Everyone has their favorite games. They can give you a million reasons why they love their games, but rarely do I hear about what people actually expect from games in general. With so many genres and play styles out there, it’s difficult to figure out what makes an individual game “great” in the midst of so many constants and variables. So I’m going to attempt to explain what I personally look for in a game that will make me stop and say “yeah, that game was pretty freaking sweet.” This will be a list of three things that make a game great for me, but it will not be in an order of importance. I’m just going to consider what goes into a game and say what I look for with each individual piece, as well as how it should fit into the whole package. I won’t be talking about graphics, art style, sound design, etc., as those are just basic yet important accessories to any game, and each game is too different for me to talk about these features at length. With that said, let’s get started.
1- The gameplay must work to fit the tone and feel of the game
I don’t know how often I hear about how some games don’t have “excellent” gameplay. There are those who think the best games are those that handle smooth like butter, have a deep system of mechanics, and must be “fun”. Now, I love a game that can deliver on all of those, but it’s gotten to the point where I started asking myself: does gameplay really need to be fluid, complex, and specifically for fun?
I then recalled my first experience with two games: Silent Hill and Shadow of the Colossus. Neither of these games handle in a particularly good way. Silent Hill has you playing a writer who gets tired easily and can’t shoot straight, and must fight through a town filled with nightmarish creatures in order to find and save his daughter. Shadow of the Colossus has you playing a kid who is clumsy and a poor swordsman, and is tasked with taking down gigantic beasts by climbing on their bodies and killing them with an ancient sword. And yet, somehow, these games still managed to engage me through their mechanics, because they did serve their purpose for the game they were in. Both characters aren’t the most powerful, and yet their triumphs felt even more like such because of their limitations, both in character and in the gameplay.
Many other great games do the same thing, but these two were the most obvious examples I could think of. Sure, the games that control like heaven are incredible to play every now and again, but for me, a truly great game is one which takes its mechanics and uses them to enhance the environments, characters, and world in which you’re playing in. Speaking of which…
2- The world must be engaging to play in
In the aforementioned games, their worlds play a big role in how I view them today. Silent Hill’s bleak, abandoned, and depressing town; and Shadow of the Colossus’s peaceful, quiet ruins made me feel as though I wasn’t just playing a game, but I was the narrator of each scenario. However, there are some games that go one step further in atmosphere.
For example, BioShock has Rapture, a dystopian paradise squandered greed, vanity, and ego. What was once a paradise for the unrestrained became a shambled war zone for crazed mutants and stubborn fools. The broken and eerie lighting from the ocean, the psychotic ramblings of splicers in the distance, and the creepy little sisters roaming with their hulking guardians sucked me in from the get-go, and did not let go until I decided to stop the game for that one session, and even then, I couldn’t get the place out of my head.
The Last of Us is another example of a game with a thick and engaging atmosphere. Staring at the crumbling buildings succumbing to nature while you travel through a familiar world ruined by a raging infection that’s slowly wiping humanity out, coupled with encounters with humanity at its most desperate and depraved makes for an flat out terrifying look at what the apocalypse holds for us, and you have to endure it for the entire journey the game takes you on. Never have I felt so excited to be a part of the apocalypse, only to be physically and emotionally exhausted by the true nature of humanity’s most primal instincts.
Its games like BioShock and The Last of Us that engage not only through their narratives, but also the environments by which you travel through. To have a world is simply not enough anymore for me. There has to be a reason for it to be the way it is, and there must be narrative reasons for them to be there. With that said…
3- The story must be well-written and must work in tandem with the gameplay
That statement may seem odd, given my mention of The Last of Us, a game that tells a story in part with cutscenes. Now, I’m not opposed to cutscenes and scripted sequences as long as they do not show things that go against the game’s rules. The Last of Us follows that philosophy well, but this is more than just about cutscenes. When I mention a video game story, I look for one thing, and one thing only: do my actions mean something in any part of the game’s narrative? With The Last of Us, my actions dictate how much development Joel and Ellie go through with optional dialogue moments that you can choose to partake in, as well as how I flesh them out in their combat styles. Is Joel a risk-taker, taking aim and aggressively taking enemies out regardless of the odds, or is he the cautious type, taking foes down one by one with a chokehold or a lethal hostage negotiation? These are things that only the gameplay can tell you. Storytelling is just as much about the actions characters take as it is world-building, lore, and dialogue.
And I go to yet another set of games that showcase the awesome power of gaming’s narrative capabilities: Metroid Prime and Mass Effect. Yes, Metroid Prime has a story, and it’s told through everything the game gives you. You play as a skilled and dangerous bounty hunter searching for a dark power that’s killing a planet. You discover narrative bits while you scan environments and read logs, all while you maintain full control of your character as the environment and enemies tell you of what’s been tainting this once peaceful and secluded planet. And you even control how strong Samus gets while obtaining upgrades as the story goes on.
With Mass Effect, the narrative can go many different ways depending on actions you take within an important element in the game: dialogue sequences. While the gameplay serves to show how you and your squad are especially skilled for defending the galaxy, it’s through the many interactions with the galaxy’s many aliens that truly show how much the story can change with a single sentence. Show compassion and mercy to an enemy, and they may reconsider hunting you down in next game. However, be the ruthless badass, and you will suffer the consequences if you think it’s worth the trouble. These come in many shapes and forms, and seeing the story change so dramatically with different choices shows just why video game storytelling is powerful: it gives the player choice in how they form the story.
I know I’ve gone on long enough, but those are the three main things I look for in a great game. I love seeing a game that wants to tell a story, but allows the player to build the story themselves and dictate how it turns out. This can be either by changing the written plot altogether or by showing a different side of the action, or maybe bypassing the action altogether to make your character a bit more complex than a madman hunting and killing everyone in sight. And with gameplay, this can be achieved well, but only if the developers see that the game doesn’t have to adhere to the rule of fun, but adhere to what the story and world are like. I know this is all my opinion, but this is how I see things. There will be games for those who disagree with me, and you have every right to disagree. However, I will always seek out the games which do the things I’ve mentioned and I will enjoy them if they’re done well. Thanks for reading, and I hope I gave you some insight into my gaming choices.
P.S. - all games mentioned are what I consider to be great. Obviously, the opinions I express about each game are simply that: an opinion. If you disagree, that's fine, but please try to keep any and all debate about their quality as civil as possible.