If you’ve been playing video games for a long time, you’ve probably encountered a game that everyone around you will defend to the death that you thought was atrocious. Or maybe it’s the opposite – there’s a game that has been critically panned but that holds a special place for you despite the naysayers. Personally I have millions of these…before I started writing here I was putting out analyses that almost read like I was asking for hate mail from fans. I covered Knights of the Old Republic (One & Two) and Mass Effect (One & Two again, since Three pretty much speaks for itself), and while I didn’t really have enough of a reader base to say anything about gamers at large, at least among my friends who were kind enough to take a look at it my opinions were…contentious. Another good example that I’ll be referring to a lot here is Ocarina of Time. Now, I’m not nearly the first person to say I don’t care for it and I’m certainly not the most popular, but it’s still far from the accepted consensus. But something strange happens whenever I talk to people about this game; this isn’t always the case, but a quite a few times I’ve gotten into a strange logic loop with people that goes a bit like this;
Me: Why do you like OoT?
Ocarina Fan: Because it’s good.
Me: Okay, but what makes it good?
Ocarina Fan: The fact that I enjoy it – what else matters?
And here we encounter a sort of Euthyphro Dilemma of gaming, where we have to ask ourselves if games really are good just because we enjoy them. I mean, not to blow my Godwin load so early in the article, but there’s white supremacy and Neo-Nazi propaganda games out there and I’m sure someone out there enjoys them. Does that make them good?
No. No it does not.
Of course that’s on the very extreme end, but it’s the easiest way to prove the point that just because someone, somewhere enjoys something that doesn’t make it good. What about something like OoT where, when really pressed, most fans fall back to the soundtrack or the nebulous term “atmosphere” when forced to cite a particular element they enjoy? Does good music without good play to back it up make a good game? I also don’t buy the “If a ton of people enjoy it, it must be good” argument either. I realize that there’s the “crowd wisdom” phenomenon, but there’s also the phenomenon of fads which is a lot more relevant to the entertainment space we’re dealing with. It’s clear based on this that we need some other metric for what constitutes a “good” game, so what should that be?
Building a Framework for Critique
Well, there are lots of metrics you can use to determine “goodness”, but the key is really to use all of them together. As both a means of providing an example and a little peek behind the curtain, I’m going to walk you through my general process when determining whether or not I think a game is good. Hopefully it’ll help highlight what I mean when I say that just one way of looking at goodness isn’t really sufficient. So, the most obvious way to judge a game is by its mechanics. At the basest of levels this is just a question of whether it works – a buggy mess usually isn’t good (though there are edge cases that I’ll get to later). But beyond that, there’s the question of whether all the mechanics play well with each other. For instance, it was suggested to me the other day that Fallout 4 Survival should reintroduce weapon degradation. But, with the new system of extensive equipment mods, having to constantly repair equipment doesn’t really match. Having equipment you build up over time means that each piece of armor or weaponry represents an investment of time, materials, and money. This essentially replaces the time and material investment that used to go into repairing weapons but gives the player a feeling of progress rather than just maintaining a status quo. While it’s possible that some players might enjoy that, it doesn’t really match the tone set by the rest of the mechanics, especially the settlement building. You could make a case that the diseases and hunger/thirst/sleep status bring some of this feeling back, but I’d actually argue that these are the result of player demand more than they are any idea that they match well with existing mechanics. Without going on too much of a rant here, they basically exist because there was a large subset of players who wanted a different game than the one they bought, and Bethesda obliged them. The point is, while certain mechanics don’t always lead to certain play experiences, certain combinations of mechanics can detract from the overall feel of the game.
Next I’ll usually think about the narrative of the game, but it’s important to note that what we traditionally think of as “narrative” is in no way required for a game to be good. You only have to look as far as something like Devil May Cry or Guitar Hero to know that this is the case; these games are all about mechanical mastery, so the narrative basically just has to provide you a loose reason to be doing the things that you’re doing. “Blah blah blah, then demons happen and it’s up to Dante to stylishly defeat them all!” They’re the video game equivalent of Avengers movies.
I mean, this is basically the same thing as “Civil War”. From what I remember of “Civil War”.
