Towards a Heuristic for a GREAT Game

This post is the culmination of something I’ve been thinking about for a while but have never put into writing after years of playing, reading about and reviewing games. There are obviously a lot of problems with gaming journalism as I’ve detailed in short and at length but one of these problems applies to other mediums as much as video games. This problem is the difference with how a product is received at the time and its lasting legacy. I’ve brushed this problem before with regard to film in these two posts but I don’t recall applying it to video games though it certainly applies. 

It can be amusing to look at reviews for many games going back decades and wonder how the reviewers came to the conclusions they did. There are games that have remained popular for decades that got middling scores and games that have been all but forgotten that received high praise. A good example is Diablo II which was recently remastered and has been widely loved and played since the original release over twenty years ago.  Yet, if you look at the reviews from the time, you’d wonder how that could have possibly come to be. There are games released every year to high praise that are forgotten soon after and the inaugural winner of the “Game Awards”, Dragon Age: Inquisition  is good evidence of that. Then there are games that for whatever reason are ignored at the time but gradually become better appreciated as time goes on despite their initial lukewarm reception.

This doesn’t mean gaming journalists are useless as games still need critical appraisal and can benefit from promotion at the time of release. A high quality game with a low advertising budget could be rescued by positive reviews. A lot really depends on the reviewer too. For all my criticism of his literary output, Yahtzee Croshaw has a good sense of what makes a good game and I’d say most of his Zero Punctuation videos hold up well though I don’t always agree with him. There are plenty of other individual journalists who have a similarly sharp critical eye. A lot of problems come with lazy reviews by critics uninterested in the genre or those who have to smash through a game on a deadline. This can lead anyone (and I’ve certainly been guilty of this), to produce hasty conclusions — negative or positive that later don’t hold up. I’ve had to re-evaluate my opinion on a number of games over the years that I later came to appreciate or realised weren’t so good as my initial enthusiasm supposed. 

So one really important consideration is time but this is in short supply when deadlines, embargos, advertising budgets, sales etc. are factored in. Time is not all though but it is necessary to consider what makes a game truly great. The heuristic I have come up with can be remembered with the acronym GREAT.

 

1. GOOD: It is a good game.

With the criticism of review culture above, most reviews are still generally accurate. Most games I have played that reviewed well were at least competently made if not always my cup of tea. I can rarely recall playing a game that was considered great that I didn’t enjoy or couldn’t appreciate on some level. So the first consideration is a simply whether or not it is generally thought of as a good game.

 

2. REMEMBERED: People fondly remember it and replay it long after its release.

This is where time comes in. Anyone who has played a game they liked will be able to remember it even if they don’t play very many. So a game that over time remains fondly remembered by gamers is one that meets this standard. Also any game that is fun to play more than once — especially when more can be discovered or experienced in subsequent playthroughs. This can even be so with mechanically simpler games like platformers where running the game faster or finding secrets might appeal to players. The flaw in this measurement outside of the time required to lapse is that some people have childhood games they become fond of despite not actually being very good from a critical standpoint. I could point to Bubsy as an example from my own childhood. 

 

3. EVOLUTIONARY: It is notably innovative or set a new standard in the genre.  

This is a tricky one because there are plenty of games that attempt and fail at this as I detailed in my recent review of Daikatana. The best way to measure this is to note games that come after which imitate the features they either introduced or executed particularly well. Example prototypes would be Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy, Doom, Double Dragon, DevilMayCry, Street Fighter II and Command & Conquer. None of these are (strictly speaking), the first in their respective genres but they had an enormous influence due to the volume of games that followed that were directly influenced by them.

 

4. APPEAL: Has a lot of character and or a timeless aesthetic.

By this I mean the general character of the game. Another way to describe this would be evidence of care and polish in its design that is evident on release but holds up over time. This could encompass character design, music and world building but this of course all depends on the genre. This is mostly evident in the care that went into the design of every aspect of the game which puts it beyond simply being competent. I think a good model is Super Metroid which although now almost thirty years old, is still a mechanically engaging, challenging and atmospheric adventure game with its haunting soundtrack, slick controls and almost flawless level design. It is the benchmark by which every following Metroid has been measured as well as almost ever game in the genre. 

 

5. TOUCHES: The little touches.

This is another broad area and it relates somewhat to character but it needs a separate category because these are related to smaller details. These could include “Easter eggs” or hidden content as well as little thoughtful touches in the design. Another way to describe it would be things that are present though they don’t affect the core game. Examples would be detail in breaking glass or objects, pictures, items and decorations within environmental design and bonus content found within or after finishing the game. The game would be still good without these minor details but they are there nonetheless and enhance the overall experience.

 

So that is it. This heuristic will need work but that is why I did put towards at the front. I do want to keep this simple though and not go into too much detail to make it easy to apply. What follows will be testing this with Resident Evil 4, one of my favourite games and one that also happens to have an upcoming remake. What is interesting is most of the commentary I’ve seen is less excited for this due to believing the remake is either pointless or that the original is almost impossible to improve upon. As a quick aside, I will have to do a write-up on this game at some stage too.

GREAT for Resident Evil 4

G: Resident Evil 4 received almost universal critical acclaim at the time and sold well despite releasing on the GameCube, a console with a relatively low install base. 

R: To this day it is still fondly remembered and replayed. It has also been re-released on virtually every system that has followed. The scope of the game was huge for the genre and gameplay was fun mix of action and exploration and a dedicated fan has even spent years re-doing every single texture in the game.

E: Influenced a great many third-person (over-the-shoulder) games that followed most notably the Gears of War and Batman Arkham series and many Resident Evil sequels. It is still heavily influential today.

A:  Memorable characters and tongue-in-cheek dialogue. Three very distinct environments making extensive use of real locations in Spain — though not at all accurate to the real Spain. The visual design at the time was amazing and though certainly dated, the game still has a unique aesthetic to this day.

T: There was a lot of unlockable content to extend it including another short campaign and modes though the game would have been remembered based on the campaign alone. There are also a lot of little secrets within the game including some that weren’t discovered until years later. An incredible amount of attention to detail is evident throughout. 

So there is one example but I have run through a number of others over multiple genres as well and I think it works. To pedants, I know this isn’t a perfect measure and that if for whatever reason Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel for Sega Mega Drive is your favourite game then so be it. My intention here is not to make a universal rule that must be used and accepted. I think a game could meet only four and still be considered great but I expect most of the best games would make the grade on all five. What this will do is show how a game is not only enjoyed at the time but remains popular well after release. I have also applied it in my head to games like Tetris, Super Mario World, Dark Souls and Metal Gear Solid and it works with those games too.

 

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