What makes a great game?

Games have now become a major part of the entertainment industry. Nasdaq advisors themselves recommended investing on it, since it pulled in more revenue than music and movies — and that was back in 2016! Now, just like its counterparts, video games have an official award, broadcasted live and everything. The Game Awards intend to recognize the outstanding achievements of the industry. This year’s are to be presented on next Thursday. And since it’s video games we’re talking about, and interaction plays a great role in them, you can even vote for your favorites and influence the judges, something that wouldn’t happen in the Academy Awards or the Grammys, just to name a few.

But having an award, especially one that includes a luxurious ceremony, with announcements, previews and featured attractions, also brings the question: what are we celebrating? Is the “Game of the Year” the one that sells the most? The one that gets the best critiques? The best story? The most fun to play?

The answer seems to point to what happens when the gameplay interlocks with the story in a way that results in the very essence of the game.

A lot of pixels (and ok, some ink) went on trying to understand what makes a great game so great and most of them agree that story, gameplay, controls, music and sound, as well as the visual concept are some of the key elements if one intends to be among the contenders for Game of The Year. But how to achieve that, from an authorial point of view? How do you make those key elements great enough to please everyone?

Space Invaders, launched in 1978, is the most profitable video game in history, with impressive $13.9 billion dollars earned

The answer seems to point to what happens when the gameplay interlocks with the story in a way that results in the very essence of the game. And, at least for the majority of The Game Awards winners and nominees on the last years, it functions as an almost infallible criteria. And what’s curious: one that game studies have been concerned about for years now.

It all comes down to the debate that opposes, if not try to couple, the concepts of ludology and narratology.

It all comes down to the debate that opposes, if not try to couple, the concepts of ludology and narratology.

Ludologists believe games should be perceived, critiqued, enjoyed and valued based on the system they create. That is, a system of rules, punishments, challenges and rewards which results in the experience of playing itself. The terrain of ludology is something close to what Huizinga, the author of Homo Ludens — and, if you’re interested in games and haven’t read it, waste no more time — calls the Magical Circle. Therefore, games like Katamari Damacy, Bubble Bobble and, above all, Tetris — which, with Tetris Effect, is one of the nominees for best VR Game this year — are good examples of what pure ludologists, if there is such a thing, would call a “great game”. They offer fun, attractive experiences with less narrative as possible. Although their systems are easy to get, they are also hard to evolve, making challenges bigger along the way and playing a gratifying and challenging experience.

The problem here is that, although categorizing the world in opposites can make it easier to understand, it’s also a technique that often fails in apprehending the real complexity of things, which, just as games nowadays, have much more than two dimensions.

Tetris Effect: the lysergic experience that combines Tertis and virtual reality is nominated as Best VR Game of The Year.

Narratologists, on the other hand (or the same, one might argue), believe games to be a form of narrative, just like novels, movies or comics. Therefore, they should be perceived, critiqued, enjoyed and valued as such. Games like The Last of Us, Adventure, The Curse of the Monkey Island and God of War — nominated for Best Narrative this year — are good examples of what pure narratologists, again, if that’s even a thing, would evaluate as great games. They offer compelling stories, normally based on the development of a captivating character (even if he’s just a pixel) and making empathy a tool for immersion.

The Last of Us: fear, loneliness, sadness, happiness and anger are delivered to the player through a very well crafted script

The problem here is that, although categorizing the world in opposites can make it easier to understand, it’s also a technique that often fails in apprehending the real complexity of things, which, just as games nowadays, have much more than two dimensions. When, back in 1997, Janet Murray presented her “Hamlet on the Holodeck”, concepts that would fit on “ludology” — such as that of “agency”, a fundamental one for game designers, UX and, why not, players — were already mixed with those that would fall under narratology. The very subtitle of the book reads “future of narrative in cyberspace”, apart from the explicit Shakespeare reference. Nevertheless, as it analyzes games such as Myst and describes what is really great on them, as well as how they contribute to evolve narrative into the cyberspace, it also starts to envision a landscape in which those concepts are not opposed, but, to say the least, coupled.

When ludology and narratology collaborate between them, as players can do in most major games nowadays, they bring to life a new medium, with experiences only affordable to those who play video games.

