc-killing-machine, and that they would prefer to keep themselves the underdog for as long as possible.

Similarly, I find it odd that one of the major criticisms of Alien: Isolation is that the alien seems at times to be unfairly prescient, that it seems to know where you are even as you hide silently. Horror, of all genres, should be unfair. Fairness and balance implies a predictable system, and anything that's predictable isn't frightening.

Isolation actually reminds me a lot of Homesick, a game I highlighted a year ago during Indie Horror Month. In Homesick, we're stalked by a crazed killer in a dark house. We have to find several keys in order to escape, but their locations are randomized, so we open every drawer, closet, cupboard, or desk that we find, knowing that at any moment that the killer could appear. The catch to Homesick that differentiates it from similar games like Slender is that Homesick is happy to screw you over. Slender has rules about sprinting and light-use and can be gamed to give you an advantage in fleeing when Slenderman inevitably appears. In Homesick, we have no such advantage. All you have is luck, and as such, it's a game that reveals just how much divine/authorial intervention is required for any protagonist to survive a horror story.

Alien: Isolation is a big-budget game with that same indie ethos. The developers refuse to intervene and assist with your survival. It's just you against a far more powerful foe, and as such, it's natural that we die more often than we live.

Isolation is an honest take on what an Alien encounter would be like. In the movie, Ripley only lived because the story demanded it. We players don't have that narrative protection and that exposes us to the sad, horrifying truth of our situation -- a truth that most modern games would rather ignore in favor of accessibility and fun -- the truth that we are oh so fucked and that there's nothing we can do about it. Isolation embraces that truth and makes it a cornerstone of gameplay, which certainly makes the game less fun, but it also makes the game more frightening.

Fairness only really matters in competitive games, when we're meant to match our skills against other players in some virtual arena, though even then there's been a slow rise of multiplayer games in which one player is given a hefty advantage, and it's up to several other weaker players to take that player down (see: Evolve). In a single-player narrative context, the idea of fairness is meaningless because the mechanics of such a game should reflect on the story. They shouldn't be a closed ecosystem unto themselves.

Shadow of Mordor and Alien: Isolation both eschew "fair" systems in favor of systems that make for a more memorable experience.






A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.


DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.


JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.


​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.


Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times


Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.


How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.


Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.


Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.