What makes a game great?

Monday, November 17, 2008
It's that question we've all asked ourselves at some point. There are games that are universally considered great, but what do these games have in common that sets them apart from the rest? Is there any single quality that marks all great games and is absent in all others? Do games like Final Fantasy VII, X-Com, Fallout and Far Cry 2 all follow a deeply complex formula known only to a secretive, cowled group of developers? The answer is surprisingly simple.

Like film, many of the games we mark as great are games that broke new ground for the industry. They are the bold pioneers, the games hat risked everything to show us something new. More often than not, these new elements were quickly included into other games until the mechanics became synonymous with the genre. Final Fantasy VII's Materia based skill tree has now become a standard part (albeit in mutated forms) of many RPGs. X-Com was the Citizen Kane of squad based action games. Do you see where I'm going with this?

Again, like film, those great games often times don't seem like anything that special when played parallel to today's games. The industry is an ever changing entity, constantly assimilating successful mechanics, art styles, etc. What was incredible and new five years ago is now the standard by which we judge all games in the genre. Those of us that played those great games when they were new understand, perhaps better than others, the awe and wonder of what they did. Even still, they often pale in comparison to more modern entries in the genre or even series.

If you're having trouble swallowing this idea, experiment with it. If you can, plop in one of your old favorites for an hour. play it as you would any other game. After the hour has been spent, swap it out for a recent game of the same genre. Make note, either mental or physical, of similarities in the two games. Don't leave anything out. If a mechanic feels similar in any way, if a scene reminds you of the previous game, note it. Finally, gauge your experience. Put the first game back in and play it for a while with the new game fresh in your mind. Mine and many of my friend's experience shows us that we don't feel the same thrill we did when we first played that great game.

More often than not, the old favorites begin to feel dated. The graphics aren't what make them seem dated, don't be silly. Because those old mechanics are so commonplace these days, the games that invented them often don't feel so special. It's unfortunate that we often can't enjoy these games as much as we grow. They really are great and deserve to be hailed until we're all old and senile. Unfortunately, since the industry if such a fluid entity, any popular mechanic is bound to be snatched up by other developers.

Keep a place in your library for the greats. You might not always be able to play them, but when your faith in games is wearing thin, it's often those games that bring you back into the fold. The real staying power of those games is their ability to remind us of why we play. The games you play today may very well become some of those enshrined few so keep that in mind while you play them. Some day you might be babbling to your grand kids about the good old days. This is certainly a very interesting time to be a part of the medium.

We are at a point when the games we play are undergoing significant change. Genres seem to be slowly disappearing. Far Cry 2 mixed the sandbox and FPS genre, Call of Duty 4 sprinkled some MMO in their own FPS. Old standby series like Fallout and Prince of Persia are being completely redesigned, Little Big Planet redefined user generated content. Portal messed with our heads and Mirror's edge messed with our inner ears. This may be the start of a great Renaissance for games. I'm proud to be in the thick of it, and you should be too.