Over the years, I've played a truckload of video games. Since my youth, when I fell in love for the first and only time—Metroid was what did it, on a chilly autumn night, me with my shirt off, thumbing the controller, over and over, until it hurt—I haven't been able to recreate that feeling of joy, that ecstatic sense of, "This is it. This is forever."
Sure, there are many games that I find amazing—why would I play them otherwise? The Infamous franchise, with its dirty-modern edge and mutant-psionic maneuvers, came close to filling the gap. Demon's Souls got my blood running as well, to the point where I almost missed my last day of graduate school. Uncharted, Halo, Goldeneye, FFVII, Bayonetta, God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, all thoroughly brilliant, marvelously unique. But, as I grow older, I find myself more and more dissatisfied. I scrutinize a title's every pixel, wondering how it could be prettier, cleaner, more fun, or, by contrast, a little less fun. I size them up. I pull them apart. I critique their logic, their purpose, their authenticity-and all this as an amateur, an average gamer on par with what one might call an armchair liberal, concocting and spitting out opinions as if I'm somehow an authority when really, my authority stretches only so far as I can choose where and when to open my wallet. The problem is, I love the concept of games, a digital plane governed by creativity and challenge. But, buying up title after title is really me continuing to to recreate that feeling I had as a starry-eyed youth, that feeling I had when I first played Contra, or braved the Hall of Giants in Final Fantasy. In this modern world of high-octane, eye-bleeding graphics and larger-than life-storylines, I find myself lost in a cycle of instantaneous rushes and cold, clammy comedowns. In the end, most of my energy-charged bouts come to resemble one-night stands. I play a game, I'm mildly amused, and then in the morning, I'm like: "What was your name again?"
Therefore, as an exercise, I've come up with a rubric for what the perfect game might look like to someone like me. I do this not as an expert, but as an un-credentialed novice with a PS3 who grew up playing games and wants to feel again that long-lasting love, rediscover something he can commit to.
For me, the Perfect Game has the following qualities:
Okay, so I'm into the whole understatement thing, but honestly, this is the 21st fucking century, and if I'm going to be using a machine that houses the RSX Reality Synthesizer, I'm going to expect some pizzazz. This doesn't mean a game can't be ironic or retro, with side-scrolling innovations like those featured in Braid or Limbo, but, as is the case with the aforementioned, it has to offer some substantial eye-nookie. I don't know about you, but even though I grew up playing Oregon Trail, I've grown to expect Industrial Light and Magic. If that makes me an asshole, then direct your hate mail to George Lucas. I'm sure he's pretty used to it by now.
Just because something can look good doesn't mean it should look too good. Why? Because, in my case, at least, you'll probably end up foaming at the mouth. Games like Crysis, while unbelievable to look at, make me feel like I'm inside Tony Stark's helmet looking at a Jarvis display while riding a unicycle. I don't find it over the top because it isn't cool to look at it. It is. But, for someone who wants to be able to play a game without learning how to pilot a harrier jet, there are too many goddamned alert indicators and combat combinations. Dazzle me, sure. Get creative and sexy, but don't start whipping me with a cat of nine tails (unless I ask for it) or I'll likely end up calling the police.
If I feel like the controls on a game are too sensitive or life-like, I get bored, thinking the design is more about recreating reality than imagining possibilities.
This ties into my previous point, but, in my case, the perfect video game shouldn't require me to learn how to operate the equivalent of a TI-84. While I'm just fine with the array of buttons required to increase one's options in modern gaming, I recognize that what I'm doing is a simulation in the realm of make-believe. Unless I'm actually reaching out Lawnmower Man-style to manipulate space with my fingers in a digital universe, I don't need to be able to control my avatar down to the canting of his or her chin. If I feel like the controls on a game are too sensitive or life-like, I get bored, thinking the design is more about recreating reality than imagining possibilities, that the producers are just trying to say, "Look at how smart we are," without the innovation. And then, of course, I just get mad and turn on the garbage disposal. In my opinion, the most complex and compelling games are the most accessible, based on a natural understanding of what players want. Namely, a way to feel challenged while not feeling patronized. While a good game should be hard, you shouldn't feel stupid while playing it.
Even though some may enjoy the equivalent of a drooling Neanderthal in their console, in my case, you've got to have an IQ above 60 to keep the diodes glowing. The Legend of Zelda and Metroid are games I'll always remember for a reason, and not because being fascinated by thirty-year-old consoles makes me interesting (even though it does, right?). It's because, in comparison to the existing fare at the time, those games were smart. Consider the state of the industry in the 1980s, the ephemeral nature of action-based electronics, with the NES being little more than a young buck learning to gallop. While innovative, many platforms had not yet evolved to incorporate elements of search and discovery into their repertoire in a fluid manner. You had open world titles, sure. But Yoshio Sakamoto really broke the genre right open. In Metroid, Samus morph-balls through an open-ended world teeming with space aliens, secret hideaways, frozen beasts, and tantalizing secrets. It started a whole new genre of gaming, and, arguably, is where games like Infamous or Demon's Souls got their start. Intelligence doesn't only account for methodology in this light, but it accounts for foresight, idiosyncrasy, and ultimately, courage. New genres begin to grow stale the second they come out of the mind-oven, and while you also don't want a game to be a fucking Mensa puzzle, that's certainly preferable to it becoming Shaq Fu (even though I did have a fun night or two following Mr. O'Neal through what must have been someone's acid trip).