Myst: a world out of a book

Now that online gaming has become a commonplace, open-world games are a commodity and realistic graphics are achievable in a regular basis, more than coupling those concepts, great games are interlocking them, making them dependent of one another and, therefore, achieving what video games were destined to be from their start: a new medium. One that not only serves to tell a story in an audiovisual medium (as movies have already been doing for more than a century) nor amusing players around a system of rules (as board games and sports have been doing for, literally, ages). Video games have now the unique power of telling a story through a system of rules, a “magic circle”. And, at the same time, making that system better and expansible because it’s part of a story that justifies it. When ludology and narratology collaborate between them, as players can do in most major games nowadays, they bring to life a new medium, with experiences only affordable to those who play video games. Book readers, moviegoers, athletes, chess players… none of them would be able to enjoy what a gamer can unless they become one themselves. And that’s what makes a great video game: the unique experience it can provide.

This is something independent games have been exploring for some time now. The experiences provided by games like Gone Home, Journey, Abzû and What Remains of Edith Finch (nominated for two categories on last year’s The Game Awards), to cite a few, are fully apprehensible only through video game. You can try to tell someone the story and the impact disappears almost completely. Something similar happens to those lazy players who simply watch gameplays on YouTube — and end up frustrated. This year’s contenders for best indie games are all awesome, two of them highlighted, one by its Art Direction (Return of the Obra Dinn), the other by its powerful message, which also granted it a nomination for Game of the year (Celeste). But apart from the indie cluster and back to the mainstream, last year’s nominees for Game of The Year had two contenders which took this concept to utterly polished extremes: Persona 5 and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

What Remains of Edith Finch: magical realism made into an experience.

Persona 5 used the traditional RPG system (turn-based combat and leveling and equipment hierarchy) to tell their complex, emotional and profound tale, political engagement included. This means that every choice made in the “narratology” dimension of the game had it’s counterpart in the “ludology” part. Talking to a friend and helping him in the real world might grant you bigger powers to fight. As well as leveling up in combat might unlock the courage needed to ask a girl out and, through that, achieving even more powers. The narrative alone would be “just” an anime. The system alone is an RPG that could be played without the need of a console. But, by interlocking the concepts, the game provides the player an experience of immersion in which every choice is important.

Persona 5: your choices make your destiny

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild goes in another direction but achieves equally memorable deeds. The game uses its own design to tell the story, using every corner, nook, rock, lake or tree of its massive open world to conceive its tale. This means that the more the player explores the game, the more they find out about the story and their place in it. No exploration goes unrewarded, from lifting rocks to fording streams, there is always a small — or big! — bonus, an item, a weapon or a secret to be discovered. And since there is no leveling up, — equipment and your skills as a player are the only difference your character will have between the first and last scenes — it means that exploring is the thing between you and going forward in the game. A story told through space: something that resonates “Hamlet on the Holodeck” and, not by chance, was last year’s big winner.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — When gamedesign becomes a language

This logic applies even to games in which narrative doesn’t seem to play a big role, like eSports. Take Overwatch for an instance: the game is basically made of independent matches that don’t depend on a story to roll. It consists on players putting the game intricate mechanics, and unique characters (almost 30) to proof in battles for different objectives. At first, there would be no need for narrative. But what we see is a community of players eager for new content about the game and its characters. And they are not let down: movie shorts with “Pixar quality”, comic books available online, new characters and special events add layers of meaning to what could be a simple “plug and play” first person shooter and the result shows: Overwatch is one of the fastest growing game communities because all those complex mechanics and battle systems are interlocked with an ever growing universe with its own timeline, tales and logics. A real example of convergence culture, in a way that would make Henry Jenkins proud. And something that also got Overwatch nominated in several categories this year.

Overwatch: convergence culture at its best

Looking at this year’s nominations is also a good example: apart from God of War and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which still function a lot like interactive movies with scripted mechanics, all the other four contenders stand out as games which fully explore its medium, making gameplay work for their narrative, as well as presenting a narrative that enhances their gameplay. Hopes are that the award goes to the game that goes the furthest on that direction, bringing true contribution to the industry and the art, as well as giving its players an experience they could only achieve by doing what they love the most: playing video games.

Dimas T. de Lorena Filho

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A clipboard for thoughts. Fiction is as real as reality has fictions. Reflections on everything I like, from politics, to games, to art.

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