Reviews! They’re a big deal on the Internet. We love to slap numbers on stuff and dissect games into tidy little compartments – placing a chunk of Gameplay here, a morsel of Audio there – before we give it a Final Review Score For Metacritic. What does it all mean? The Review Rundown is a series explaining the process of reviewing games.
Gameplay is king. It is what separates us from them; the book readers and movie goers. It is interactivity that makes the video game tick and come alive. Without it, we are taking part in a pretty story, not a game. But how do we judge it?
First of all, what is gameplay? Without redundancy, how the game plays. We have to suspend artsy-fartsy notions and – yes – compare a game to others in its genre. We have ask ourselves if there’s a difference between a fun game and a good game. We have to be willing to generalize to compare. Again, these things are very out of fashion in the “everything is a special snowflake” Internet mentality, but that’s Deductive Reasoning 101, kids.
The not-so-obvious part of gameplay is the meta-game design – stuff that tends to step on the toes of Presentation. How are the controls? The UI? The implementation and execution of game mechanics? How does it perform under the hood? This is all beneath the gameplay umbrella.
Again, this might not be for the faint of “I went to Liberal Arts College.” We will actually deal in absolutes and make decisions and holistic statements. It’s why we get paid the Big Bucks and the Pretty Pennies.
The first thing to do is simply ask if the game is made well, if it compares to other games celebrated in the genre. For example, is cover difficult and unintuitive in a 3rd-person shooter? Can you easily and clearly control units in an RTS? If a game is bad, it’s bad. I can’t list everything but we’ve all been there. Most well-made games shouldn’t even need instruction manuals or asinine tutorials. Have you ever had someone ask you how to play a Mario game? No. You just run and jump, dummy. It’s immediately apparent and clearly made prominent within fifteen seconds.
Now, if we assume the game is functional, the bigger question is whether it’s good. If so, why is it good? Again, the reasons are numerous but there are a few reasons us writers flock to: refinement, subversion and blending.
Refining a game’s genre is never a bad idea. I know the latter two seem to take the majority of the discussion pie for themselves, but I am a pushover for a perfectly-made game. When I think of perfect, shining examples of gameplay, a few come to mind like Gears of War 3, DOTA 2, Super Hexagon, and Super Mario Bros. 3 – not coincidentally, most sequels.
What these titles do is take a genre and (most times) strip away the superfluous and leave a gilded nugget of gameplay. Sure, the story of GoW3 was crap but the way you moved and aimed and leapt into cover was perfect. The developers didn’t sit around thinking of newfangled ways to reinvent the wheel – they just made the best, damn wheel.
Next is subversion – flipping the player’s expectations. No game has ever done it better than the original Portal. It placed the player in a familiar situation only to yank the carpet out from underneath. Here you are in a first-person game and the only gun you get helps you solve puzzles. Granted, this would be moot if the game was not a refined pacing of mental and dexterous exercises – a valid argument of refinement, too.
Portal even goes a step further to turn over the player’s expectations with the final third of the game. While you are coaxed through sterile testing labs to start, by the end you are fleeing for your life and using the very same skills taught to you by your captors to escape. While the mechanics are similar to the beginning, the lens through which you use them has changed. It’s risky to strip away player expectations (hello, Final Fantasy XIII), but, when handled correctly, doing so makes an incredible game.
Finally, we get blending, where new genres and ideas can be born from the careful mixing of different ideas. Once you manage to saddle your ambitions, a great game can be made. Think about the Mass Effects and Deus Exes and Brutal Legends out there. Games like these pick and chose aspects of certain genres and came out with something brand new. On one hand, you have the very separate and segmented Brutal Legend that oscillated between fighter and RTS. But, on the other, you have the Christ-like Mass Effect, being both wholly a shooter and wholly an RPG simultaneously.
What you get is a new middle ground of gameplay, where there is no real central thrust. Instead, a series of complementary aspects that form a cohesive whole. The varying degrees of balance and contrast are not unlike a fine entree. When something is out of whack, the harmony is thrown off. But if the game can pull it off – a series of perfectly-balanced bite-sized morsels of game – the results are noteworthy.
These are just three examples; a shorthand guide of my thoughts. There is room for invention and nostalgia but these tend to be held aloft by weaker trusses. Whether a developer is perfecting something established, changing the game we expect or pick-and-choosing elements from different sources, there is nothing more important than gameplay. It’s the backbone of the medium and should be judged thusly.