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What Makes a Good Video Game?

Updated: Dec 29, 2021


Splintered locomotive from Sunless Skies
It can be lonely, adrift in the sky

Unlike the board games and card games which I enjoy playing, I recently realized that the video games I tend to find enjoyable are almost exclusively single-player games. This made me wonder why I manage to get so much enjoyment out of solo video games if much of my enjoyment of a board game or card game is in playing it with other people. While I have already reviewed some of the most engaging and gorgeous video games I have played (or want to play) in another blog post, art style alone isn't what makes a video game (or a board game, for that matter) worth playing. In this blog post, I will search for commonalities among all of my favorite video games and attempt to figure out what makes them all so enjoyable.

 

Part 1: What is a Video Game?

Before I can explain my thinking regarding video games, I first have to explain a much older term: "computer game." In the past, a "computer game" was ostensibly any digital game playable on a digital computer. When the very first digital game was created, it was played on a very large computer that took up an entire room. However, as computers shrunk in both size and cost, many games became playable on "personal computers," including both desktop and laptop devices that ran Windows, Mac, or Linux operating systems. One thing that early computer games had in common, however, was that they were text-based adventures. There were no fancy graphics, flashy colors, or fantastic soundtracks. This was primarily because early computers had extremely limited computing power.

But in case you haven't noticed, computers are now everywhere. They are in our cars, our phones, and even our toothbrushes! As computers have become ubiquitous, the outdated term "computer game" has fallen out of fashion and the more popular term "video game" has taken its place. This is often appropriate, as newer games are a far cry from the text-based adventures they descend from. Game developers have taken the term "video game" literally, adopting many of the terms and techniques used by the feature-film industry. Games are now filled with high-definition visual renders, full-surround soundtracks, and special effects. Game engines are so good at generating real-time environments that they are now being used to help film movies, taking "video games" full circle. Yet I can't help but feel that we have lost something as we slog through a world dominated by mobile match-three games, online massively multiplayer role-playing games, console first-person console shooters, and virtual reality sword fighting. Perhaps in our collective infatuation with "video," we have lost some of what was necessary to make early computer games engaging.

 

Part 2: What Video Games Do I Enjoy?

In order to tease out what all of my favorite video games have in common, I will need to briefly describe them to you. Up first are two mobile games created by developer Mediocre.

Pinout is a sleek, streamlined, and straight-forward game of pinball. I particularly enjoy the retro-futuristic neon stylings and punchy soundtrack that sounds like it was pulled straight from the world of Tron: Legacy. The game has the right balance of difficulty and simplicity, rewarding players with satisfying sound effects and visual eye-candy without making it easy to complete levels. The thing that makes Pinout so different from other pinball games is that is it nearly endless. Each level blends seamlessly into another, and players must continually acquire time in order to advance. When time runs out, players must return to the beginning of the level in order to try again. By using time as currency, the game challenges players to beat their personal best. In a surprising move that sets Pinout apart from most other mobile games, there are no ads or microtransactions (unless you count the one-time upgrade cost of unlocking the ability to save one's progress). But this doesn't feel gimmicky or deceptive. The game can be played all the way through without needing to pay anything. But players who don't have the time or the patience to do so will still come away feeling satisfied. The experience isn't sub-par for non-paying players, and there is no pressure to upgrade. Instead, the developers have made a game so good that they are confident players will be eager to support their work by paying to upgrade. If this game was playable on PCs, I am certain that it would be a single, one-time purchase cost, rather than the modern games that require players to purchase loot boxes just to stay in the fight. And that's the thing--since Pinout is single-player, there is no one to compare yourself against except your own best time. Therefore, the pressure to keep playing is reduced, ensuring that the time spent in this game is as enjoyable as possible.

Does Not Commute is another mobile game from the makers of Pinout that features a time limit. Both of these mobile games require players to efficiently manage their time and avoid wasting movement. However, unlike Pinout, this game has a curious non-linear story that matches its non-linear gameplay. In Does Not Commute, players are tasked with driving various vehicles through increasingly challenging traffic. However, the traffic they are trying to avoid is actually made up of the other vehicles the player has driven! Therefore, a player is actually competing against themselves, just as in Pinout. Not surprisingly, Does Not Commute is also free-to-play without ads or microtransactions--just a single charge to unlock the ability to save progress. I believe the high price of the upgrade actually increases sales, since the cost signals the developer's confidence in their game. Both Pinout and Does Not Commute do one thing very well: convince the player to play again and again. But they don't do this in order to squeeze more money of a player's pockets or rake in more advertising revenue. Instead, they do this in order to provide a gaming experience so pleasing and immersive that players will be eager to leave a positive review.

