What makes a truly great video-game?

It was inevitable that I’d start writing about video-games on this little journal of mine eventually. They’re simply too big a part of my life to be pushed aside, forgotten or ignored but for a side comment in my About info. By writing this I’m more or less abandoning the idea of this being a purely travel site, no, I suppose I’m going to grow it into something a bit more personal. More general. And I’m glad of it! I think I’ll be posting here much more often from now on.

But to the topic at hand; what makes a truly great video game?

Now anyone who plays video-games is going to have a different opinion on the matter and almost all gamers will have their own private list of ‘best games of all time’ and a laundry list of reasons why. But my goal here isn’t to list my personal favorite games so much as to simply try and nail down what it is… what it is that really makes a game not simply good or even fun, but legendary in a way few games are. The instant classics and the games released years ago which continue to have a following to this day! The games which define what games do!

So what makes a game not simply good, but great? Ambition for one. Most of the ‘best’ games out there, the most polished and highly rated are in truth re-treads of an established idea. A limited scope that’s been polished to such perfection that the player can find little to no fault and whether the game is good or not becomes less a matter of real debate and more simple taste. You look at the highest rated games and you’ll find sequels and spiritual successors to other games, games which take an established concept and stick to it. Just look at the latest gaming trends! Right now the popular genre is shooters and as such there’s a steady stream of unambitious but excellent shooters on store shelves and in development as I type this. Lots and lots of em! Now to be clear there’s nothing wrong with the games that do this, they’re fantastic, but they’re just not ambitious in any adventurous sense. There’s no risk or drama in the games creation. Oh sure, there may be a neat new ‘innovative’ gameplay idea or one feature which stands out (Our game has destructible environments! Ours has fantastic visuals! Ours has an amazing sidekick character! Ours lets you toss fireballs out yer bum!) but that’s all.

No, the ambitious games are those which try something entirely new or those which wander down a rarely tread path. Those which take an established idea and throw em out the window in favor of something different, does not even need to be a change in gameplay but perhaps a plot or overall concept! This doesn’t always end well, in-fact more often than not these are complete failures (There’s a reason so many games follow the same beaten paths: It’s safe and rewarding!) but for those few that succeed, those very few that manage to accomplish even just a little of what they sought to achieve, the rewards can be great as they truly stand apart from the rest.

What else? Immersion. This can be a tricky subject as what’s immersive can be quite subjective depending on the person so let’s look at the basics for a moment. What is immersion? It’s that draw, the lure and intensity when something becomes more than simply a moving picture on a screen or a scrawl of words across a page. It’s that moment when you realize you’ve become so absorbed into a fiction that you’re leaning forward, muscles strained and brow dotted with sweat, because the real world, even for just a matter of seconds, faded entierly from your mind and for those few moments that fiction was your reality.  It’s something movie directors have learned to use and books strive to create. It’s also something which games above all other mediums have the potential to create, being interactive as they are… And those few, those noble few games that have really mastered the immersive factor are among the most memorable experiences you’ll ever have. Game or not!

Which brings me to another thing I’d say makes a game great, this time a feature specific to games and games alone. Interactivity. Again, a tricky thing to really nail down as games can be interactive in many different ways. But in this case I mean more in an in-game sense. Interactivity in the way that you genuinely ‘feel’ like you have an impact on this virtual setting regardless of whether you truly do or not. Why do I say interactivity is one of the major features? Because this is what sets video-games apart from any other creative entertainment medium out there. This is the video-games defining attribute! You cannot interact with the story in a book nor the actors in a movie. In a game, you can! And *any* great game needs to exploit this in some way. Whether it’s making a virtual world that reacts to your every whim or one which you can control and enjoy in some strange or quirky way, it’s an absolute must.

I will add this however; Many games today and in the past have not been truly interactive in any real way. Look at a typical shooter, what is interactive about it? You control what you shoot, but in order to advance you MUST shoot exactly what the game has given you. There’s no real impact with anything you do nor do you have any real choice. You shoot, something likely dies, you advance. Being able to ‘interact’ with the environment by knocking over objects or even shooting a hole in a wall is little more than a flourish, the equivalent of those cheesy 3D glasses in theaters. A purely cosmetic touch that ultimately changes little beyond perhaps the immediate conflict. There’s no genuine sense that you have an impact, that the world is responding. It’s digital LEGO!

By this point if you’re reading this and you’re familiar with games you might be thinking “But not every game can be role-playing game or the like if that’s what you’re asking!”, and I can understand that, but it isn’t what I’m asking. No. What I ask is the idea that we can have an impact. That we are given at least the illusion of choice, that we’re not simply walking down a pre-ordained path but instead stepping into a world of our choosing. Interacting with a pre-determined fiction rather than simply guided through it. You follow?

So that makes three things: Ambition, Immersion, and Interactivity. It may sound extremely general or vague, but given the parameters I’ve given, what games meet those three requirements? Really think about it, toss favoritism aside and think. I’ll admit right now that the game I’d easily call my all time favorite, well, it doesn’t really pass those. It meets ambition and interactivity, but lacks immersion. So my all time favorite is out. Games that do make those three requirements are surprisingly few in truth, and I’m hard-pressed to come up with more than a handful, which is exactly how it should be.

The reason I write this is because despite the childish themes for many games, the over-the-top violence and the downright stupidity that pervades many aspects of the gaming industry, games as a medium have more potential than any before to not only tell stories but to entertain and expand our horizons and knowledge. You laugh, sure. They’re just games! But think about it; The stereotype that many games are childish is true enough, but at the same time the potential as another story-telling medium is incredible. Not only can you enjoy a story, but you can now interact with it in a way none before have allowed, and that’s amazing! The possibilities are endless.

Which is not to demean those games out there which focus entirely on being fun or entertaining. That’s what the industry is founded on! I just believe that those few games which truly stand out and expand our definitions of what games can do should be appreciated for what they’ve done. I think it’s an absolute shame so many classic gaming experience are simply tossed aside, where under any other medium a project of that sort of ambition would be remembered and held high as deserved.

So to that end I made this article. I’m not going to list any games which I believe meet the requirements because the instant I do this becomes a topic not so much about promoting the genre as praising my own personal favorites. If someone asks I’d be happy to name a few in the comments, I’m not one to deny curiosity, but the article itself shall remain without. Nevertheless I thank you for reading my latest rant and the first in what will undoubtedly be the first in a long chain of video-game related babblings. Thank you!

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