An informal look at what makes games good:
This first bit is going to be a bit base logic/philosophy heavy, so feel free to skip to the next section if that’s not your thing.
Objectivity in Art
I think there are two options: either the “goodness” of art is entirely subjective or art is at least partly (and, I would argue, largely) objective. If the “goodness” of art is entirely subjective, then no quantitative statements can be made about it. But what of art made with an intended purpose? If a work of art has an intended purpose, it would seem that we could judge the “goodness” of the work based on its success in accomplishing that purpose. So it would seem that at least some art – art with a purpose – has some objective qualities.
If we can say that all art has a purpose, then we can say that all art has at least some objective qualities. Let’s start by assuming that we have a work of art created without purpose. The mere act of creation implies purpose – demands it. Here I must state something I cannot hope to prove but that I hope is reasonable: all effects have a cause. I think to reject this would be to reject our ability to interpret the universe at all. If we accept this, then any act of creation has a motivated cause – a purpose – even if that purpose was to be without purpose (which would be a self-contradiction). The only other way a purposeless work could exist is if its purpose was somehow removed after its creation. But that still implies that the work had a purpose to begin with, and thus some objective qualities. I would conclude, then, that all art must then have at least some objective qualities.
Video Games as Art
Since all art has objective qualities, we can measure them and compare them to some standard. This, I would argue, is the measure of the “goodness” of art. The reason art appears so subjective is each individual’s different value weightings: some people like sports games. I do not. A sports game could be excellent – perfectly crafted, even – and I might still dislike it. A game could be more or less realistic or fantastic – and each individual’s preference for those qualities would shape their opinion of a game. A game could have many flaws – poorly balanced mechanics, for example – but still have a fantastic story and setting – making some people love the game all the same. We all have our biases: in looking at a game or reviewing one, we can only hope to show our biases and state what makes us think a game is “good” or “bad”. So from here, I’m going to move to a more fuzzy look at what makes a game good.
A Good Video Game
A good game needs to be fun. That’s probably a little vague. What I mean by this is that a person playing a game should want to keep playing that game, and that a person shouldn’t be spending time or money to not play that game – I’m looking at you, microtransaction-based mobile game trash. This is an obvious one for me and probably most people. What might be less obvious is the idle clicker – Cookie Clicker, Adventure Capitalist, or Clicker Heroes – and to a lesser (but still unforgivable) extent, any game which wastes your time through required grinding. I used to play these games, but at some point while playing Crusaders of the Lost Idols, something broke within me and I realized I wasn’t really having fun. These are bad games. They are not fun. I don’t mean this in a subjective way – I mean that they are objectively terrible, non-fun games, and that their insidiously addictive nature is actively attempting to waste your life.
These sorts of games give you a mindless or inanely repetitive task. By their very nature, these can’t be tasks that require too much thought or challenge – else you might fail too often and stop playing. For doing this, you are presented with something that appears rewarding and giving you with the satisfaction of beating a challenge without the actual challenge. This can be progress through an infinite number of levels, a level up that gets you a hundredth of the way to your next goal, or even something as simple as a satisfying clicky noise. A very easy tell for this game design mindset is exponential growth (adding more and more zeros to the end of numbers). Exponential growth means that you end up with bigger and bigger numbers to create the illusion of power – you even find this in MMORPGs. But it’s all fake – progress toward an unreachable goal is no progress at all, bigger and bigger numbers are just a mindless power fantasy, and a game that with continual non-challenges is just hiding the fact that no one bothered to actually make a video game.
On the other extreme, we also have to consider games like That Dragon, Cancer – which aren’t designed to be fun in the traditional sense, but rather to evoke an emotional response and tell you a story in a somewhat interactive way. It might be a misuse of language to say, but: catharsis is a form of fun. A sad game can be fun – as long as it isn’t constantly dark. To the Moon, for example, is an excellent example of a fun but sad game. The problem with That Dragon, Cancer, is that it is not a good game in addition to not being fun. The problem is one of player choice.
A good game needs interactivity. There’s a line from an RPG guidebook I read – Gamemastering by Brian Jameson (and if you’re interested in that sort of thing, also check out The Game Master by Tobiah Q. Panshin): “[A]ny game that has a predetermined conclusion isn’t a game.” It’s a bold statement – and hard to swallow from a video game standpoint. It would certainly make things like Kentucky Route Zero (or any point-and-click game) harder to critique from a gaming perspective. And it would be unfair to say any linear game can’t be good. What makes linear games like Dragon Age, Broken Sword, or even Half-Life 2 good is the presence of meaningful input.