You know going in that you’re really there for the action, and while a good story would be a nice surprise it doesn’t bum you out if it’s just window dressing (though I’d argue that this works better for an interactive medium than a passive one). But when looking at games that are narrative-heavy or even narrative-driven, there’s lots of angles to consider. Do the mechanics reinforce the story being told? What about the music? The visuals? Most importantly, do the mechanics service the narrative you’ve constructed? We’ve all encountered moments of ludonarrative dissonance (coined by Clint Hocking), or moments where elements of play and elements of narrative are diametrically opposed. Why can’t I revive Aerith? Why can’t I jump over this arbitrary chest-high barrier when I was a jumping fool in that last cutscene? The list goes on. While in mediums like film or novels the primary concern is whether a story is written well, in games we need to reframe the question; our concern should be whether the story is experienced well. The writing is a part of that, but I’d hazard a guess that for video games this is pretty low on the totem pole when it comes to how affecting the narrative is because it’s not the primary way we engage with them. Of course on top of this is the normal list of questions that gets leveled at narratives; Is it relatable? Are the characters consistent? Is it interesting? What values does it promote, if any? That last one might seem odd, but we do need to be cognizant of what our games say about our beliefs in the semi-rare occasion that they engage with them.
Apart from that, it’s mostly details like whether I thought the music was good and worked for what the game was trying to accomplish or whether the visuals were nice and fit the game. I intentionally left out something, and it seems so obvious that I wonder how many of you picked up that I didn’t mention it; fun. I know a lot of hardcore gamers don’t want to hear this, but our medium is expanding to include all kinds of interactive experiences, and some of those just so happen to be intentionally un-fun. Without getting into the whole debate about whether these types of experiences are “games”, you only have to look back at my article about That Dragon, Cancer to know that I think there’s value in games that try to be something other than fun. At the end of the day, it’s largely about whether a game accomplishes what it sets out to do when it comes to fun. If a game is trying to be a huge hit at parties but instead is a boring slog, then it does fail on the grounds that it’s not fun (though that’s a very top-level view of what’s going wrong that would be broken down in the evaluation process I described). But if you’re building a game that’s trying to imprint on people the horrors of war, it’s probably best that it isn’t fun. Or at least that it’s only fun until you start to hit people with the consequences of what they’ve been doing. Oh, how did this link to a review of Spec Ops: The Line get here?
Weird Edge Cases
I alluded to this in the mechanics section, but there are some games that are a little more complicated. Specifically, I was referring to incredibly glitchy games. For this there’s only one good example of a game that’s actually good rather than the B-movie “so bad it’s good”: Goat Simulator. I know, I know, media saturation and all that, but bear with me here. Part of Goat Simulator’s charm was that there were clearly glitches that were left in on purpose. It’s a game about how surreal games can be on a fundamental level, so it makes sense to leave in what would normally be considered experience-breaking bugs. But there’s another kind of edge case I want to bring up here because there are a ton of games that fall into this category: games that should not be games.
I know that sounds strange, but let’s get through the groundwork on this one before we hit any examples. In entertainment media, there are four giant players: books, film, music, and video games. Each one engages the audience in different ways. Books, being comprised of only written word, live or die on the strength of their writing (or visuals in the case of comics). Film has writing, visuals, and music to think about in terms of how they engage the viewer. If any one of those elements is deficient, it throws off the feeling of the whole movie or TV show. Lastly, video games incorporate all the elements of film but also the added dimension of interactive play. Now that we’ve gone over those basics, you might notice that it seems each successive art form kind of encapsulates the previous one. I listed them this way on purpose so that it might be easier to see that if you, say, have a movie with awful sound and awful visuals, you’re basically left with the makings of a great book. Granted, you aren’t guaranteed that the content would translate, but it seems like the better application of the skill set your team has (or doesn’t have in this case). Similarly, I think there are video games strong in a couple of elements that would make the material perfect for another medium but that are worse games because the play wasn’t refined.
Case in point? Bioshock. Oh, Bioshock.
You can choose between
good or bad Ayn Rand or Human Being With Empathy! It’s revolutionary!
Bioshock has several incredibly strong elements going for it: great sound design, amazingly evocative architectural and general visual design, and in all seriousness a pretty compelling narrative. You know what it doesn’t have going for it? Gameplay. It never has. Strip those other elements away, and you’re left with a very generic feeling shooter that tries to spice things up with the plasmids without a lot of success. To get a bit technical, both character movement and the combat feel like they have no weight to them and you’re only given the most bare-bones of weapon variety. I feel like this is because they wanted this to be a survival-horror game (which would match the aesthetics better anyway), but there’s too many big combat scenes and shootouts for this to be a realistic expectation of how it would be received. So on top of it not being very fun, it doesn’t even match the design goals of the rest of the game. This all makes it pretty clear to me that the mechanics were just a way to propel the player through this world more than they were meant to be engaging in their own right. The abundance of audio logs also suggests this, as they present this dilemma where you either try in vain to listen to them during a gunfight or wait until you’re in safety then break the entire flow of the game to stop and hear this worldbuilding dialogue.
