Over the years I’ve come across many terms that I hate seeing applied to games. Soul. Magic. Heart. Charm. Spark. So it looks like it’s time to do another list, all of these terms deserve to be categorically addressed so I can explain exactly why they are not valid ways to judge games. Let’s get right to it: time for the intimidating task of dissecting five different concepts in one article. Let’s get started!
What it means: Magic, when applied to games, is a catch-all term for an indescribable feeling you get from a game. Something you can’t describe, but you just KNOW it when you see it. Something that supercedes any part of a game you can actually give a supportable opinion on. Magic is different from the other terms because, because…
All of them are the same freaking thing!
Yep, the list was a fake-out. These (and probably many more) terms are all functionally identical, and it’s that concept that I want to argue against, in all of its guises. There are two main things that the various terms (I’m just going to use soul for the rest of this article) are actually describing, and neither are good reasons for judging a game. Let’s get to the real dissection!
You know how some people judge games on their technical or budget merits? How many polygons there are, how much wide open empty space the draw distance can show at once, how expensive the voice actors were? Well people who care about a game’s soul would never do that. Why? Because it’s not petty ENOUGH! It’s the little things that make a game great: little touches in the background, the exact right amount of comedic quirk in the dialogue, whether it’s a sequel or not. Judging a game by the graphics as a whole makes you shallow, but judging it by dissecting minor details of the graphics makes you deep. Maybe an 8-bit art style could have potentially passed your metric for the game having enough “soul” in its look, but you’re still judging a game for how it looks, and no euphemism is going to change that.
Why would anyone believe in this double standard? I’m not convinced that many genuinely do. The fact is, saying a game is bad because of its graphics is going to make a lot of people disregard your opinion, which in my magical and soulful special spark of an opinion is justified. As someone who still regularly plays games from earlier console generations, defends Nintendo for focusing on gameplay over writing and story in many of their series, and gets very annoyed by being told my systems of choice are inferior to the “master race” because the graphics aren’t as good, I obviously don’t approve of judging games by their graphics. So I don’t like it when people ostensibly on my side do the exact same thing but insist that it’s actually about “soul.” If you care about aesthetics to the point where a game not meeting your expectations in them can ruin the experience for you, I’ll have a much easier time agreeing to disagree if you don’t use vague and frustrating terms to hide it. But maybe it isn’t really the artistic merit that the game is really being judged on, quite often it’s really…
Yep, it’s come to this, the big N. No, not Nintendo… well, a lot of the time they are the ones this is being used against, but that’s not the point. It’s not a coincidence that sequels and recent games are so much more likely to be derided for having an insufficient quantity of soul. Nostalgia is a powerful force. I’m not going to claim to be immune to it: in fact I’m hyper-sensitive to it and develop it much faster than most people (I’m listening to a song that brings back memories of 2014 as I type this sentence). I’ve certainly replayed many games that in no way merit ever being touched again because they gave me nostalgia, I’m still looking for my floppy disc of Dino: Lost in Bedrock just because it’s a different version than the one you can find online.
So having nostalgia is fine, enjoying things just because of nostalgia is fine. But you have to be aware of what you’re doing, and more important, don’t judge new games on how much they appeal to your nostalgia! If you want to pick up a game because it’s pandering to your nostalgia just right, go for it, but don’t judge newer games as a whole because they don’t accomplish the impossible task of giving you the same nostalgic feeling a game you played in elementary school does. It is not the game lacking soul that makes it feel less magical than the 20-year-old previous installment did, it’s the fact that you were 20 years younger back then. Not understanding your nostalgia cravings is just going to lead to disappointment and despair, and bashing every new game in a franchise because of that makes you annoying, okay? So stop it.
So what would it be?
So if games actually did have souls, what would the soul be? What is the core of a game, the element that really makes it special? If you took away all the extras and aesthetics, what would be left to define the pure essence of a game? How long am I going to insult your intelligence by building this up when it’s blatantly obvious that I’m going to say the answer is gameplay?
Yes, if we were to say games actually have a soul, it would clearly be gameplay. In addition to being the most important part of a game, gameplay ultimately leads to the things that are wrongfully called the soul of a game. A game being good in the first place will be a major contribution to how much nostalgia it eventually produces, right? And the positive associations a game gives you thanks to its gameplay are what lead to the little aesthetic touches and quirks that people mistake for soul. If Bubsy was a platforming masterpiece, I firmly believe Bubsy’s annoying puns would be iconic and loved in a somewhat ironic way like the dialogue in Star Fox 64 and Resident Evil 4.
So that’s my rant for the day. Week, months, whatever I procrastinated it to. I hope I’ve made some points about what a game should and shouldn’t be judged by, or at least gotten people to find better terms for what they use to judge games. A thought occurred to me as I was writing this, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that I was using gameplay as just as much of a vague catch-all in this article as the terms I railed against. Going into detail about what I consider gameplay, though, would take up an entire article of its own… so that’s what I’m going to give it. Stay tuned!