Okay, I'm not saying a perfect game should make you want to, well, have sex with your television. That would be dangerous. But your love won't be lasting if you don't have that special spark. In this case, I mean endorphins, which is really what you're looking for when you decide to blow off the outside world to sit on your ass with a controller for thirty days. That good old dopamine is what we seek, the infamous pleasure chemical. For me, the perfect game has an exciting, hypnotic quality that lasts for hours. It keeps things accessible, but deviates from the familiar so that boredom doesn't set in. I believe Infamous did this quite well, each new progression feeling known, while at the same time, upping the ante. It made me realize that fun has to be a genuine experience. I say this as someone who has faked having fun before, just to pretend that things are good, that I made the right investment, that the $54.00 I spent was worth more than a cantankerous snore.
When I'm caught up in a good game, I don't want to think about all the other places it's been, or, even worse, the places it's going to go. I want to believe that what we have together—an intimate, private relationship between forged over hours of interaction—feels authentic. One of the problems I've experienced with some of the more recent Final Fantasy titles, for instance, is that the experience seems overly scripted. FFXIII and FFXIII-2 come immediately to mind, during playing which I experienced boredom, even patronization, from a lack of an open world and thus a lack of choices. In the end, as opposed to previous entries in the franchise, where you were at least fooled by the appearance of free will, the recent additions deprive one of agency. XIII and XIII-2 seem staged to the point where I feel like I might as well be on an airship with five hundred sweaty nerds on autopilot, as opposed to commanding one of my own. For me, the perfect game comes along with a dose of claustrophobia, where you feel surrounded, secure, and at the same time, insecure. Yeah, this might mean I'm a touch psychologically unbalanced, but even in the Super Mario Brothers franchise, while the world is finite, your choices are vast. I want a game to have a good concept, a good story, but I still want to remember I'm playing it. Agency is important.
This ties into my previous point. As a person who reads a shitload—and both writes and loves books—I don't want to play one when I sit down on my floor with my bong and a box of wontons. I want to interact, I want to play, and if I'm reading the equivalent of Proust's Swann's Way whilst winnowing my way through a sixty-hour monster fest, I'm going to set my house on fire. Good writing is very important for games. But it's a different animal entirely from a novel—somewhere between a film and a board game, in my opinion—and you can't treat that combination with levity. People have diverse skill sets, and not everyone can translate those into different mediums or structures. A brilliant essayist won't necessarily make a great poet. (See Jorge Luis Borges' poems for an example of how bad that experiment can go).
…Even though I grew up playing Oregon Trail, I've grown to expect Industrial Light and Magic.
As with any good story, a great game never truly gives away its raison de etre. You never truly want to know why you're spending endless hours slogging through a digital landscape, unlocking secrets and inching towards the end. Such is the question mark underlying the entire experience. That causes me to ask: "Why do we play videogames at all?" One of the greatest innovations of the original Super Mario Bros., in my opinion, is the game's elusive Princess. You want to rescue her, but aren't sure exactly what will happen if you do, or why you care so much about doing so in the first place. The reward is in the process, the skills acquired, the experience of making one's way to the center of a maze and discovering the jewel of knowledge at its center. Sure, competition plays a big part for many gamers, especially with online games. But, with a really great game, it's the journey that counts. The mechanics, design, and concept that come together in a perfect storm of immersion. Playing is an act of discovery, and every moment counts.
Ultimately, the very idea of perfection is a subjective experience, one that everyone has to discover on his or her own. And even then, holding out for inscrutable transcendence is just as practical as killing yourself by holding your own breath. A great game, for me, doesn't have to be perfect. But it should at least try to be sometimes, so that, in a universe of overused tropes, discriminatory language, and cynical marketing schemes, we know that someone appreciates us, the person at the bottom of the pyramid.
So then, the question for basement dwellers such as myself remains: "Will I ever find the perfect game?" Or "Does perfection exist in any form whatsoever?" "Is it possible that if I'd have played Metroid for the first time now, as an adult, jaded by experience and repetition, that he'd have scrutinized it to the same degree that he does modern releases, lining them up for shaming in his machines due to a surfeit of self-regard and a longing to return to the womb?" It's definitely possible. I, like the games I play, am far from any kind of ideal. But I also think that, as output increases, and companies become gormandized on profit, seeking to pump out ‘what works,' that we should always remember that love is about commitment. It's far too easy in our modern world to blow through entertainment in the blink of an eye, as opposed to savoring, repeating and coming back again and again no matter how outdated something is. Perfection, in my eyes, is synonymous with timelessness. When I find my perfect game, it will remind me of why I first sat down, with stars in my eyes and a pulse in my wrist: to brave unknown terrain, to try what is barely understood.
Samuel Sattin is a graduate of the Mills College MFA in creative writing and the recipient of NYS and SLS Fellowships. His work has appeared in Salon Magazine, Kotaku, io9, The Good Men Project, The Cobalt Review, J Weekly, Cent Magazine, Out of the Gutter Online, Ink Well, and Generations. He is The Minister of Propaganda and Contributing Editor at The Weeklings, and his debut novel, LEAGUE OF SOMEBODIES, is being released by Dark Coast Press in April, 2013. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife and a beagle.