Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Video Game Criteria

I know the world is dying to know how what I value in a video game. So here are the elements that I think contribute to a game’s awesomeness. A game definitely doesn’t have to excel in all areas, but getting one completely wrong can pretty much mess up a game (unless the genre renders the category non-applicable).

Your Character

This isn’t about the character’s backstory; it’s about what the character looks like. Usually, you’ll be looking at your character for the entire game.

Examples of success:

  • Vehicles can make neat characters, like in Gradius and Blaster Master.
  • Robots and other mechanical armor are always a plus. Samus’s armor is a big contributor to Metroid, and Mega Man is, of course my favorite video game hero.

Notable Exceptions:

  • Surprisingly, Mario games are cool in spite of pretty boring-looking characters. In the early games, I always like to play as Luigi because green is a cooler color. And of course Mario 2 is really about Princess Toadstool. The Mario games made up for an uninspiring character by excelling in pretty much every other area.
  • The Metroid Prime games have a cool character, but you see her only rarely, since the games are first-person. They did a good job of having enough cut scenes that you don’t forget how cool Samus’s armor looks.

The World

The scenery constitutes most of what you see, and levels’ layout is integral to most of the decisions you make. So it’s essential that the world be interesting. Some elements of a good world include these:

  • Variety. If every level is made up of the same kinds of platforms with the same background, you lose motivation to keep exploring.
  • Non-linearity. Some games are inherently linear, but if the world presents you with options of where to go, that’s definitely a strength.

Examples of Success:

  • Zelda and Metroid games epitomize every aspect of good world design.
  • Mario games are mostly linear, and they even have a relatively small number of obstacles, but they present them in such varied way with an appropriate overall increase in difficulty that you end up feeling like you’re exploring a world instead of just traveling down a road.


Games are more epic-feeling if there are enemies to defeat. Like the world, your experience with them is pretty constant throughout the game. Helpful traits of a games supporting cast include these:

  • Variety. This is closely tied to the variety of the world. If all enemies appear in all areas, the world blurs together. But if certain areas have unique enemies, those areas can feel more “special.”
  • Difficulty level. If all enemies are easy or if they’re all hard, that’s monotonous too. And you don’t want defeating them to be strictly a matter of dexterity – certainly not just luck. More on that later.

A final point on this – defeating enemies shouldn’t feel or look violent. Stomping a Goomba or blasting a robotic snake doesn’t cause any pain or death. But when people are entertained by the idea of murder or similar things, the game stops being just entertainment and starts eroding their character. Just saying.


There are two general kinds of challenges:

  1. The kind that’s difficult the first time, because you don’t know what you have to do. After some trial and error (or maybe just some deep pondering, if you’re not in immediate danger), you get it right. The next time you play that part, it’s much easier.
  2. The kind that’s always difficult, no matter how often you do it. It might be that things change on you, but more often the problem is one of things:
    • It requires very precise movement and timing. You might commit the solution to muscle memory for a while, but by the time you come back it will be all up to your reflexes again.
    • It’s up to luck – either because the situation is randomized, or because the game itself isn’t very precise at responding to your input.

That second category is very annoying. A game that relies heavily on that kind of challenge is probably not worth playing.


Good games present you with a goal (even if it’s not clear at first what it is, plot-wise), and you incrementally progress toward it. I really don’t like games that don’t have an end goal. There are two categories of such games

  1. Games where you’re destined to fail, like Tetris. Your only goal is to rack up as many points as you can before you lose. Why even play?
  2. Games that will perpetually present you with more goals, no matter how many you accomplish. This is like those crazy online games like World of Doltcraft (which I’ve never played), or Animal Crossing. The problem here is that these games can take up an arbitrarily large amount of your time. Historically (especially before getting married), I’ve tended to play video games kind of obsessively – but only when I first got them (and after reading my scriptures and doing my homework). Then I beat them and went back to my life.


The music in a game can have a huge effect on how cool it is. Music can be good in two ways: catchiness and “aptness”. I prefer catchy music over mood-setting background music, even if the quality of the latter is superior. Music with an actual melody can come to represent everything that happens while it’s playing.

Examples of Success:

  • Blaster Master: This game is actually pretty weak in the enemy area (since they’re all gray or red, except for the bosses) and in the challenge area (there’s no save point, and you really wear your fingers out in the boss battles. But the really, really good music (and cool character) help push this game way beyond average on the coolness scale.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog: I played this again a while ago (since I had never beaten all the levels in sequence). Really, it’s just a standard action game. But again, it has a lot of cool music. 


In the end, a good video game tells a story. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has elaborate cut scenes or dialog. The real story of a game is the sum of the decisions you’ve made, your perseverance against threatening odds, and the discoveries you’ve made as you’ve progressed through someone’s work of art. (Seriously, it may not be “fine art”, but video games could be called a combination of painting, architecture, music, and even a bit of literature and theater.)

And speaking of plot, in a way I feel like the older games told better stories than a lot of today’s games with lots of dialog and plot devices, because they left room for your own imagination to fill in details that people try to hand you today.