But you know what Bioshock would have been perfect for? A movie. All the elements are there – great sound, great visual effects, and even opportunities for big roles if you could land the actors you wanted. And the central conflict of the game is one that despite being chosen for a 15-20 hour game could be reasonably explored in a 2-hour film. I think in these situations where we have a game whose interactive elements detract rather than enhance, we need to seriously consider whether video games were the right choice for that content or at least that team. We still need to recognize these games, but not as some monumental achievement in the industry; rather, we need to view them as lost opportunities to show what makes games specifically so great. All Bioshock and many, many other games show is that games can emulate other media at the cost of what makes them unique. And in a time where it’s common for people to complain about games that use too many cutscenes, I would think this is something that everyone can get behind.
But I Love That Game!
Where I’ve run into resistance on this idea before is that a lot of people feel like it invalidates their opinion of particular games. Going back to Ocarina of Time specifically, any time I or someone else points out that the narrative and gameplay are pretty lackluster for a game of its status there’s this chorus of comments that we’re just being contrary or that we get some pleasure out of tearing down things that people like. Or worse, that we’re hell bent on changing the preferences of everyone we talk to. I can’t speak for everyone else who dislikes popular games, but my goal at the very least isn’t to tell anyone that they’re not allowed to like a game. My interest is purely in guiding this industry in the right direction. In order to make games better in the future, we have to sit down and honestly look at elements that already exist to see what works and what doesn’t. And these things will certainly change over time. But because of that, it doesn’t help the art form to insist that older titles hold up today when they really don’t. We can appreciate how they made us feel or their place in the history of games, but that doesn’t mean they are still good.
And as an olive branch to those who think I’m trying to ruin your fun, I’ll make a public admission now; there’s a game franchise I’m deeply enamored with that is 100% not very good. There’s a little series of games out there called .hack. You may have heard of it.
And yes, I can hear you groaning all the way here from the past and also at my computer desk.
I’m not going to sugar coat it; these games (all 11 of them if you’re counting Guilty Dragon and the new “Project N.U.”) fail my critiquing rubric in one way or another. The first four were mechanically pretty dull even if those mechanics did serve the narrative. I enjoyed them when I first played these games, but they were actually a gateway RPG for me. Not having played the likes of Final Fantasy (or what would later become my favorite RPG mechanically, Star Ocean 3), this was super different from what I was used to. I’m a numbers nerd, so a game that allowed me to basically play with a spreadsheet and do a bit of min-maxing by trading with other players was the perfect bait. I will continue to evangelize for this series because I think the narrative and surrounding lore is FANTASTIC, but I’ll also readily admit that those elements alone don’t make a good game. And unlike Bioshock earlier, I don’t think these make good candidates for translation into other media. I mean, there are manga versions of these games, but the best use of the other media has always been supplementary. .hack is in the strange position of being a video game that is about video games from before this was a popular concept (See: Sword Art Online, Log Horizon, etc.). I think making it an interactive experience strengthens the narrative since it is fundamentally about that type of entertainment in a highly connected society.
The point is that I’m fine with admitting that these aren’t the best games and that my enjoyment of them is mostly for reasons apart from that. In the same way, I don’t think you can fault anyone for enjoying Ocarina of Time, Bioshock, or any other game that you don’t personally like or even that doesn’t qualify as a good game under the guidelines I provided. It’s not about judging people’s tastes but rather picking up on games that do something great with the medium we all share and enjoy. And really, I’m sure my standards for goodness as presented have their own flaws. I’m sure there’s some incredible game out there on the bleeding edge of the indie scene that would technically fail the test I’ve set up. But ultimately this is just my solution to a problem: the problem of how to create a reasonable understanding of what makes a game good without it being too subjective. Of course there will always be subjectivity involved – it’s the nature of art. But if we can get closer to something a little more concrete than “I like it because it’s good and it’s good because I like it”, I think we’ll be better off in the long run.