What Do I Look For In A Video Game?

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?


  • I automatically deduct one mark if a PC game features unskippable company logos. Then I promptly replace said logos with blanked .bik or .avi files. Seriously, pet hate times one hundred.

    Interesting to see Deus Ex is still at the top of your best-of list, are you getting pumped for D3us 3x?

  • Totally agree with your top 10. Deus ex for me was one of those games where I really enjoyed pushing the game and even trying to break it. For example I gained great pleasure in continuing to run away from Walton Simons. Another moment where I found this game was different is whe Paul told me to run and leave him. Up until that moment in gaming if you did not do as the game asked it was over. I was pleasently suprised when if I stayed to help he could survive.

    From your top 10 list David I believe something else you should have placed in your dislikes is multiplayer gaming. Which to a certain extent I would also endorse as there is many a dickhead out in the world to ruin your experience. However saying that I can not go past putting the Battlefield games in a top ten list. They just provided so many moments of unplanned craziness and also a great sense of satisfaction when you had a squad working together to achieve objectives.

  • I think my top 10 list would almost be exactly the same.
    Although i would change Braid (as I havn’t played it yet) and trade it for Professor Laytons Curious Village, It was an excellent and very fun explorative puzzle adventure

  • Nice list – I’d be tempted to add replayability in there for mine too; no matter how great a game is on the first play through, I almost feel shafted if there’s little reason to pop it back in the console once I’m done with it.

    I guess that kinda relates to the exploration/expression sections, where doing things differently or afterwards going “oooh… I could’ve done that better by doing xyz”, giving you reason to come back and have another attempt.

  • I agree with your points David, except for cut scenes. I enjoy them. Which is one of the reasons i like MGS so much. I find they help tell the story and I’m fine just watching them do the crazy things. Though I do understand your point. And I also particularly agree with Single Solutions, I find it quite annoying wandering around for ages because I have to go do this then that.

    Another thing I’d really like to see in games is the story. It needs an engaging story for me that sucks me in. Then again, I need this for movies and books. But as Luke also said, dialogue is pretty important as well. I agree with his point on uncharted 2. But yeah. Games are meant to be telling stories in a fun and engaging way…..right?

    • im kinda against the MGS cutscenes the one in 4 were overly drawn out and explained the same things a couple of times just in case you didnt get it before

      that said some of the MGS cutscenes allowed interactivity so it wasnt a Major loss

        • I enjoy cutscenes too. To me, being able to watch cutscenes is the reward for doing something… ie. beat a boss, finish a level, etc. But of course the important part is, it helps to narrate the story and tell you what’s going on.

          I kind of hate one of those ‘make-your-own-adventure’ kind of games, which you choose which dialog to say, who lives, etc. For me, a game is something like a movie, where the director has something to deliver, and you follow it, hence I like MGS, Uncharted, GoW, etc.

  • I need a game that that actually gives me some incentive to come back and play it, one that doesn’t end when the credits roll. That’s probably why I regard Diablo 2 as one of my favourite games ever, I can just start that game again and try a new character, a new skill set, go for new gear. The complete opposite of this is probably God of war 3, while it is good I didn’t love it as much as everyone else, it’s got nothing to it. No hidden areas, weapons or bosses, one you finish it once you have experienced everything the game has to offer.

    My biggest pet peeve with a game is when a developer tries to do too much and comes up short on all fronts. Don’t you just get the feeling that sometimes a game wants to have something for everyone in it? Regardless if how badly it’s executed. Sonic Unleashed (that I have thanks to kotaku w00t) is a perfect example, they include these horrible worlds to move around in, horrible combat elements and screen smashingly frustrating quick time events (one that lasts a entire level and a boss fight) If they had just focused on making the speed levels better then I would have loved the game.

  • Couldn’t agree more on the point about seeing something not done before. I think that is why i think i was one of the few people that seems to enjoy more niche games like Mirror’s Edge or World in Conflict because they are both considered very different from mainstream games and have really no other one game to compare it to. World in Conflict was so reliant on teamwork and co-operation between players, that entire teams needed mics and needed to use them effectively otherwise it was an almost instant loss. Mirror’s Edge while not the longest or most engaging game i have played, i did enjoy it because it did offer something different instead of more of the same from DICE and i would be interested to see if those rumours of a sequel were true.

  • good to see someone doesnt like handholding it absolutly annoys the hell out of me

    exploration is a double sided coin tho there can be good examples of exploration and the kind where the developer werent sure what the draw of there game was and add a massive world for no reason

  • Story is a major draw card for me, possibly because I grew up devouring every piece of fiction I could lay my hands on, and my favourite games were the luas arts adventures like Monkey Island, The Dig and Full Throttle. Thank you Mark Shaefer.
    I agree with your single solutions complaint, especially where it draws an invisible trip wire which spawns enemies and takes you out of the game.
    However, I don’t like having so many options that the game doesn’t challenge you to come up with new tactics.
    In Deus Ex, the stealth approach was complicated by open areas and MIBs, direct assault was complicated by bots and turrets, the entire game made choice a nessesity rather than a luxury.