Meaningful input comes in the form of either challenge or choices. A game doesn’t always need meaningful choices if it provides a good challenge, and it doesn’t always need challenge if it provides meaningful choices. But it does need one of the two. A game is failing to be “good” when it has too long of periods without asking the player for some meaningful input. Sometimes, this comes in the form of over-long cutscenes. Sometimes, this comes from forcing the players to make choices that either don’t matter or don’t make sense. Sometimes, it’s from reducing the sum of player input to pressing forward. Yes, this means that visual novels would be bad games, but taking them as games is the wrong approach – we’ll talk more about that later. A more subtle manifestation of a lack of meaningful input are mechanics like quick-time events, and a fantastically bad example of this is in Tomb Raider. There, failure of a QTE during a cutscene or jumpscare in usually results in immediate, gory death and a loading screen. A QTE is not meaningful input because it does not allow for failure.
A good game needs to let you fail. “But Lepcis,” you say: “I’ve died more times than Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow. All games let you fail.” “Ah,” I would say back, “but death isn’t letting you fail.” During one of our game-night discussions – this time about DOOM – Chezni pointed out to me that death in video games is the video game telling you that it’s retconning what just happened and reversing your progress to the last save. Like Tom Cruise – or better, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the last few events just never happened because you didn’t do them right. That’s not meaningful input – that’s railroading. In our discussion, we were trying to figure out why DOOM was less good than the old Doom games. Part of it seemed to be that the older Doom games let you fail a lot more – without outright killing you – whereas death comes swiftly (or, on lower difficulties, not at all) in the new DOOM. In the originals, you’d pay for your early mistakes later because you could be low on ammunition and health – but that’s exactly what letting you fail is all about.
Dark Souls has three truly superb methods of letting you fail. First, your healing item (Estus) is an infinitely renewable resource. If you make a mistake in combat, you can use your Estus flask to heal – and it takes just the right amount of time to be a punishment for making a mistake, while not completely preventing you from recovering from that mistake. If you then make too many mistakes and run out of Estus, you must rest at a bonfire to refill – which respawns all the enemies. Finally, death in Dark Souls doesn’t blindly reverse your progress: it gives you a chance to regain what you lost at death. It’s only after two consecutive deaths that you truly lose any progress. This brings me to a valuable lesson from Dark Souls: The punishment for failure shouldn’t be stopping gameplay. That’s why there is Estus in Dark Souls and why there are mushrooms in Super Mario.
Finally, a good game needs to be understandable. I’m far from an expert – I mean, my degree is in math – I’m barely a passionate amateur. But I think that the word for what I’m getting at is conveyance. There should never be a time when all you are left with is a desperate “What do I do?” followed by a quick Google to GameFAQs – or, in the case of pre-internet times, wandering around for fifteen minutes followed by rage-quitting. The trouble with not having an understandable game comes at several points. If the game doesn’t introduce mechanics well, you’ll be stuck when trying to apply them later – or even trying to progress at all. If the results of your actions aren’t clearly shown (at least at first), you won’t be able to figure out what the game want you to do. If a game is complex without clarity, it will be hard to pick up if you leave it for a while.
In puzzle games this challenge is different, but equally important. The solution to a puzzle shouldn’t leave you with the feeling of “How was I supposed to figure that out?“, but with a sense of accomplishment. How to do this is truly marvelous, but this paragraph is too small to contain the proof. Sorry – that’s a bad math joke. Good puzzle design is hard. Really hard. This is why so many point-and-click adventure games are frustrating or simply require Googling. I am always impressed wherever puzzle design is done well. Submachine and Covert Front are some of the finest examples of this, next to Portal and Portal 2.
The obvious examples of conveyance in non-puzzle games are things like the Super Mario World 1-1 or Mega Man; and for 3D games, there are no better examples that I have played than Valve’s games, particularly Half-Life 2. When you first play a game, the easy way out is a tutorial and/or keymap. For PC games, having something tell you the controls is almost unavoidable given the number of available keys. And while tutorials aren’t inherently bad (though many are made badly), they aren’t the most elegant way to teach someone your game. In general, the more information a game provides its players during gameplay the better – Renowned Explorers does this to the extreme, and it does it brilliantly. In puzzle games it’s the same: as Egoraptor said – a puzzle is something you have all the information for.
