During my first 25 years playing video games I had no theory about what makes a video game good. I knew the good ones when I played them. I just felt it.
Last year, however, I was forced to come up with a theory—a theory about what makes a video game good. I've been testing it ever since.
My theory is simple. Whether a video game is about shooting guns, flying planes, jumping over mushrooms, solving puzzles or rotating falling blocks, the game is a series of choices for the player. A good video game presents a series of interesting choices for the player to make. Should the game's choices be uninteresting—should they barely be choices at all—then the game is bad.
Events in the year 2011 had forced me to come up with some sort of theory about what makes a game good. The events involved Zynga, the company behind FarmVille, CityVille and, as I understood in early 2011, much of the eVil plaguing video games. The Zynga games, I'd heard, weren't so much games as psychological tricks that baited players to keep playing by enticing them with scheduled rewards, not by entertaining them as games should, whatever that meant. Millions of people may have enjoyed Zynga's games, I had heard, but the thinking was that millions of people didn't know what was good for them. These things Zynga made weren't just bad games, the critics charged; they weren't even games.
How awkward, then, that Zynga was courting me throughout 2011 to play their games. They did that monthly, contacting me in my capacity as an editor at major video game website in the hopes that I would pay attention to their next big game, appreciate its improvements over the last big Zynga game and wind up with something positive to report about it. I did not want to play their games, but a reporter's job is not to stem the flow of information. Yes, I told the Zynga people month after month, I'll try your games.
Before the Zynga courtship began, I had only played FarmVille and only for a few minutes. The beginning of the game had presented no choices that interested me. It pulled me from one action to the next, telling me what to build or collect or what to wait for, giving me no sense that I was making any decisions of my own. It had bored me.
The Zynga people showed me FrontierVille. They told me about the game's story. That didn't make me want to play. They told me about Empires & Allies, which borrowed ideas from an old favorite, Advance Wars. Through its combat system I recognized that a player could lose a fight. The losing player, I realized, must have had a choice to make that brought them to victory or defeat. I was more interested in this game. But I tried that one and it, too, quickly bored me.
Then I tried Adventure World, a game Zynga would eventually re-brand as an Indiana Jones aventure. The hero of that series hates snakes, but an encounter with a snake in Adventure World is what convinced me that not only was this one a game, but it had the potential to be good.
I've tried to recreate my moments of discovery with some screenshots.
First, I entered one of the game's maps and realized that I had a choice of where I could go. One path, to the upper left of the frame, would bring me toward bushes through which I'd have to slash. I had no idea if anything was hiding in them. The path to the right would bring me to a piece of red treasure but also toward a snake that was moving in a pattern of its own and might intercept me.
I chose to move toward the treasure—and toward the snake.
I grabbed the treasure, and the snake closed in.
I decided to fight instead of fleeing. I discovered it was too weak for me. I killed it.
These were not the most fascinating choices in video game history, but they were choices. They were choices that would lead to immediately distinct outcomes. They interested me.
When the Zynga people showed me their next game, Mafia Wars 2, I knew what to look for: choices. The more the merrier, at least for Zynga, I thought. The Zynga people were getting better, I had decided. They were no longer making unbranching flow charts for their customers to click through; they were beginning to offer players branches; they were serving decisions that led to distinct consequences.
What Makes Tetris Great
As my idea about choices in video games coalesced, I began to look at my favorite video games differently. I love Metroids and Assassin's Creeds, which I never doubted were video games. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is my favorite game, though I'm pretty sure that Tetris is the best video game ever made. All of these games support my theory, Tetris most purely among them, which is probably why it's the best. Each falling piece presents the opportunity for some basic but almost always-interesting choices: Where will I put this piece? Can I rotate it fast enough? Should I drop it swiftly? What is the next piece coming and how will this piece set me up for dropping that one? Do I want to set myself up to score a four-line-clearing Tetris? Etc. The choices come quickly. The choices are always clear. The consequences are sometimes immediate, sometimes delayed. They are always clear.
The game isn't really about falling blocks; it's about a cascade of chances to make decisions.
Merihari... and Forks
I reached out to some of the smartest video game creators that I know and I asked them how they could spot a good game and distinguish it from a bad one. My theory was that the big thing was the presence of interesting choices, but what was their theory?
Dylan Cuthbert weighed in from Japan, which thrilled me because Dylan Cuthbert not only makes many video games that I like—Star Fox, PixelJunk Monsters, Digidrive, to name a few—but he has also worked closely with the top people at Nintendo's Kyoto headquarters where many indisputably great video games have been made.
"Well to begin with, 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder,'" he told me over e-mail back in the beginning of the year. "For example I think Dark Souls is an amazing game but others might disagree with me. However, for any game that someone thinks is really good there are a few common factors. For me those are: Aesthetics (not just artistic beauty), Polish, Engagement, Originality and final but not least, 'Merihari'.
"'What's merihar?' you are probably asking; well it's a Japanese word that embodies rhythm+balance+distribution—for example. imagine a roller coaster ride without merihari, and it would just be a continuous downhill ride. That may sound good, but, actually without the tension of that initial climb, a fairly large chunk of the thrill is lost. It's why boss fights work well in games. The stage before it builds up the tension. If you have a game that only has boss fights, the experience begins to feel shallow. (a game that sticks in my mind for doing this, unfortunately, is Omega Boost from Polyphony, a game that would have been much better if it had built up the tension before each battle)
"Probably the main thing, though, is that old favourite: tender love and care—when the entire development team has loved and cared for the game that alone can simply make all the difference."
The merihari thing sounded right. Theory revision! Interesting decisions + merihari. Plus other stuff too, probably.
