What makes a “good” game?

Last night, I played a game called Metagame, which is literally a game about debating about games. It’s a little like Apples-to-Apples, where you place a card down and pick a game that most suits it. Then, you have 2 minutes to argue your stance. The worst gets knocked out and becomes a judge (alongside other existing judges). But this isn’t a post about Metagame, it’s a post about something that stemmed from me playing it with friends. It’s a topic I’ve constantly thought and rethought about: what makes a “good” game?

I think a good game is a game that is playable. That may sound a little weird to you, but let me explain.

This is a hard topic to wrestle with, and it’s not because of our opinions of games. I believe it’s a difficult topic to discuss because of how we individually perceive what a “good” game is. It’s an interesting topic to cover because we all have different views on various subjects, but on things that are subjective (such as this), it’s hard to reach a solid conclusion because of just how subjective those conclusions are.

Let me dive a little deeper into that with an example: If I like role-playing games and dislike platforming games, I may, on reaction, state that a platformer such as Super Mario Bros. or MegaMan is bad. Obviously, it’s hard to deny the success of both franchises and those two games, specifically, but why would I say they’re bad? Because I don’t like those kinds of games. To me, platforming games aren’t enjoyable, and since I don’t enjoy it, it’s bad.

Now, that’s an impaired thought process because it’s inherently subjective. Someone else may love platformers and say those two games are incredible, and they think those games are good. But that is, essentially, the same line of thinking.

So if I can’t say a game is bad simply because I don’t like it, I can’t say a game is good because I like it. Fair enough. Let’s dive deeper.

I could say that the modern-day music, graphics, and gameplay mechanics are simply more advanced, and therefore better. I could also reverse that thought process and claim that the “old-school” games are superior because of how simple, yet compelling they are to play. They defined what games are today.

This is a bias towards a certain era of games, which boils down to, “I enjoy this era of games more than another era.” And ultimately ends up subjective, which does nothing to help us answer the question at hand.

So I say that I enjoy the gameplay of a game more than another, or the music of a game more than another, or the writing is better than another game’s writing. While writing can be objectively defined under certain constructs, music and gameplay cannot. Why? Because they’re both very subjective topics. How is rock better than alternative? How is death metal worse than hip-hop? Why is country better than dance? You can try to fit them under a construct that may give way to an objective conclusion, but ultimately, it falls when it comes to games. Gameplay itself is another way of liking or disliking a certain genre and subgenres.

So how does this all come together? Let’s pit two games – say, MegaMan and MegaMan Battle Network. MegaMan is a platformer with 8-bit style graphics, chip-tunes as music and sound effects, and a very linear story with not a huge amount of background and no dialogue, no twists, no modern-day story-telling elements. Battle Network has a linear story (although has side quests, dialogue, and twists), RPG-style gameplay, 8-bit and more modernized techno music, and Game Boy Advance graphics. So which is good and which is bad? Most will probably claim MegaMan is the good game, but why? Because they like nostalgia? Because they like the music, sounds, graphics, or story better? Do they prefer platformers to role-playing games? How does that prove anything except what you like and dislike?

But wait, there’s more: what if graphics or music is what’s important to you in a game? What if MegaMan Battle Network is better than MegaMan game simply because it has more modern graphics, despite MegaMan having “better” gameplay? (just assume it does for this example, there’s no need to debate that right now.) How do you determine what’s good and what’s bad with someone who may think music isn’t important, while you do think it’s important? What if a certain style of game (like a fighting game, for example) is deemed to need only certain elements (writing is really the only thing I can think of, but you get what I’m saying) to make it a good game?

This is why determining what makes a “good” game difficult.

So let’s circle back to my original statement: “Good” games are games that are playable. What does that mean? It means it’s a game that can be played. “Can be” is important. It doesn’t matter whether or not you enjoy it, if it has the potential to be playable, it’s a good game. It’s a game with music that someone can enjoy, a story (if needed) that is passable and allows the game to logically continue, and no bugs or glitches that break the game and render it unplayable or exceedingly frustrating. It has the potential to breed subcultures (like a fighting game creating a competitive community for it, or how Portal finds its way into other games via cameos).

So, under that definition, both MegaMan and MegaMan Battle Network are good games.

Now, you might be thinking, “Kappy, you must not think a lot of games are bad, then,” and you would be correct. There are very few games that I, personally, think are bad. One of those few is Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic ’06). Sonic ’06, to me, is bad. Why? Because when I played it, the controls were unresponsive to the point where I got a game over on the demo. I played the actual game and would randomly glitch through the floor and die, sometimes multiple times. The first boss fight in Sonic’s story against SIlver found Sonic being stuck against a table, invincible and unable to move or take damage, which guaranteed a restart. The story itself plays through and then resets itself so it never happened (which, by my standards, is awful). The loading times were obnoxious. I could go on, but I won’t, because this isn’t a rant about Sonic ’06. This is simply an example of a game I find bad, and I find it bad because, to me, it is unplayable. 

Just sayin’

P.S. Before I end, I just want to point out that my way of judging whether a game is good or not does not judge how good a game is (which I think some mix together accidentally). It just judges whether a game is good or bad. With that said…

What do you think makes a “good” game?

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