I’ve tried to just list the elements that must be present for a game to be good. Maybe I’ve missed some, and maybe I’ve included one that I shouldn’t have. I’m far from fallible. And a game with all the above elements might still not be good. In math, we call this necessary but not sufficient. Perhaps even more important, a good video game can still have flaws. Dark Souls, for all its wonder and story and mechanics, does still have its issues.
And a good video game doesn’t always have to be taken as a game. A visual novel or linear adventure like Kentucky Route Zero (and, though I would still argue against it: That Dragon, Cancer) has to be taken as not only a game, but as a book, movie, and game all in one. Interactivity can be sacrificed as long as the result doesn’t pretend to have interactivity. This is the trouble with telling a story in a game – it’s a balance between the player accepting the limits of what a video game can do and the video game allowing for player freedom. It’s what so many AAA games fail at, and what The Stanley Parable, Save the Date!, Undertale, and ICEY succeed so well at. I highly recommend playing at least the first two of those (I haven’t finished ICEY yet).
A Perfect Video Game
Is it possible to make the “best ever” video game? No. The “best video game ever” will never exist because no game can be all things to all people. A game can’t be both long and short, both realistic and fantastic. But is it possible to make a “perfect” video game? I think so.
- A perfect video game would be one that has all the features it needs and no more.
- It goes on long enough to do everything it can, and then ends.
- It implements its mechanics in a balanced (and preferably natural) way.
- It doesn’t make the player feel as if they are constrained by what the developer expected them to do.
- It lets the player immerse themselves in a world with decisions that don’t feel forced, but still carry consequence.
- And, most fuzzily: you can’t think of any way that “it could have been better.”
I think this has been done at least several times – with FTL, Legend of Grimrock 2, and the Stanley Parable. FTL allows you to interact as much or as little as you like in the world. Legend of Grimrock 2 tells a story, provides challenge and new environments, and all the while just feels good. The Stanley Parable is an interactive story that always provides you with a third option (the broom closet ending was my favorite!).
I won’t go further, since it’s very hard to really say a game has all of these qualities and my video game experience is still limited – but I wouldn’t imagine there are too many more. The reason there I believe there are so few is that the bigger, more complex your game is, the harder it is to make everything perfect. The three games I mentioned are all small games with incredibly well-fleshed-out mechanics. Doing that with a larger game is practically untenable – you often end up with games like Skyrim that, while fun, are “as wide as an ocean, as deep as a puddle.” More favorably, you end up with a game like Dark Souls or Dark Souls III (III comes very close, but that might just be my bias), where most things are done fabulously, but there are still flaws to be found. The flaws may make the game more endearing, but not better. Thanks for reading this far, and I’m interested to hear your thoughts, whatever they may be!
Hmm…now I just want to sneak in a reference to Escape Velocity: Nova. Oh dear – EV:N has been out for 15 years? Now I feel old.
Chezni’s take: (Let’s get ready to Raaaaamble!)
What is the Point of a Game?
What is the point of playing a game? Many may answer, “to have fun.” Putting aside the question of “why do we want to have fun in the first place,” it is only natural to conclude that if the goal of a game is to “have fun,” then within the selection of products that can be defined as “games” (specifically video games in our case) there must be a degree of quality through which one can accomplish or acquire a larger or lesser quantity of fun, depending on the product used. Long before Lepcis and I sat down to write out these essays individually, we wrestled long with the concept of a “good” game. “Good” seemed so subjective—a flighty word that when thrown around at a dinner table it can certainly be met with some level of acceptance, but try to prove to someone who disagrees with you why something is good, or even try to capture the concept of good and bad with pen and paper and you’ll find the task to be a messy one.
In the end, “fun” and “good” can be defined by the user to support whatever their argument is. After all, that is the nature of words and their definitions. What Lepcis and I seek to explore and with luck discover here, is not a way to define human words, nor a secret rubric through which we can grade a gamekind. Instead we yearn uncover the Plato-esque shape that the pure form of “game” takes. Just what is the universal truth that is game? Why is Chrono Trigger considered to be a good game? Why is Chrono Cross not? Why do shallow micro-transaction games flourish while unique and thought provoking games lie untouched? What, truly, is the purpose of a game?
The Word Fun.
