What Do I Look For In A Video Game?

I’ve been writing about video games for eighteen years. I’ve been playing them for longer. There must be some common threads running through those games I like, and through those games I don’t like. Surely?

Luke did this yesterday. He wrote a list of the things he likes about games and the things he doesn’t like.

I figured I’d have a go as well. You might not agree with me on these points, but it’ll help you appreciate where I’m coming from when, for example, I failed to include Uncharted 2 in my best of 2009 list.

What I Like

Exploration – Give me a world in which I can lose myself. I like multiple paths. I like poking around in out of the way places. I like having to figure out which way I need to go to reach a particular destination or complete a certain objective. It’s a thrill to stumble across something that the designer hasn’t signposted; it feels like you got there by yourself and, perhaps, discovered something that few other players even realise exists.

Room for Interpretation – Don’t give me all the answers. I prefer single-player games like RPGs, shooters and action/adventures, so I enjoy a good story. But I want a story that avoids obvious clichés. Good narrative design should make you think and make you question what just happened. The best stories linger with you long after you’ve finished them, leaving you to mull over their themes and metaphors and ponder how they might resonate in your own life. For me, it’s important that it feels like the developer actually has something interesting to say.

Expressing Myself – Good game design prioritises player choice, enabling the player to determine his course of action at any particular moment. Let me choose how I tackle each obstacle thrown at my character or negotiate each situation I find myself in. I want a set of tools (guns or cars or verbs or abilities) that I can draw from to work out my own solution. At the end of that firefight, I want to feel like I survived because my strategy and skill paid off. I want to feel like I had a say in how those events transpired and, importantly, that I didn’t accomplish it in the same way as every other player.

Something I’ve Not Seen Before – This is broad, but hugely important. I always appreciate it when a game does something new. Whether it’s a technical achievement (“Wow, that lighting is amazing!”) or a gameplay feature (“What on earth is a portal gun?”) , it doesn’t matter. Games are about pushing the envelope, creatively and technologically. Games are virtual, imaginary worlds – they should show us things we’ve never seen before.

What I Don’t Like

Hand-Holding – Please don’t tell me what to do. Please. As I said, I’ve been a gamer for well over twenty years now, I’d like to think I’ve enough experience to work things out for myself. Sure, games should teach me how their systems work and let me know which button does what. But if there’s a puzzle to be solved, don’t tell me the solution before I’ve even started thinking about it. If there’s an area I’m meant to get out of, don’t point the camera directly at the exit. If there’s a strategy for defeating a boss, don’t explain it before I’ve even begun experimenting.

Single Solutions – Bad game design diminishes player choice, prescribing only one course of action. I’m thinking of those situations in games like Call of Duty where you’re told, for example, you have to man the anti-tank gun and, if you don’t do it, the game enters stasis and never progresses. Maybe you were quite happy on the frontline with an assault rifle or picking off dudes as a sniper, but no, nothing will happen until you go and grab that anti-tank gun.

Cut-Scenes – It’s a game. It’s meant to be interactive. I’m meant to be playing it. So let me! The worst is when your character does something in a cut-scene – a particularly acrobatic maneouvre, for example – that they cannot do whilst you’re playing. Or when something really exciting is about to happen – delivering the final blow on the enemy or running away from that exploding base – and the cut-scene kicks in to deny you the opportunity of particpating in the climactic moment. Cut-scenes can be useful, especially as a narrative device to convey information about events where the player-character isn’t present, but for the most part they’re antithetical to the medium.

Luke also took a look at the highlights of his games collection to see if they matched up to this list. He could see plenty of the traits he liked in those games he holds dear.

A friend asked me recently to pick my ten favourite games of the last decade. I went with the following: Deus Ex, Silent Hill 2, GTA3, Metroid Prime, Shadow of the Colossus, Psychonauts, BioShock, Portal, Far Cry 2, and Braid.

Do you think my favourite games match up with what I do and don’t like about games?

And what about you, what do you look for in a video game?


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