    • The choice as a nessesity was one of Deus Ex’s strong points.
      While I enjoyed Far Cry 2, I found the open world too big for the content. Fires were too small, enemies all behaved the same, vehicles were too similar and didn’t give you a reason for multiple tactics. Once you found one that worked, it always did.

  • If I had to choose from the latter half of the decade and think about what elements of a game I like I would think of:

    Immersion – Like movies I like the lights down, no outside interference and for the game to take you in for however long you play it. To this end I find myself loving a lot of FPS. I remember waking up early in the morning when the house was dead quiet so I could play in peace.

    Visuals – I’m a visuals person so I do appreciate a good looking game.

    Intuitive design – I love good design that you don’t have to think about.

    Action – Undeniably a main factor of why I play games. Build up to action works (stealth games) works well as long as the action works.

    The games I would add are Team Fortress 2, Resident Evil 4 Wii edition, Counter-strike 1.6, Advance Wars series, Diablo 2, Pokemon.

  • Same reasons listed above is why Deus Ex is still at the top of my best games list. As for Deus Ex 3… fingers crossed but some stuff I’ve read like regenerating health and 3rd person cover mechnics makes me think they’re going down a Gears of War action path. I do hope I’m proven wrong.

    I would disagree on FarCry2. It was a good game but wouldn’t be in the same league as Deus Ex. The sheer number of enemies and repetitive mission structure hurt the overall experience for me. It was great presentation and raw gameplay – setting up your approach and executing your mission was extremly well done I thought. But overall it wasn’t enough for me. Doesn’t help when all enemies have 20/20 vision and can spot you a mile away. Though challenging it also becomes downright annoying. And then there are those magically spawning cars… 😛

  • “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. ”

    Oh god, that reminds me of one of my biggest hates- the “one man army” gameplay design. You alone are the only person capable of fighting the battle/war you’re in, and the AI allies just sit around never pushing forward, waiting for you to trigger an invisible switch in the world before they make their next scripted sequence. This alone has completely turned me off Call of Duty (even Modern Warfare was constantly full of it), Medal of Honor etc. STOP MAKING IT SO OBVIOUS I’M JUST PLAYING A GAME.

    • Ok you’ve totally fired me up and I want to give another example of terrible game design. Call of Duty: World at War, the second level. You storm the beaches, cool. Then you get to a Japanese building and you need to call in rockets to blow it up, cool, I get to blow it up! But then YOU, YOU ALONE, are ordered into the tunnels to clear it out. WHY IS THE GUY WITH THE ONLY RADIO BACK TO THE SHIP BEING SENT ALONE INTO A TUNNEL FILLED WITH DEATH?!?! It happens constantly. You’re told to be the guy with the flame thrower, the guy manning the turret, etc.

      Ok I know it’s an excuse to “have fun” trying all these different weapons, but really, am I the ONLY person in the Marines who has this training? Really? It’s supposed to be a semi-realistic war game, and there were thousands of marines on those beaches. There’s absolutely no logical reason for a single person to do all the things you’re told to do.

      Please come up with a better way of introducing gameplay elements, designers. Some of us actually enjoy an atmospheric gameplay design, and it hurts our enjoyment when you ignore the logic of what’s going on.

      • I lol’d. Though I agree completely. Sometimes the logic of the games really is quite stupid. But then again, same things happen for movies. So yeah.

  • For me, a game is like movie/book, where it has a single direction, story, has a start and an end. Of course saying that, I don’t mind few degrees of freedom like how you kill a person/boss, or whether you want to traverse through the level with guns blazing or as stealthy as possible.

    That’s why I prefer games like FF, MGS, GoW, GTA, Uncharted, etc.

    And this is why I try to avoid games like Fallout, WoW, etc. These games are not bad, it’s just that, when playing them I wouldn’t know what story to pursue because you are pretty much the director, whereas I like to be engrossed by the story that is chosen by directors.

    Whereas WoW, it just never ends… I hate games that constantly charges you for a game that never ends.

    As you’ve seen I’m a gamer who likes to be told a story, not trying to imagine myself in it. Of course time to times I imagine it would be cool if I were able to kill those big bosses or swoon some good looking girl, etc. But I’m not ‘dumb’ enough to think that I am a warrior within a game, and sooo in love with it, that I live in a game.

    • Yeah, WoW is beyond me. I played a 2 week trial and got bored after 1 week.

      I find the best stories are the ones when you’re just immersed in the experience of it. When I picked up Uncharted 2, I started at 2130, and next thing i new, it was 2345. When I finally got GOWIII, 1030 became 1330, without me realising. I really enjoy games that can do this – have a story so intrguing and gameplay so compelling, you just get lost in that world.

      As for multi-direction games, if it’s done well, I enjoy it. I’m playing through Heavy rain atm, and I’m really enjoying, because the great story, and the way it can change. But there have been a few games (can’t think of any off the top of my head) where the choices get any annoying and I just want to rip into it.


      • The thing with Heavy Rain is that, it is more like an adventure game than choose your adventure. I mean you can choose your adventure, and who lives and who dies, but fundamentally it is based on style that mimics point and click. Anyway, I agree, Heavy Rain is like one of those exception that I don’t mind playing.

