What makes a great game? It certainly takes a degree of technical excellence. Although the graphics and sound have to be of a high enough quality to be appealing, what is truly important is a cohesive aesthetic. A great game needs to be absent of game-breaking bugs, too. However, there are two things that really separate certain game from others: is the game enjoyable, and is the game meaningful? These are two very different things, so let us give them both a close look.
It is easy to tell if a game is enjoyable by playing it, but it is much more difficult to define why. When you’re enjoying yourself, you find a broad smile on your face and a light feeling in your stomach. How do some games do this better than others? I played through Psychonauts with a smile on my face the whole time. I remember because my face hurt from smiling so much. It was bizarre, funny, interesting, and fun to play. I ran around for hours, going wherever I pleased, utilizing strange psychic powers in the most absurd ways. Portal is also funny and a blast to play. After all, it’s difficult to not smile when you’re bombarded with dark, dry jokes constantly and being encouraged to fling yourself around with the momentum of a Volkswagen. While good humor is hard to find in games, let’s stay focused on the fun of actually playing. VVVVVV is even more of a sheer delight to play, appealing to players with driving music and simple but surprising puzzles. Psychonauts, Portal, and VVVVVV are so different in so many ways, they share certain elements about what makes them so much fun. They are based on simple rules, yet are always training the player to think in new ways. They allow themselves to be somewhat predictable, so the unexpected subtleties feel surprising without feeling convoluted. Most of all, they just have such great flow.
In all three of these games, you don’t ever need to stop playing to think, or slow down to learn. Most of us do so anyway, but we don’t need to. When you walk into a room in any of these games, you typically take a quick look around while walking forward, and without stopping you just go. You try a psychic power, you put a portal down as soon as you can, and you flip gravity with what can only be described as reckless abandon. These games make it so easy to get into the zone. This is an accomplishment from the level and overall game design, achieved through repeated testing or by the designers forgetting about technicalities and instead focusing on what they think actually is fun. Getting this right requires technological competence to be sure, but depends more on a form of artistic vision unique to games.
The other way games outshine others is that they are just more meaningful to the player than other games. Be it emotional or intellectual, there’s substance there. Dark Souls is a very good-looking modern game, but what appeals to me and other players so much is the thrill of overcoming what feels like real danger. We respond to the pathetic plights (that is, situations eliciting pathos) of the characters. Players read item descriptions over and over, and we carefully listen to conversations attempting to understand the philosophical ramifications of their statements. Bioshock forces you to make decisions based on your emotional responses. It humanizes the characters by very specifically attacking their humanity. Understanding the philosophical issues posed in Bioshock has been a huge and active conversation since its release in 2007.
Some games with much worse graphics than Dark Souls or Bioshock have been far more emotional for me. Cave Story sucked me in with the appeal of old-school gameplay backed up with competent aesthetics and plot points. But suddenly I found myself shocked and on the brink of tears in reaction to the death of a character. When I found out that I could save that particular character by playing through the game in a very specific, and very difficult way, I became almost obsessed with it. It was a possibility that would only be real if I made it real. Chrono Trigger was so far ahead of its time in terms of gameplay, but what most of us remember more pointedly than everything is how the story moved us. How could such low-resolution graphics have such an effect on people, and how is it unique to games?
I think that the old-school, pixelated have an advantage over the newer and shinier graphics. They give us an impression, but allow us to fill in the blanks. Fans of books understand the appeal of understanding exactly the look on a character’s face without having it sullied by a visual representation. We do the same thing with the blank slate of pixelated graphics. But we have a different experience with that in games than in books. In books, you can empathize with a character who you can see and even feel like you share a relationship with, but you cannot interfere. In games, the character’s actions depend on our responses. When I see one of my beloved characters get killed by the villain and am filled with sadness and anger, my emotions color every action I take, just as every action colors my emotions. The desperate run toward the villain as he tries to escape is exactly as desperate to the character as to me. If tears stream down my face, I see it on the character even if nothing is there. This close personal connection we get to the events in the plot are what make games so meaningful to us. The moments in which we can’t change an outcome can either be powerful or game-breaking, and success or failure it is due to design. These design decisions also come down to having a base level of proficiency, and an artistic vision exclusive to the medium.
Fortunately, no matter how deeply we try to understand why games can be so enjoyable, it will always remain easy to experience. I’m glad that as the conversation goes on we will all the while be delighted and moved by the best games the world has to offer.
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