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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Respect the Unexpected

Sometimes when you look back on a game after the fact, you realize it wasn’t as good as you made yourself believe when you first got it, or you realize it was actually a lot better than you gave it credit for.  Those games aren’t the focus of this list.  This list is for games that instantly changed my strong preconceived notions as soon as I played them.  It can either be a game I went into with hype that was instantly deflated, or a game that I expected to hate or at least be indifferent towards that I ended up liking.  I have three examples for both types, and I’ll be alternating between negative and positive.  Since I always like ending on a positive, I’ll let the negative examples start the pattern.  Let’s get started!

Mega Man X6

What I Expected

I really, really love the Mega Man X series.  I would consider the first three games to be my favorite trilogy in all of gaming, and the original Mega Man X is one of my favorite games of all time.  The first four X games are my four favorite Mega Man games of any type, and Mega Man X5 is a step down but still a great game that I have played through dozens of times.  So, it should go without saying that I had very high expectations going into Mega Man X6, it looked like just a level pack for MMX5, but I was fine with that.  Two console MMX games in the same year seemed too good to be true, but really, what could go wrong?

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What Actually Happened

I’m still not sure what the hell happened with Mega Man X6.  MMX6 isn’t a lazy level pack, that would be so much better than what we got.  No, X6 is a train wreck that seems to go out of its way to make as many stupid, frustrating level design choices as possible.  Levels range from the same tedious and frustrating mid-boss fought four times in a row to nightmarish extended dashes to safety as a one hit kill ceiling tries to crush you.  Bosses are just as bad.  Even the story is terrible.  I beat X5, X8, and even the infamous X7 on the day I bought them.  I didn’t force myself to beat X6 until over six months later.  I could tell something was wrong right away, and to this day I don’t understand what happened.  This isn’t the result of greed and laziness, it’s a calculated attempt to twist one of the best gameplay systems there is into a horrible parody of itself.

Doom (1993)

What I Expected

I am a console gamer, I have been ever since I stopped being forced to subsist on Hi-Tech PC games, and I always will be.  So, Doom being a PC originating series that only got inferior console ports for most of its existence put up quite barrier to me getting into it.  I wasn’t all that into first person shooters to begin with, so I didn’t feel like I was missing out on much, a mid-90s western PC series didn’t sound like it was going to offer much.  I tried the famously arcade like and over the top Serious Sam games via their console compilation, and enjoyed them.  I decided that it was worth trying the Doom compilation, three games and several expansion packs for around $10 made the risk exceptionally low, so why not?  But I wasn’t expecting that much out of it, especially the original Doom and its very direct sequel.

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What Actually Happened

Damn you realism, damn you real guns and human enemies, and damn you every mid-90s magazine dismissing all FPSes as worthless “Doom clones.”  I love old style FPSes.  The varied weapons, the enemies with attacks you can directly dodge, the fast movement and lack of reloading, the creative level design, Doom is everything I wanted in the genre but didn’t know until I played it.  The modern console remasters of Doom and its sequel have everything the PC versions did, and I love them.  Doom and its level pack like sequel are probably my favorite western developed games of the 20th century, and easily my favorite PC originating games of all time.  By extremely good fortune, I got into the series just a bit over a year from the phenomenal DOOM 2016, which I have raved about at length in previous articles.  Doom expanded my horizons in a wonderful way.

Twisted Metal (2012)

What I Expected

I was fascinated by Twisted Metal 2 years before I owned a PlayStation, the characters and concept were very interesting to me and I read all I could about it in game magazines.  My instincts correctly blocked any interest in Twisted Metal 3 and 4, but I eventually got to play TM2 and I liked the gameplay just as much as the characters and concept.  Twisted Metal Black rekindled my interest, even though I once again didn’t have the system it was on when the game was released.  I eventually got it and loved it even more than Twisted Metal 2.  Then the series just disappeared, despite the acclaimed revival.  There was nothing but a decent PSP game for a decade, but then hope came, another reboot of the series.  Not having stories for each car was a big negative, but maybe the unified story mode could make up for it, and the important part was getting more of that signature gameplay, with online I could use!

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What Actually Happened

989 rose from the grave and cursed Twisted Metal 2012.  That’s my best guess, anyway.  For one thing, the “real story mode” was actually just three traditional driver stories (previous games had 4-5 times as many, for reference) glued together, ranging from decent to an idiotic pun ending.  But that’s not the worst part.  The controls were extremely slippery and mocked me by putting in the classic style that I wanted to use but making it unplayable with a small change (Human biology trivia: we only have two thumbs.  Do not demand we use both analog sticks and face buttons at the same time).  And the “story” mode put in absolutely atrocious and mandatory checkpoint race missions that the controls made into pure torture.  Assuming this doesn’t kill the series, the next reboot needs to be much, much, MUCH better.

Knack

What I Expected

Knack has been a running joke ever since it was announced alongside the PlayStation 4.  A generic PS1/2-era platformer with a character getting bigger gimmick, this was what Sony chose to showcase their new console!?  Sony giving digital copies away with PS4s and not bothering to tell the people who bought the systems just made the game more of a laughing stock.  While I didn’t think the game looked horrible, it seemed like it focused on mindless combat with minimal platforming.  I had little desire to play it unless I could find it for really cheap, and even then it would mainly be so I could make fun of it while streaming it.  Well, the game was $5 on a PSN Flash Sale, so I jumped on it.  While in my Skype group chat I started the stream, ready to laugh at the infamous Knack.