We shall start with the word, “fun.”
Fun, itself, is generally a feeling humans desire, both because it feels pleasant and because it lacks the unpleasant. Fun can stimulate our bodies to produce chemicals that tell us to keep doing whatever it is that we are doing. Fun can make us feel accomplished, or achieved, especially if a goal is completed at the end. It can provide relief from stress—enough of it will make you forget about everything else except what you’re doing to create it. Generally, these feelings and emotions are considered positive, and so naturally a product that is designed and purposed to do nothing but supply this feeling seems to lack a downside.
Fun is Vague. Kind of like this Essay
However, let’s appreciate the complexity that is human emotion, the manner in which it is elicited and how quickly fun bleeds into other things. When a child beats another level in Super Mario Brothers, the feeling of accomplishment provided by the fanfare and the game’s visual celebration of the player’s actions creates a sense of value within the player. When an adolescent plays out their sexual fantasies in any of the Sims games, the player feels a rush of satisfaction from the digital fulfillment of what their body’s hormones are constantly urging them to accomplish. When a horror-enthusiast feels the thrill of being tormented by dozens of ghosts in Fatal Frame, their excitement and adrenaline fuels them to proceed further into the horrors of the Mansion. All of these people may describe their actions as “fun,” but in few ways are they similar.
The First Purpose of a Game is to Experience a Feeling.
Thus, I subject that fun is a phantom; an illusion. Fun is a vague word used, perhaps, at one point to describe a precise place in the emotional dimension of human experience, but now exists as a word so diluted through use that it has lost any concrete meaning. In evidence of this, I will define fun as “a desired feeling gained from an input of some kind,” and since we are dealing with video games specifically, I will say “a desired feeling received from an outcome of a video game.” Fun has become, as so many things are, an unclear attribute of human existence. It is a lens through which we peer at the world around us. Video games are a part of our world; the fact that they are digital makes our conquest in them no less. This does not, however, mean that our understanding of such conquests necessarily carry the weight that the game’s implications are intended to convey to us—after all, the social media and cell phone markets are bulging with an endless supply of packaged fake accomplishments, cheated of any actual sustenance—but that is part of our responsibility as gamers, nay, as people to challenge the validity of the products we consume. Regardless, if fun is the primary purpose of a game, this means that with a game we input our time, effort, thoughts and so many other parts of ourselves in order to receive a feeling that in most cases is designed to make us feel good.
Games are like Drugs.
By this notion, games are simply a tool humans use to manipulate their emotions. This is not to say that a game cannot be educational—nor is this to say that a game cannot increase the player’s skill in one aspect or another—it is just that the majority of games are not designed with this as their primary function. At best, the only thing that a player can be left with aside from a feeling is maybe a message or an idea but even these messages and ideas are only meaningful or impactful to the player when accompanied by a strong emotional tie to something within the game. Otherwise, the player will just forget them and move on.
Don’t be disheartened though, since so much of what we as humans do is just an act of satisfying one emotion over another. A person who volunteers at social welfare organization satisfies their emotion of mercy and kindness. A successful businessman that does nothing but work his way to the top satisfies his feelings for power and accomplishment. A girl who reads books in a library satisfies her feelings of wonderment and curiosity. In so many ways, we are governed by our desires and our actions upon such desires. We can choose to ignore some feelings that we dislike and possibly through good habits create other feelings that we wish to have, but no person can nor should live a life in which they don’t ever act upon their feelings. To do so is considered heartless or soulless.
A Soap Box Call to Self-Esteem.
Gamers, this is our greatest defense against an outside world that may ridicule us for our passions. This is our greatest refuge when the world tells us our hobbies are a waste of time—when in our weakest moments, we may tell ourselves that our passions are a waste of time. Gaming is no less a legitimate method in which we explore our world, in which we learn, feel, love and live, than any other activity in the world. What matters is how we do it and what we do it with; how and what we play.
The Second Purpose of a Game is to Receive a Message.
Now, this rabbit-hole of thought that we have plunged into does have a purpose—the purpose being that we can now identify the primary function of a game: to create a feeling within the player. There are 2 other purposes for a game, but these fall under lesser categories. The first is to send a message to the player. This can be as simple as “Good always wins,” or can be as complex as “Good is a relative concept who’s meaning changes depending on the enactor of good and its witnesses, which is often overlooked because humans don’t like asking inconvenient questions if they believe that they have the moral high ground.” Both messages are A-OK to have in a game but both will lead the player to thinking along different lines. As a game designer, your game will always send a message—as players, we need to ask ourselves “Does the message matter to us,” and if not or if so “Are we okay with being exposed to it?”
