Not All Games Are Created Equal

What makes a good game?

This is the ultimate question in game development. Everyone thinks they have the answer to this, otherwise they wouldn’t be making the games they make. There are objective things to look for like if the controls even work or if the game crashes or if you can adjust graphics quality on a PC or any number of functional, code-level stuff that makes a game “good.” What I’m after are the subjective things. Ya’know, the ones everyone gets upset about when you question them because people can’t come up with a reason other than “it’s art.” (Is my cynicism showing? Sorry.)

Forgive the terse sounding tone, but I believe if you can’t explain the reasons why the objective and subjective elements of anything makes that thing “good,” then you don’t really have an opinion and should either take the time to figure it out or stop pretending you do. I would expect nothing less of myself, which is why I’m now going to tell you what I think makes good games and why I think they make good games.

Obviously, lots of what I will be saying is up for debate. Here is the disclaimer saying that what I’m going to lay out for you is opinion, not fact, and will be different for every person. The point is that I can explain the way I think and let people know I’m not just shouting in the wind. I have reasons. So should you besides “you’re wrong!”

Choice makes good games.

There. One sentence. We’re done. You can move along now.

Oh. The explanation part. Okay, here goes…

When you read a book, what do you do? It’s not a trick question. Literally, what do you do? You start at the first page, you stop at the last page, and you’re done. It could have been the most amazing book ever, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about linearity. (Is that a word? It is now.) You’re being taken for a ride by the author. When you watch a movie, what do you do? Same thing. You’re being taken for a ride. It starts. It ends. If you go back to do it again, you get the same ride. It starts. It ends. The story unfolds the same way.

There is no interaction with a movie. The interaction with a book starts and stop with turning pages. Games encourage interaction! You play a character. Sometimes you play the hero! Sometimes you play a character who gets side-lined by the hero at the very end and the player gets upset because Martin Septim was the one that turned into an Avatar of Akatosh and kicked the butt of Lord Dagon and saved the world and the player didn’t. (I mean. What? No. I don’t… That wasn’t… I didn’t… Shut up.)

Games demand interaction. You have a set of controls and you control the character and you make things unfold. At least, that’s what they try to do. Lately, games dupe you into thinking you’re the one unfolding the story when you’re really just watching a series of predetermined events happen as you move around. Games are deceiving anymore. If you’re not turned loose in a multiplayer arena of death and carnage, you’re just watching a movie that progresses as you push the W key or push forward on the left stick. It might be a good story, don’t get me wrong. But it doesn’t make a good game. Lots of modern games would make a better movies.

There are two kinds of games.

1: There are sandbox games.

There are open-ended games with little to no story that turn you loose on the game world and you do whatever the heck you want. This is Minecraft. This is Grand Theft Auto. This is Elder Scrolls. This is Terraria. This is Fallout. I believe these are good games simply because they give you (mostly) unrestricted gameplay. Do whatever you want. Period. Infinite choice, to use pointless hyperbole.

I love these kinds of games, but they eventually wear out. Once the excitement of infinite potential wears off, you start to realize that there is actually a finite amount of things to do. Minecraft? I’ve dug to the bottom of the world. I’ve built to the top of the world. I’ve installed Tekkit and built Red Matter generators and nuclear power plants. I’ve started multiplayer wars that devastated the continent with Red Matter explosives. Then I got bored. In Starbound, I reached tier 10 and… Got bored. In Morrowind I created a compounded intelligence potion that allowed me to create any spell I wanted. Then I got bored.

Notice the trend? With an open world, I strive to achieve the pinnacle of whatever system is in the game. Then I get bored. It might be open-ended, but I still came up with a goal, reached it, and then got bored. Plus, it doesn’t help that there’s no story. Or little story. Or inconsequential story. Honestly, I don’t find the story of open-ended games to be very enthralling. Did I finish the story in Oblivion? I sure did. Did I care about the story in Oblivion? Absolutely not. It was an objective that needed finished so I could experience one part of the open-ended world. Even open-ended worlds start with goals. Once you finish the goals, the game might as well be over even if it’s open-ended.