        But yea, I agree with you, games that makes you lose track of time = great games. But of course this doesn’t qualify for those stupid grinding crap (ie. GTA IV AWP/Wanted Trophy/achievement)

  • What I Look For:
    – Open world
    – Freedom to do what I want (not forced to go through all the story and never stray from the one track)
    – Story
    – Local multiplayer

    What I hate:
    – Cutscenes that can’t be skipped (particularly if they are before a boss fight and you need to keep going through them every time you get killed)
    – Stealth in action games that just don’t need it.
    – Protect the bloody civilian/vehicle missions that are instant fails.
    – Time based levels that aren’t actually needed (ones that impose a time level for no other reason than to try and give some sense of excitement because the actual level would be dull as dishwater without it)

    My Top 10 games would be (in no particular order):
    Super Mario Bros 3, GTA Vice City, Saints Row 2, Assassins Creed 2, Mega Man 2, Resident Evil 2, Metroid Prime, Luigi’s Mansion, Resident Evil 4, Mario Kart

  • My “What I don’t like” would have as number 1:
    -endlessly respawning enemies in exactly the same position.

    This is the quickest way to take me out of the game world and into frustration-land.

    This is the reason I only lasted an hour into Far Cry 2 and Borderlands.

    • If you think Far Cry 2 is an example of “endlessly respawning enemies in exactly the same position” then you must hate almost every game in existence.

      Sure, the world is repopulated (when you cross a loading zone, much like every open world game), but it’s a far cry from the infinite respawns seen in the likes of Call of Duty.

    • If I had to complain about something in Far Cry 2 it would be the fact that once you’ve finished the first set of missions in the Northern area, it’s basically a repeat of the missions once you get down to the Southern area with the characters just wearing a different uniform. But then Far Cry isn’t the first game to pull that (Haze, I’m looking at you…)

      “it’s a far cry from the infinite respawns seen in the likes of Call of Duty.” Lol… nicely played.

  • Fallout, WOW and dare I say it Farcry 2 are just too easy to get lost and bored. Even in GTA all you do is stare at the minimap. Lack of structure means less impact story wise, who cares about (or can remember) the indiviual narrative elements of 20 quests/missions/tasks that come and go so frequently.

    From someone who like books and movies the open world game type is akin to a James Joyce book or a David Lynch movie. Too much freedom can be a bad thing.

    As for the call of duty criticism, its a war game, as a soldier in a war you follow strict orders. You cant just decide to become a sniper or fire your assault rifle when your being ordered to use a turret.

  • And another thing, cutscenes are vital to story developement, imagine the games in your top ten without cutscenes. Shadow of the Colossus would lose half its impact, Bioshock wouldnt be as immersive, Silent Hill 2’s ending cutscenes? You’d rather not have them?

    • Not that I like to be ‘that guy’, but Bioshock didn’t have cutscenes in the traditional sense. It took varying degrees of control away from you now and then so it’s no Half-Life, but then what is … can’t believe that wasn’t one of your favorites David.

      • I think the cutscenes in Bioshock2 are right on the money, they are mostly there right at the point when you need a breather anyway, like harvesting or rescuing a little sister, it comes right after an adrenaline charged battle, and it doesn’t kick in until you choose it, so it isn’t in the way at all, it is right when you actually feel like just watching for a little while.
        The only other thing I’d add is I hate repeated dialogue, I’d rather a character say nothing than repeat a line they just said.

    • I think cutscenes are annoying if they take you out of the moment or show you stuff that you could done (or want to do) yourself. God of War is guilty of this, and it’s one of the reasons I was unimpressed with God of War 3.

      Any time you notice a game feature or mechanic enough for it to annoy you, it means that it has failed. Like you mentioned, no one would want to remove the cutscenes from their favourite games because they were used in a way that enhanced the experience. Any tool that is used poorly or inappropriately or repetitively will only lessen your immersion and your enjoyment. Cutscenes, for whatever reason, are the most often abused tool.

      • cut scenes need to be well managed and handled; not too long, and not too many.

        However, there is nothing more frustrating than wanting to take a break from a cut scene, pressing start and skipping the whole thing altogether.


      • For those that didn’t spot it the first time around, Shadow of the Colossus cut scenes are interactive to an extent. You can pan the camera.
        That said, you can’t control what occurs on screen.

    • I just dont see how being able to still control your character during key plot points adds to the story. To be able to run around in the background when sniper wolf dies in MGS or something would instantly take away from the moment IMO.

  • Eeeeeeeeyuck… David, how could you pick Far Cry 2? =p Sure it was a good game, but one of the best?

    I could probably write an essay on what makes good games for me, and what makes bad ones… but I’ll say this much: one of the key/recurring elements to my favourite games are the ones which are dripping with atmosphere. They might have some technical flaws, but it’s the ambiance which makes them memorable *to me*, anyway… If I had to give some examples (keeping in mind these might not rank in my top ten of all time, haha) Bioshock, Doom 3, Chronicles of Ridick, Fable, The Suffering, The Darkness, Max Payne, Fallout 3… for starters…

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