Little Blog Adventure

A gaming "sketchblog"

Friday, January 20, 2006

What makes a "good" game?

Now for the big whopper of a question. What makes a "good" game? That is a question worthy of a 10-page essay. A thesis, even. But I'm gonna try and keep it short, or as short as my rambly writing style will allow. To answer this question, I'm going to look at games from another angle. Not as systems, but as cultural artifacts. Games, like other forms of entertainment, are products of the societies that have created them. A word that comes up pretty often when discussing the merits of games is "fun." Many argue that a good game is one that is fun. Well, there lies a problem. Fun is subjective. What is fun to me may not be fun to you. What was fun for 19th Century Victorian British folk may not be fun to any of us at all. And so, I would argue that the value of a game can only be argued within the context of the culture that it was created in or that it is played in. And so the value of a game, the measure of it's goodness or badness, can be considered to be a measurement of it's cultural value.

Consider the Medieval sport of jousting. It wasn't just an idle way to pass time. Jousting was a simulation of a battle- it's value could be said to have been as a training tool just as much as a spectator sport (which it also was). Like modern sports, there was glory and fortune to be made for those who took part in it. Jousting was considered a noble sport and there is even an account of a battle during the Hundred Years War that was put on hold in order that a joust could be held!

Within the context of Medieval times, what made jousting so appealing? As mentioned before, honor and glory (cultural value) and it's value as a training tool (the value of simulation) were factors. But the fact that there are still jousting tournaments held today shows another appeal of the sport- that is, competition. Any game that has a competitive element that allows players to show off their talent, skill and mastery of the game invariably becomes popular.

Effectiveness as a competitive tool is, perhaps, is one way to judge a game out of it's cultural context. That certainly goes far to explain the continuing popularity of such games as Chess and Go. The value of such competitive games as simulations must not be understated either. Both Chess and Go can be considered simulations of war. Joust was a simulation of a one-on-one battle. Many, if not all, competitive sports can be considered analogies of war. War is not the only thing that games simulate, but it is a predominant theme- even in videogames (a cursory look at store shelves will reveal a surplus of World War II-themed games).

While competitive and simulative value may suffice as meters for judging the value of non-electronic games, videogames defy such an easy judgement. For videogames (along with the related and also comparatively-recent class of game known as Role-Playing Games) can also be narratives and thus, must be judged in terms of their effectiveness as narratives. Here we reach shaky ground. There is a tendancy to judge videogames in terms of familiar, non-interactive narrative forms: novels, movies, televised dramas. But it is dangerous to try and compare a videogame, an interactive form of narrative, to a movie or a novel, both non-interactive forms of narrative. As videogames are a new medium, there isn't a set terminology or even a well-established method of criticism of games as a medium of narrative expression. Lacking these things, perhaps the best available way to judge the narrative effectiveness of a game is to consider how well it engages a player.

This of course, is a subjective thing, dependant on the personality of the player. But there are elements that serve to increase the likeliness that a player will be engaged in a game. Of great importance is a well-written, well paced story that supports and is supported by the gameplay of the videogame. Now, a well-written videogame story need not be one that can be transplanted to another genre and be as effective there. That's one of the reasons why nobody has been able to make a good film adaptation of a videogame. Half-Life 2 is one of the most acclaimed games of recent years. It's story captivates players and motivates them to play through the game from beginning to end without stopping (I took only 2 breaks during my first playthrough of the game- both for meals). If made into a novel, it would hardly be Booker Prize material. Being a massive book snob myself, I wouldn't even look at it (just as I assiduously avoid Halo novels). But that hardly matters. What does matter is that the narrative supports and drives the gameplay of the game. One could say the gameplay and narrative of the game are fundamentally inextricable (a statement would no doubt cause hardcore Ludologists and Narratologists everywhere to have spasms :P).

OK, I'd better try and summarize my argument as to what makes a good videogame now. So... A videogame can have three purposes. Either competitive (like Counter-Strike), simulative (Falcon 4.0, Gran Turismo) or narrative (like Half-Life 2). Of course, games can combine two of those or even all three, but ah, I'm just going to close one eye and ignore those games before this post collapses under it's own weight. A competitive game can be judged by it's effectiveness as a competition. A simulative game is judged by it's effectiveness as a simulation- how close is it to a real experience and how well does it translate that experience into gameplay?

A narrative game is judged by it's effectiveness as an interactive narrative. The factors that creates effective competition and simulation are somewhat intuitive and well-documented. The factors that create an effective interactive narrative are less intuitive and not so well-documented. I feel that it is our duty as 'gamers' to document this changing medium and come up with a body of knowledge regarding. I, for one, am going to have great fun doing so. ;-)


At 8:35 PM, Blogger Swift said...

That's an interesting way of looking at things. You mentioned that video games with interactive storylines can't really be compared to movies and books because of it being a new medium. What about game books then, like Choose your own Adventure, and Lone Wolf: Kai Lord series? Can they be compared to other books?

At 10:00 PM, Blogger alex said...

This is tricky... I often find that academics, even those studying games, look down on games as somehow lesser than literature and film, but this is often because they're trying to compare them on the same terms. But this isn't really appropriate... like hazylium said, Halflife 2 would be a lousy book (or movie for that matter), but its very successful as a game. We just need to figure out exactly how it is we determine that its a great game...

At 7:47 AM, Blogger hazylium said...

Hi Swift- game books are a special case, methinks, cos they're closer to books than to games. They're not very interesting as games- their main function is to make a conventional narrative seem more immersive and interactive.

Hi Alex! Thanks for your comment. It is rather sad that academics look down on games- but I imagine many academics looked down on movies when they were in their nascent stage. But the fact that there are people seriously studying games even now is rather encouraging! :-)

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