I got another response, this one from Eric Zimmerman, a game designer and academic in New York:
"I don't think you can answer the question in simple terms, i.e. a certain kind of game design or a certain kind of player experience," he told me in an e-mail. "I would have to answer that deciding WHAT constitutes a good experience for your players is part of the design problem itself. A game designer has to decide what success will be for her game. And then she has to design it!
"This idea of a game designer defining her own design problem is particularly salient for game designers, as opposed to other forms of designers (like architects or industrial designers) because our work is usually explicitly non-utilitarian. A fork designer can always fall back on the success of a fork design being the functional use of the fork: someone actually can use it to eat food.
"But in game design, we have to create our own criteria for success. This might include aesthetic goals, goals for exploring or conveying ideas, commercial metrics, and technical innovations, etc. Of course, all of these kinds of goals are things that non-game designers can take on, too. Fork designers usually have their own aesthetic goals, for example. But in the case of (non-educational) games, the non-functional goals are ALL THAT WE HAVE.
"So game designers themselves decide what makes a good game good. And it can be unique for each individual designer, and for each individual game a designer might make. A game might be good because it makes you sad, or happy, or angry. It might be meant to relax players, or excite them, to grind them into a zen state or snap them into problem-solving alertness. A game designer might decide success is loving social interaction, or ruthless trash talking, or solitary isolation. Or success might be thinking about violence in a new way—or maybe thinking about violins in a new way. Usually it is a stewy mix of a whole bunch of different and sometimes conflicting success criteria.
"And a designer's idea of what success looks like for a game can even change as the game is being developed or after it is released. In fact the sweetest pleasure for a game designer can be seeing your game played in ways you never anticipated. That's when your players teach YOU about what makes a good game good."
This seems right as well, and helped remind me of my original quandary, which wasn't to distinguish between good games and bad ones but to determine if something—specifically, the creations of the Zynga corporation—were games at all. Zimmerman did not address that specifically, but his comments about the goals of games helped me realize what it is that Zynga's big FacebookVille games possess that makes it so hard for me to relax and just play them: their goal of making money for the people who created the game feels apparent every time I make a decision in one of those games. Every time I make a decision, I use one of my rationed pieces of energy, bringing me another step closer to having to wait to continue (that's annoying) or to bug my friends for help (that makes me feels like I'm marketing the game for Zynga) or paying for more energy (that feels like I'm losing a test of wills with a rich corporation).
Possible theory revision: A good video game not only contains interesting decisions but doesn't include decisions that make me feel like I'm being manipulated/used/nickel-and-dimed.
Super Mario Decision-Making
In 2012, armed with my theory I've been looking for games that are full of choices. The Zynga people still call, and they still show me their games. If the game doesn't appear to offer choices I haven't been offered before—or if it doesn't offer choices that lead to distinct consequences—I lose interest.
As I've hunted for games full of choices, I've honed my taste in first-person shooters and realized that I'm less interested in the ones that feel as if they pull me down a straight line and not give me a choice how to solve my problems (so that's why I liked 2011's Bulletstorm so much... every enemy encounter was ripe with multiple choices about how to win it).
I've realized that my low tolerance for Japanese role-playing games might be less due to the stories they present than to the lack of choices available in the ones I've played (so that's why the Fire Emblems are my favorites and why I despise level-grinding, the epitome of the uninteresting choice of how to spend your time).
My zeal for interactive decision-making has enhanced my appreciation for Angry Birds Space and explained my limited interest in the wonderfully-written but choice-limited Ace Attorney games.
I now crave from the games I play the choice to do radically different things to see what happens next. If I feel like I'm being funneled or forced to do only a certain thing next, I resist. I get annoyed. I dislike the game. This must be why I loved Portal 2 last year, a game that may have had just one solution to each of its puzzles but let me feel like I was experimenting—making decisions—as I tinkered with possible ways through. And this must be why I tired of Uncharted 3's combat, which offered me the same choices against the same enemies ad nauseum.
When I say I now look for games that are filled with choices, I don't mean that I'm always looking for BioWare-style role-playing games that are full of branching moral paths. For me, choice can involve having two different targets to shoot. It can involve something as simple and pure and being posed with the quandary of whether or not to jump.
I've always been fascinated by the act of jumping in Super Mario Bros.. I consider it the most perfect activity ever put in a video game (how strange that it's not in Tetris!). Mario's ascent is associated with discovery. On his way up he might hit a block that will sprout a mushroom or flower that grants him new abilities. His descent is an attack. On his way down he squashes his enemies. When combined, the ascent and descent are also a necessary means of traversal used to pass bottomless pits or avoid carnivorous plants that emerge from green pipes. Every inch of a Mario level presents the player a string of choices, almost all of which compel the player to decide whether or how to use the ascent, the descent or both to one's advantage.
A Mario level rushed through briskly is an encounter with a series of interesting choices. The best levels in the series are composed of a series of obstacles that, when approached rapidly, offer a delightful set of quandaries. Do I run and jump over this guy? But then what does that put me in a position to do to the next guy? Do I take this upper path? But then do I miss the power-up that was hidden below? Do I hope on this turtle and knock its shell into the next few enemies, do I hop across each of their heads? Etc.
Perhaps this idea of good games that present interesting choices is too obvious a theory. Perhaps it does not sufficiently sift gaming's good works from its bad, to say nothing of distinguishing between gaming's good work and its greats. The theory has aided me, though, because it has helped me respect myself as a gamer and made me more conscious of how a game will use my time. If it offers me interesting choices, second by second and minute by minute, I may enjoy it. If it does not, I'd have been better off not playing it. This is how I now distinguish the good games from what I believe are the bad.