Satisfactory is a fantastic open-world PC building game developed by Coffee Stain Studios. Despite being yet another game in the building genre, Satisfactory manages to set itself apart from titles such as Roller Coaster Tycoon, SimCity, Planet Coaster, and Factorio by letting players experience the game from the first-person perspective. While this may sound restrictive or unnecessarily difficult, the extra effort required to build factories without a birds-eye view actually gives players an immense feeling of satisfaction when they complete even small projects. Because of the immense effort necessary to build things in-game, players take much more ownership and care with what they build. The developer's decision to permit first-person exploration and construction in Satisfactory was a cleverly-calculated design choice that actually improves the player experience and elevates the building-game genre. While players may prefer to work alone while building their factory, Satisfactory isn't just a single-player game. The game's developers are steadily improving the multi-player experience, adding a new element to the already-massive open world environment. Just like the mobile games Pinout and Does Not Commute, Satisfactory leaves players coming back for more, not because they have to (a single up-front purchase price and a decent gaming PC is all that's required), but because it has created a beautiful balance of simplicity and complexity.

Mini Metro may technically be considered a building game, its developer DinoPoloClub has taken the exact opposite approach in designing this game. Instead of the detailed first-person perspective of Satisfactory, the developers of Mini Metro have aimed for maximum abstraction by representing a public transit subway system with simple colored lines and shapes. Each level in this game is simply a map of a city, with stations that slowly appear as the city grows. Players must connect the stations in the most efficient way possible to move passengers to their desired destinations. Sounds easy, right? Think again. Despite its apparent simplicity, this game is in fact remarkably complex and deceptively difficult. It is this difference between appearance and reality that makes Mini Metro so enjoyable. In a more visually complex game, players may give up in frustration when faced with many decisions. However, the straightforward aesthetics of Mini Metro encourage players to stick with the game and puzzle out a solution. Unlike other games that may require multiple tutorials to master, Mini Metro is straightforward enough that the entire game feels like a walkthrough. While the increasingly challenging maps may wind up looking like a maze, the levels never feel too cerebral. Instead, Mini Metro has found the perfect balance between sophistication and straighforwardness.

Antigraviator is, at its core, a racing game. While there are plenty of racing video games out there, none come quite as close to simulating the adrenaline and speed as Antigraviator. While the incredible graphics and audio certainly play a part in elevating the racing experience, the real genius of Antigraviator is the decision to adopt a pod-racing style without speed limits. By eliminating wheels and opting for anti-gravity thrusters instead, this game's racers avoid the inevitable break in reality that other racing games experience when vehicles make contact with the road surface. Any slipping, sliding, or scraping as a result of game engine hiccups winds up feeling natural and normal, instead of disturbing. Another thing that elevates Antigraviator above others in the racing genre is the difficulty. Although this game provides a training tutorial and plenty of opportunities for practice, it does not baby-sit players. The artificially-intelligent competitors are tough and unforgiving, making it clear that this is a game of skill and experience. While this fact alone may be enough to keep players coming back for more, the developers understood that the visuals of a racing game are a core component of the player experience. The track details, atmospheric lighting, and landscapes truly shine in Antigraviator, which ensures that players will not grow bored of the environments even as they invest a significant amount of time into improving their racing skills. Best of all, Antigraviator rewards players for their wins with in-game currency they can use to level up their vehicles; no micro-transactions means players cannot cheat their way to victory.