The Third Purpose is to Grow.
The other secondary purpose of a game is growth. The growth itself can come in a couple different forms. The player can grow in skill. They can grow in knowledge. They can grow in the ability to problem solve, think out of the box, or even grow in friendship with other people if the game is multiplayer. Regardless, a game that does not allow the player to grow isn’t a game at all—it’s just like an average calculator. The average calculator has inputs and outputs just like a game, but you can’t make the calculator perform the function of 2+2 better than it already does—it will always return the result of 4. Thus, a game cannot exist without growth of some kind. The question we as players need to ask ourselves concerning the purpose of a game is “Is there growth at all, how are we growing, and is the growth desirable?”
Seeing Past the Looking Glass
Take a game as simple as Adventure Capitalist for example. Now, Lepcis and I despise any kind of “idle” or “clicker” game, but I must admit that for a while I spent the odd in-between minutes of many of my days tapping away on my phone, increasing my imaginary Adventure Capitalist funds in the most mathematically effective way possible. I enjoyed playing the game—I enjoyed the somewhat clever references and relatively witty popups for achievements—but eventually I got to a point where I forced myself to stop. I came to the conclusion that all I was doing was running through my same predetermined mathematical formulas for success, running through the same process of resetting from the beginning with a faster growth rate—I was perfectly trained by the game to be part of absolutely nothing more than a few equations that ran on their own and simply required a few button-presses to increase their rate.
The feeling of the game was “enablement” or “empowerment” or “success.” These feelings made me happy, and so I continued to play. The message however was just “get more.” This is not necessarily a taboo message when it comes to games (after all, every single point-based game out there has this at the core of its message) but it is not a deep or meaningful enough message to justify a large amount of value in a game on its own. Lastly, the growth that the game created in the player was the ability to recognize completely stabilized investment procedures and the most effective manner in which to increase one’s funds. While this may sound complicated, it really wasn’t. While it may sound like it contains real-world application, it does so only minorly. Once you’d figured out the basic never-changing return rates on any of the investments, the game was no longer about logic, but a game about pattern—the same pattern over and over and over again.
In the end, my conclusion was that if I were to continue to spend time playing Adventure Capitalist, I would be agreeing to hand the limited time I have on this earth over to set of math equations in exchange for not growth, not a good message, but simply to make myself feel good. Now, I don’t mean this as a political statement, but if I may draw the comparison, I believe that those who do little else in their life other than sit around and get high or inebriated essentially agree to the same thing—and I value their decision as little as I would have valued mine, should I have made the decision to continue playing. I did not.
Discrediting Myself to Gain Credibility
Now, this is not an attempt to take a moral high ground, nor is it an attempt to create a hierarchy whereupon I am telling anyone how they should live their life. Remember, our goal is to identify what a “good” or “perfect” game is in a universal, pure understanding. If you are a hedonist, what do you care if a game is actually good or perfect? By the logic that if it feels good then it is good, there would be nothing wrong with the continued play of Adventure Capitalist—the fact that it did not provide anything of value other than a feeling would be irrelevant. However, the subjective view of humanity does not create reality. It merely creates a human’s view and understanding of reality.
Now, as I am not God, I cannot prove to you that emotions, messages, and growth are universally valuable. I cannot write out an equation that would compel any critic to take my side. In truth, I am no different than the Hedonist, in that I witness the world around me in a subjective manner and create conclusions based around this subjectivity. However, in light that I cannot nor can anyone prove these things, I will boldly choose to make a statement claiming to define them, admitting that anyone with a different opinion has just as much right or reason (as long as reason had been used) to disagree with me and posit a differing viewpoint. The statement concludes as follows:
Finally, The Point.
“A good game creates a healthy emotion, gives a thought-provoking message, and promotes continued growth within the player.”
“A perfect game is identical to a good game, with the exception that there exists realistically no change that could improve the game in any way—only make it different, or add more to what is already there.”
A good or perfect game encapsulates many of the best aspects of human potential and creates a platform through which to truly live. It is our job as gamers to choose the healthiest and best products for ourselves to ingest; to settle for less is to devalue ourselves and the medium that we claim to love so much.