What Are You Looking For In A Video Game?

We can all agree that video games are a form of entertainment, but just what about them entertains you? What are you looking for, or getting out of them, when you sit down with a controller in hand?

I bring this up because over the weekend I was talking with a friend about Modern Warfare 2, and despite the fact we were both in the same room talking about the same game, we were having two conversations: he as a "casual" gamer who only plays Modern Warfare 2, and only plays it online, and me as someone who plays, well, pretty much everything.

After butting heads for half an hour or so, me complaining about the game's awful writing, him about how there's not enough guns in it, he asked me what I look for in a game. And...I had to pause. Because while I've played thousands of games over the past 26 years, and know inherently what I like and what I don't like, I don't think I've ever sat down and explicitly spelled it out.

So I went home and did just that. Looking over the list, I thought it was pretty interesting, both in terms of how it shapes what I play in my spare time and in how it reflects the stage of my life I'm at, where I've gone from bum university student playing Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon all day to someone with a wife, mortgage, full-time job and even a baby on the way.

What I Like

Writing - I don't demand a quality plot when playing a game. Those are hard enough to come up with for a movie or book, let alone something as interactive video game. But I do enjoy quality writing. Snappy dialogue, a bit of humour, a bit of emotion. It's why I love Uncharted 2 so much: the story might be a bit rubbish, but the way the characters are driven through it is a delight.

Visual Design - Shallow, perhaps, but here you have it: I like a strong, consistent, polished visual design in my games. Unique weapons, believable landscapes, interesting features. Half-Life 2 has this. So does Mirror's Edge. By contrast, this means that a lot of other games I should be enjoying - like, for instance, most space-based strategy games - I'm not, because they look like they jumped straight off the pages of a 15 year-old high school nerd's sketch book.

Storybook Gaming - I prefer singleplayer games, and I prefer my singleplayer games to be like interactive stories, me pushing the action onwards as I discover the world and complete the game. Because of this, I do not like having to repeat sections 5-10 times. When I'm reading a book or a comic, I don't stop and read the same page 5-10 times. I read it once and I move on!

Hand-Holding - Easy-to-understand menus. Maps that clearly show where I have to go. Easy difficulties. Objectives that tell me how to complete them. This is partly related to the point above, but there's a big different between exploring a world and stumbling around in blind frustration.

What I Don't Like

Online Multiplayer - I have to do this for work when it's called for, but I generally cannot stand playing online. If it's not racist, homophobic assholes ruining Xbox Live, it's being the whipping boy in a match because I'm the only person in the room who doesn't spend 16 hours a day playing the same game.

Games As A Challenge - Perhaps my biggest pet peeve in games. I understand why other people like it, but me, I hate it. I'm talking games that make you learn complex routines, replay levels 10 times, restart at the beginning of a stage instead of a checkpoint, etc. To me, that's a form of masochism. I want to enjoy a game, not be punished by it.

Games As Competition - I'm not the world's best online shooter player. I normally play games on easy, for the reasons listed above. So I'm not a fan of games, or the communities around games, that make competition a serious part of the experience. While I find some things like fighting game scenes/tournaments fascinating, as a whole, the culture of judging a person's worth or standing in a game by the difficulty they played it on or the number of hours they can devote to it is pretty off-putting.

Time Sink - Despite some of my favourite games of all time being guilty of this - like Animal Crossing and Final Fantasy XII - for the most part, if a game makes me log in and complete menial tasks in order to advance, I don't enjoy it. That can mean level grinding in a role-playing game, or even in an online shooter.

After looking over this list, I decided to look over my games collection, see if there was any correlation. And what do you know. The highlights of my remaining PS2 games are Okami, Shadow of the Colossus and Ico. On GameCube? Wind Waker, Sands of Time and Animal Crossing. On Xbox? Full Spectrum Warrior, Jet Set Radio and Beyond Good & Evil.

There were no fighting games. No Japanese role-playing games. No massively-multiplayer online titles. My list was matching up with my collection almost perfectly.

I'd profiled myself.

Which, let's be clear, is no revelation. It hasn't shaken my beliefs in the medium, or somehow put nearly three decades of gaming into some sense of profound perspective. It's just a list! I just found it really interesting to put it down on paper, and explain away - on the record - why I like what I like, or why I pass on some of history's biggest games or gaming experiences.

It's of course not hard-wired, either. I'm not a machine, strictly adhering to a set of conditions when playing a game. Sometimes, one factor outweighs another. I loved Lost Odyssey, for example, because the surprisingly good voice acting got me past the grind. I also love Ikaruga. I'm not sure why, I just do.

It's worth keeping this kind of stuff in mind any time you read about games, too, especially when it comes to reviews. Heck, it's why we review games the way we do, because what one person hates, another may love!

So what about you? Ever wonder exactly what it was you liked and didn't like about games? Or how your likes and dislikes may have changed over the years as you've grown older? Or do you blow in the wind, tastes and habits changing depending on where you are in life?