Don’t get me wrong! I love open-ended games. I believe they’re the best games of all. They embody the reason you play games: Interaction! I love that I can choose to do whatever I want in order to achieve an objective. It doesn’t matter that the game doesn’t end. It matters that the game doesn’t limit your actions. Choice! Give me choices! If there’s nothing left to do in a game that doesn’t end, it’s still over.

2: There are story-driven games.

While I believe open-world/open-ended games are the best games of all, I don’t want to make those kinds of games. They are incredibly difficult to make. I have no interest in making them. What I want to make are the other kind of games: Story-driven games. I have stories I want to tell. I don’t want you give you a giant playground. Someone else can do that better than me and I have no problem saying that. (Maybe someday I will want to make one, but not today.)

Story-driven games. This is Mass Effect. This is The Walking Dead. This is Alan Wake. This is Singularity. This is Dragon Age: Origins. These are games with a beginning and an end. There is nothing sandbox about them, but I picked my list very carefully. These are what I consider to be the ultimate in story-driven games. Most of them offer you choices to come at problems from multiple direction. Alan Wake and Singularity do not, but I consider them good story-driven games because the stories are exceptionally good.

(As a quick aside, story-driven horror games can get away with being on rails. You may not have many story-related choices, but because you are the character in a world of horror, the limited interaction you do have is moving your character. When you poke around, you’re terrified and you care that you have to poke around. I will probably write up a whole post about interaction later to discuss how less control is sometimes better and when it can be better.)

The other three games (Mass Effect, The Walking Dead, and Dragon Age) are known for giving you more choices than you can handle to influence amazing stories. Mass Effect is, brace yourself, at the low end of the spectrum here. Yes, it’s a multi-part story that remembers choices from previous parts, but what choices do you really have when it comes down to it? You have the Paragon choice, the Renegade choice, and the neutral choice. Sometimes you have the say on who lives or dies and then that character is dropped from the story. It’s a good system, but it’s not great. It’s too binary. Good. Evil. Overly simplistic. Good, but simple. (Trust me, I like Mass Effect.)

Dragon Age: Origins is at the middle ground. You have a wider range of choices that feel like they have more of an impact on things because you are invested in your character because of the origin system. You create your character. That always automatically makes you invested in things. The story of Dragon Age, in and of itself, is not really something I cared about, but I argue that the game was about the characters, not the story. The choices you made impacted the characters. The story didn’t change. It worked for Dragon Age.

The Walking Dead, I think, is the perfect story-driven game. It is entirely about the characters. Period. The story is the characters. (This post is about what makes a good game, not a good story, so I will try not to go off track.) The choices you make have serious repercussions on the characters, and since the characters are the story, you directly influence the story. As I mentioned in my last post, there are certain fixed points that you can’t avoid, but in spite of those, you do influence the story. Because you are making choices that hugely impact everyone around you, which in turn impacts your character (who you did not create, and so did not start with any attachments), you are wholly invested in the game’s story.

There’s a common theme.

Did you notice it? The common theme? CHOICE. Sandbox games are built out of choice. The best story-driven games are the ones with so much choice that you can influence the story. They give you reasons to play multiple times with different results. Different results means a reason to play multiple times. It’s the same story, but you experience a different branch of it.

I don’t think I need to beat it into your head any more. Choice. Choice! CHOICE. Okay, so I beat it into your head some more. No matter what game you play, it is only good, in my opinion, if you have a choice in the matter. Now we can identify bad games. Bad games are games with little to no choice. You are along for the ride. If you play it again, you will be presented with the same series of events. It might be a game designed to rely entirely on gameplay such as with multiplayer games like Battlefield 3 or Team Fortress or League of Legends.

But have you ever finished the campaign for Battlefield 3 because it was fun? Or did you finish it because you wanted the unlocks? Me? I didn’t even finish the Battlefield 3 campaign. It was AWFUL. I had to do things the same way every time I failed. I just had to do the same thing faster. There was no room to think outside the box. Just follow the objectives. I believe such games are a waste of time. If you had a story to tell, you would be better off telling it in a movie.

So, what makes a good game? Repeat after me: Choice.

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