Sunless Skies is a gaming anomaly, much like its precursor Sunless Seas. Developed my Failbetter Games, this is a unique blend of video game and text-based adventure. Harkening back to the early days of computer games, the real substance of Sunless Skies lies within the writing. Along with the deeply descriptive text, atmospheric visuals and moody music set the tone for the entire game, which is one-part steampunk, one-part horror, and two-parts fantastic. Although the game may seem a bit slow at first for new players, the game quickly picks up speed as players discover new storylines, meet new characters, and determine their backstory. The main complaint that many critics have had regarding Sunless Skies is the long periods of uneventful travel interspersed with short bursts of action. This, they argue, is a flaw with the game. But I would caution such thinking. Sunless Skies is not like other games. It is a text-based role-playing table-top game disguised as a video game. Therefore, the long breaks between events make more sense. They give players a chance to think about their character and their goals going forward. They allow players to appreciate the level of artistry that is deeply embedded in every corner of the screen. And they weed out players who would rather shoot zombies than read a compelling narrative. This focus on storytelling is one reason why Sunless Skies can be played again and again. It is designed for replayability, with more storylines, adventures, and options than could possibly be experienced in one play-through. The nicest part of Sunless Skies is that despite having a definite conclusion, players are not required to follow one path to the end. Instead, players are given a multitude of choices, including how they want the game to end, how they want to get there, and what they want to do along the way. The writing is impressively descriptive and deeply satisfying, but there's still plenty to do if you aren't into reading paragraphs of text every couple seconds. The developer has carefully crafted a robust combat system that feels natural and realistic. Despite all of these remarkable accomplishments, perhaps this game's greatest achievement is its ability to make players feel as though they are actually immersed in the story. Although the entire game consists of words and a god-like view of a tiny locomotive engine, players will come away feeling as though they have sailed through the skies in the first-person.

Nancy Drew may be second only to The Hardy Boys as the most famous young-adult mystery series ever published, but when it comes to point-and-click puzzle mystery games, publisher Her Interactive has made her number one. With more than thirty-three different titles, the Nancy Drew series of PC games has a long and storied history. But in a theme you may recognize by now, the thing that has kept this series going is the attention to detail when it comes to story. Every game is packed full of fictional characters and real history intertwined together into a compelling narrative. The Nancy Drew series is one of the few games these days that cleverly teaches kids about history and science while helping them have fun. But don't let the age rating on these games fool you---the puzzles are wickedly difficult, and you will be left on the edge of your seat as each mystery comes to a close. The team at Her Interactive clearly takes pride in every single game they have released and delights in engaging with their fans on social media. The fact that you can only purchase the digital downloads of their games from their own website shows that they value interacting with their players and want to make the gaming experience as seamless and enjoyable as possible. While point-and-click puzzle adventures rarely make critics' top-ten lists, the Nancy Drew series certainly deserves a second look, as it manages to cross generational lines and engage grandparents, parents, and kids alike.

 

Part 3: What Do These Video Games Have in Common?

Now that I have reviewed some of my favorite video games, it is time to review what all of these games have in common.

For starters, they all feature simple core gameplay mechanics. It is not hard to learn the basics, and players feel like experts quickly. For example, Sunless Skies integrates a tutorial into the start of the game that feel natural and not disconnected. Antigraviator, on the other hand, makes it easy for players to practice every track before jumping into a race against real opponents.

Next, all of these video games give players choices. These games permit players to reach goals in their own ways, and don't force them to follow only one solution. For example, while the Nancy Drew series of games do follow a progression to a pre-determined outcome, players can choose in which order to investigate clues, and may solve puzzles before they even need to.

Another thing all of these video games have in common is their unique visuals. I'm not saying that my favorite games look the same--what I'm saying is that they're all different. That's a big deal, in an era when most new video game titles all seem to exist in the same universe. None of these developers turned out these games overnight--they put a lot of love and care into them, and it shows in every pixel. Every single one of my favorite video games is a work of art in their own right. For example,

Finally, all of these video games respect the player's intelligence. None of these games consist of repetitive button-mashing or mindless swiping. Instead, players are expected to figure things out and fill in the gaps with their own thought processes. This is different than player abandonment--another problem that many mainstream video games suffer from. Instead, these games simply focus on what is most important and don't spend too much time on what isn't. For example, Mini Metro doesn't feel obligated to provide every single detail of each city represented on the screen. Instead, only the broadest outline of each city is provided, and players are allowed to fill in the above-ground view from their own creative imaginations.

 

Part 4: What Makes a Good Video Game?

What, then, have I learned from this exploration of some of my favorite video games? Apparently, the best video games are produced by small, independent game developers. They make games they want to play, not just games that they want to sell. They make games that will make them respected, not just games that will make them money. And they make games that are playable, not just games that are marketable. When this happens, true works of art are produced.

It seems that many gamers (and game development studios) have forgotten that a video game doesn't have to be fast and flashy to be entertaining or immersive. In fact, we seem to have completely forgotten that a good computer game doesn't need to be a "video game" at all. But when a developer cares about storytelling and artistry, a video game can rise above its competition. I hope that this blog post has convinced you to try out a few deserving video games that you might not have heard of yet. While they are certainly less mainstream, they are far more compelling. Perhaps they will be just the antidote you need to the mass-produced world of video games we now live in.


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