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What Actually Happened

My thoughts upon starting the game were that the controls were actually very good.  Combat was pretty solid, much better than I was expecting and actually a significant challenge on hard mode.  Good enemy variety.  Wow, the levels are really long, and there are a ton of worlds.  I thought, “Maybe people were too harsh on this game, or maybe it all goes to repetitive hell soon”.  It didn’t.  The levels and enemies stayed varied throughout the game, the platforming wasn’t too frequent but there was enough to add variety to the combat.  The combat was fast paced and reminded me of classic beat-em-ups, specifically Turtles in Time for some reason (my favorite game in the genre).  Knack… Knack is a hidden gem.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a very solid game that definitely kicks the crap out of PS4’s other 2013 and 2014 exclusives.  I’m genuinely anticipating Knack 2, which looks like a significant improvement on what turned out to be a solid foundation.  Give this game a chance: the fact that it’s getting a sequel is a miracle.

Grand Theft Auto III

What I Expected

If you’ve been following my articles, you probably saw this coming a mile away.  But if you haven’t, this is probably a pretty big surprise.  The first two negative example games are hated by most people, but not Grand Theft Auto 3.  This is considered one of the most influential games of all time, it basically started a genre and just look at how much you can do!  Being under 17 and having just recently convinced my parents to let me play M rated games when GTA3 came out in 2001, I decided not to push my luck and ignored it while everyone raved about it.  Years later, I finally picked up the game, my first GTA.  Having heard everyone rave about this game for years and intrigued by the length and scale of the game, I had pretty high hopes when I started.  What could possibly go wrong?

gta3

What Actually Happened

Did you realize that I was referencing Bubsy there?  Now don’t worry, I’m not going to be a hyperbolic hater and say Grand Theft Auto 3 is comparable to Bubsy 3D in quality.

…But it is about as good as the original Bubsy.  Now before you tear into me and I retaliate with my story about how I missed out on a genre I really enjoy for years because everyone insisted GTA was the pinnacle of it (the first good GTA game is Saints Row 2), let me go over everything GTA3 does wrong.  Horrific aiming system, absurdly harsh penalty for dying that means you basically have to load your save every time that happens (and save points are NOT frequent), having to drive back to the start of missions every time you want to try again, needing to track down hidden packages that could be absolutely anywhere in the entire game if you want to mitigate that penalty for dying, this open world game from 2001 not having a freaking MAP.  Trying to actually play this game for any purpose besides mindless chaos is a nightmare, and the game still makes said chaos a pain in the ass to accomplish.  The consequences for dying or being arrested being so harsh goes completely against the “freedom” this game supposedly gave players.  And while future GTAs would fix some of the problems from this game, several gigantic ones stayed around until Grand Theft Auto V in 2013, the first game in the series I actually like.  And it would have been so easy to fix these problems (the HD remaster of San Andreas fixes enough to make it enjoyable), but no one seemed to care about them in any way until Grand Theft Auto IV’s fan backlash.  Sorry, but I think GTA3 is a genuinely bad game and probably the most overrated of all time.

Tetris Attack

What I Expected

Puzzle games seemed inherently boring to me when I was new to gaming.  Doing nothing in a game but rearranging blocks seemed completely pointless.  I was aware of Tetris because everyone on the planet is, but I had no desire to play it, similar games, or games that I would later discover only had its name slapped on them for a marketing gimmick (you know, we’d probably have this game on Virtual Console if it was called Yoshi’s Puzzle League).  I never would have chosen to play Tetris Attack, but Blockbuster had a promotion where renting it came with a free other game rental of your choice, so there was no reason not to rent it.  And since I had the cart, why not give it a quick chance?  But aside from the Yoshi’s Island setting, I wasn’t expecting to really enjoy anything in the game, it would probably be a more colorful Wordtris.

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What Actually Happened

Literally the second I started playing I loved it.  I could go on about why Tetris Attack is the best puzzle game of all time, going into how the mechanics fix a massive flaw inherent to almost every other competitive puzzle game, but that wasn’t what I was thinking when I played the game the first time.  The intuitive and addictive base gameplay is what drew me in when I thought I hated puzzle games.  The competitive mode gave things a fighting game feel that I loved.  There was just something so inherently satisfying about the game, I don’t remember exactly what I identified it as on that day over 20 years ago, but I know my love was instantaneous.  My horizons were expanded that day, and Tetris Attack has remained one of my favorite games on my favorite system without ever wavering.  That moment where a game connects with you instantly and against all your expectations is something that can’t be fully recreated at both my age where I have played so many games, and in the age we live in where you can easily watch videos and read all you want about every game before you play it.  There’s a magic in my first encounter with Tetris Attack that I will always remember.

So, there you have it, six games that flipped my perception of them upside down within the first play session.  Aside from my personal reminiscing, the takeaway from this article I want everyone to have is that you can’t really know what a game is like until you play it.  Even with games where my expectations weren’t so radically shattered, nothing except ruining the game by watching a full playthrough can really let you know what a game is like before you play it.  Always be prepared going into a game, it might be a tragic disappointment, but it could also be a magical moment or great surprise that you never saw coming.