What Constitutes a Good Game?


                When asked what makes a good game, most of us gamers would instantly spout of some of the following words: graphics, story, music, gameplay or perhaps an adequate challenge. These are generally good answers, but what happens when technology advances, rendering some of the technical aspects of games obsolete? Do they remain good games because their technical aspects were good for their time? Do they become bad games by new standards? Do their non-technical aspects such as their stories outweigh dated technical aspects? Or do they take the path of the Hall of Fame athlete, being something which deserves respect, but could not possibly hold up against modern counterparts? Well, this could be a subject of some debate, or we could take a different approach to judging games.


                Plato developed a theory of forms (some say Socrates, but Socrates never wrote anything down so I’m giving credit to Plato), now explaining the entire theory would take a large amount of time, all that needs to be explained for this discussion however, is the part of the theory that states that in the physical world, objects are imperfect copies of their perfect forms in the perfect world which can only be known through logical thought. For instance, there are lots of pine trees, but Aristotle would believe that they are all derived from the form of a perfect pine tree which exhibits only the qualities inherent to a good pine tree. Appearance is not so important to being a good copy as the function of an object. For example, a shovel that digs well is a good shovel, a shovel that digs poorly is a bad shovel, all other qualities are irrelevant. This means that if we can determine what the intended function of a game is, we could determine the quality of that game independent of changing factors such as graphics or new gameplay mechanics.


                What then is the intended function of a video game? What is a video game supposed to do (be)?  There are lots of possible answers to this question which could vary depending on the genre of the game in question, or what the developers wanted the game to be. A game in the God of War series should deliver non-stop action, a game in the Dead Space series should provide players with terrifying sequences, role playing games should feature good stories and deep character progression, sports games should be as realistic as possible.  The question however, was whether or not a game was good, not whether it was a good action game or sports game or whatever it might be, and there are common elements found in all games which we can accept as traits of good games.


                The key elements of all forms of media that are not intended to be purely informative (the key word there being purely) are that they help the observer(s) escape from reality, and provide an experience that causes the observer to feel something, anything, good or bad, this just as true for video games as it is for movies, music, TV, or books.  Entertainment is not actually a key element, because we can be taken out of the moment by a piece of media without actually being entertained. Have you ever noticed someone staring at a movie screen, TV screen, video game or book with their mouth slightly open and their eyes open for extended periods of time? That’s because they’re in a mild state of hypnosis, hypnotized by the media they’re observing which is taking their mind away from reality. This illustrates the quality of a form of media to provide a sense of escape for the observer. I play video games and read to escape the pain in my back, people read to forget about the stress of raising their kids, people watch TV after work to relax, people listen to music in the gym so they’ll forget how tired they are, human beings use something to escape everyday if only for a moment, so don’t go getting worried over the unnecessarily negative connotation that escapism has developed. If we accept that providing a sense of escape by capturing the imagination and senses of the gamer as a quality of a good game, then that is a timeless quality which applies to all genres, and let’s face it, aren’t the best games the ones that you can sit down and play for hours without realizing it? If you’re playing a game and thinking that it’s taking a while to play, you probably aren’t having a lot of fun, one could argue that many great RPG’s require gamers to level grind which is a long and boring process, but to this I say: Was the game capturing your imagination at that moment, or was your mind wandering because you were very aware of the monotony of what you were doing? Even if the second choice is your answer, the rest of the game could have captured your imagination, so that does not disqualify the game from being fundamentally good.


                The second question is: Did the game make you feel anything? When I say anything, I’m excluding being frustrated at spending time on a bad game, but other than that, I mean anything.  Sadness that a favorite character died? Fear of the unknown horror lurking in the dark? Accomplishment from finally beating the final boss? Pride that you took a second rate team and won the championship? It doesn’t matter what genre of video game you’re playing, a good game will make you feel something. It doesn’t need to be a positive feeling and it doesn’t need to be the feeling that you were looking for or the feeling that the developers intended, it just needs to be something. We’ve established two fundamental qualities which all games should have, but if we were to discuss the qualities that belong to each specific genre of video games, then this would turn into a book instead of a blog. So for the sake of brevity (who am I kidding, I don’t feel like writing all that and you probably wouldn’t want to read all of that) I’ll skip to my closing question.


                Of the list of games which are widely considered to be good, at least by fans of the genre to which the game belongs, how many possess the two qualities of providing escape and creating emotion? The Legend of Zelda games? Check. Assassin’s Creed series? Check. Total War series? Check. Mortal Kombat? Check. Now I could probably spend a few pages listing games that have these qualities,  but the point is that good games have these qualities, and if someone were to pick up any one of these games twenty years from now, there’s a good chance they would agree, because these are qualities that don’t change with time. What has the power to make us feel and the power to capture our imaginations can change and in fact is different for each person, so these qualities are still subject to some subjectivity, but they are much more objective than simply comparing graphics, music and mechanics, although those things can help a game achieve the two key qualities I’ve listed, because things that we label to be stunning and brilliant today might be laughable ten years from now, and some classic games might look bad against modern counterparts, but there are more than a few old games that could’ve been released today without any cosmetic updates that would be considered better than some of the all flash, but no substance games that get released today (I’m looking at you Dynasty Warriors Gundam). Of course, maybe I’m completely wrong and look like a snob for talking about Plato, but the point I’m trying to make is that from time to time, we need to reconsider what criteria constitutes a good game, because the surface stuff may put some extra polish on an excellent game, but some games are just good, regardless of how much (or how little) polish they have.