The Elements of Gameplay

In my previous article, I dissected the meaning behind several essentially identical terms used to judge games, terms that I hate.  I condensed them under the label of “soul,” and argued that if a game actually had a soul, it would be its gameplay.  I realized that just labeling the real important part of a game as gameplay could sound kind of like the copout I accused the term soul of being.  What exactly is gameplay, anyway?  Well, I’ve actually given that quite a bit of thought, and pinpointed five clearly defined (if often subjective in terms of quality) parts of a game that combine to form that seemingly sacred concept of gameplay.  I’ll be going over each one, so let’s start putting together this Megazord known as gameplay!

Control

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Let’s start with something simple, but vital to every game, arguably the primary thing that defines something as a video game.  Control is one of those things where it being good means you never think about it.  You’re not thinking about the controls when you’re steering an airborne Mario past obstacles or circle strafing demons as Doomguy, but if those games had bad controls you sure as hell would be.  Control is the link between the game and the player, good control adds more to immersion than all the graphical touches and flavor text in the world.  Bad control, on the other hand, will haunt a game no matter how much it excels at the other elements of gameplay.  Control sets the tone for a game: some of the other elements have to be designed entirely around the controls.  One game’s perfect control could ruin a different game, and that could easily go both ways.  Control is the vehicle that the other elements of gameplay ride in, and if it crashes, the entire game goes up in smoke.

Content

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You’re playing a modern retail game that does everything perfectly.  You’re completely absorbed by the gameplay, the first two hours made you fall in love and you can’t wait to see what’s next… CREDITS!?  I think we’ve all felt the painful sucker punch of an unexpected credits sequence.  No matter how a good a game is, er, was, if your $60 purchase ends after two hours it’s probably going to lower your opinion of the experience.  Content is probably the most objective element of gameplay: the amount of levels, missions, secrets, etc. in a game can’t be changed by someone’s opinion.  The objective nature of both what content is and how much an individual game has makes this a simple but important factor when it comes to gameplay.  While content doesn’t really affect the core gameplay experience directly, the truth is quantity does matter to some extent, and I think how long you get to enjoy a game is pretty important.  I mean, what are you going to do after you finish a game, just start it over again?  Wait, maybe you will…

Replay

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I debated on whether to combine this element with the above.  It was tricky because while content and replay serve a nearly identical function, the abundance of one often leads to the lack of the other.  These two elements are the only ones on the list that can almost totally replace each other.  Replay value is the other side of content’s coin.  Content is how much you get out of a game before the credits roll, replay value is whether you want to go back and play the game again after that happens.  The line can blur at times, what does going back to earlier levels for a better rank, with the option to do it before or after you beat the game, count as?  What about looking for secrets needed to unlock the real final level/ending after you saw the first ending?  How the hell do you define when a multiplayer game is being replayed?  Replay can also have a purer form, however.  A truly great game will be fun to play again and again even if you’ve seen everything in it.  If you feel compelled to go back to a completed game again and again over the years, it has truly achieved great replay value.  Replay value is what makes a game immortal, how can it not be part of a game’s soul?

Challenge

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If Content and Replay can make up for each other, Challenge completely inverts that and must fight with itself to reach the correct balance.  A game being too easy makes it boring and pointless.  A game being too hard makes it frustrating and stressful.  To have great gameplay, a game has to use the spice known as difficulty and the sweetener known as mercy in just the right amounts, creating just the right amount of Challenge.  Checkpoints should be placed thoughtfully, difficulty spikes and breathers have to show up at the right times, puzzles have to take effort to solve without throwing the player into a pit of despair that only looking up the solution can rescue them from.  The game must somehow appeal to players of different skill and experience levels in the same package.  A game’s difficulty level may not be the most subjective quality about it, but whether it’s the RIGHT difficulty level is going to cause fistfights.  This is where Challenge versus cheapness comes into play, and games should make sure they only rely on challenge, no matter how many people online define cheapness as “any challenge above my personal skill level.”  If you thread the needle just right, however, you’ll contribute something to gameplay that adds a dimension to the experience which other artistic mediums can’t compare with.

Design

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And now we arrive at what I personally consider to be the most important part of gameplay.  I was originally going to call this element Level Design, but in addition to preferring that every element was one word, there are a few genres where that name wouldn’t fit.  Level design is mostly a cosmetic feature in genres like fighting games or Tetris-style puzzle games, after all.  In the end, there are a lot of terms you could use for this element depending on the genre.  Level design, fighting engine, competitive balance, course layout, it goes on.  At its core, this element is a game’s unique and personal layout, the thing that makes an individual game that specific individual game.  You could mess with the other elements in a game and it would be a variant or fragment of the same game, but Design makes it a new game. All of the other elements are intimately connected with design in every aspect.  The most subjective element when it comes to quality by far, Design is truly the core of the soul, the thing that defines the individual.  Whether it’s designing the level, placing enemies, balancing combat, thinking up puzzles, or deciding how far to go with realism, Design is the most important part of gameplay and by extension the most important part of game.

By Your Powers Combined

So there we have it, the five parts of a game that I believe make up that ideal known as gameplay.  Whether you want to think in terms of Power Rangers/Captain Planet/Avatar/My Little Pony or whatever, they have been assembled and Gameplay, the soul of a game, has been formed.  So, if you ever want to argue with someone bashing your favorite game for lacking “soul,” you can use gameplay as a counterargument, and you can use these elements to define gameplay.  Maybe I’ll write something about the anti-elements at some point, but for now I’ve said all I want to.  See you next time, and remember that gameplay puts the soul in console, wait, gameplay is the only consoulation for… no, don’t be con-souled about the soul of… never mind, just go.

 

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