Videosyncrasies Pt. I


What makes a great video game? Video games can be developed in people’s bedrooms or in corporate cubicle farms. Some will be booming commercial successes, others will be artistic masterpieces, but no matter what, the video game industry is rapidly outpacing the film industry. At the end of the day, the player judges what makes one game great and the other a failure. However, in the world of professional video game criticism, “it is no surprise to learn that most video game reviewers do not know what makes a video game good” (Jack). The components of video games that critics use to ascribe the often times x/10 score for any given video game are things like “lasting appeal”, soundtrack, graphics, and literally just “gameplay”. What does “gameplay” really mean? Critiquing a game based on whatever the term “gameplay” is akin to critiquing a film based on its film-ness, or a painting based on its inherent use of paint. “Gameplay” is a term that has either lost meaning in the gaming world or, in all honesty, never had any. Videosyncrasies attempts to deconstruct the basic elements of the term “gameplay,” ascribing to it five pillars—called “videosyncrasies”—that give real, grounded meaning to the term, each of which explained via thorough analysis of three games: Minecraft, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Nidhogg. These five pillars, these videosyncrasies, are the factors, characteristics, and polishes of any video game that orchestrate the overall quality of the final product. What videosyncrasies make a great video game? What follows is an explanation of various videosyncrasies: being an exciting challenge, intriguing freedom, the promise of reward, a games’ “feel”, and an encompassing fantasy, and how they can make a video game great (or not-so-great).

Before elaborating on the pivotal subject of this paper, to follow are some important facts that may help build a foundational understanding of how a video game can be great: video games are better than movies. That is, if one considers such an argument from an economical standpoint; the net worth of the gaming industry is sprinting towards a potential resting spot above that of the film industry—it is “projected to grow from $67 billion in 2013 to $82 billion in 2017,” and “at the same time, global movie revenue, both DVD and ticket sales, hit an estimated $94 billion in 2010, down 17% after inflation from 2001” (Kamenetz). A good example of video game sales outperforming those of film sales would be Call of Duty: Black Ops II, which “made $1 billion in 15 days”, a hefty sum that took “Avatar, the top-grossing movie of all time, two days longer to earn the same amount” (Kamenetz). Now, one needn’t be concerned about box-office profits just yet, seeing as there is still a ways to go for the gaming industry, but it is undoubtedly growing quickly.

And what of Avatar? Arguably, a great movie, yet beaten in a sales time-trial against Call of Duty? The idea of being either great in terms of economic success or great in terms of artistic quality are two different things—it is not hard for one to argue that neither Avatar nor Call of Duty are artistic masterpieces. Many say that Avatar was only good for its computer-generated imagery, whereas it had a lackluster Dances With Wolves-esque story. If you asked gamers to review of Call of Duty: Black Ops II, many would immediately bash it for being awfully similar to its equally repetitive, uninteresting predecessors in the popular war game series, as does Russ Frushstick in his article about the game on Polygon: “At times it’s genius, as with the multiplayer’s redesigned class system. But at others, it doesn’t feel like it’s trying very hard. Occasionally, it’s a complete mess.” However, there exists, in the farthest reaches of the world of cinema, an unheard-of Korean film about a spoiled boy who “learns to embrace empathy, humility and the importance of family” (Varma) when he spends time alone with his grandmother. A handful of people consider this film—called The Way Home—a work of art, yet its sales approached what would be microscopic in the shadow of Avatar. Likewise, there are video games like Nidhogg, a quirky épée combat game made by one person, that sold very little in comparison to the millions made by Call of Duty, yet is one of the most-decorated indie games in history (yes, there are awards ceremonies for games). One can see that in this way, both mediums (video games and film) are similar in that a team can produce a grand-slam on the company graphs that comes short of first base in the minds of any decent dilettante, while someone with true vision can orchestrate a work of artistic genius that stirs the hearts of a pocket of people yet does not break even with sales.

In addition to their continuous gain on film in the great finance race, another way that video games are better than movies is that they are the ultimate form of media—like movies—but with an engaging twist like no other: they are interactive. In the documentary Indie Game: The Movie, Phil Fish, creator of the cute, adventurous indie game known as Fez, says the following on the subject of games as interactive media:

“To me, video games are the ultimate art form. It’s just the ultimate media. I mean, it’s the sum total of every expressive medium of all time, made interactive. Like, how is that not…[sic] AWESOME!”

What Fish means to convey is that video games are like film, the “sum total of every expressive medium of all time”, said media being art forms throughout human history (paintings, theater, literature), combined in a melting pot of moving images and dialogue to create tragedies and comedies of a new age, then taken a step further by becoming interactive. Take a moment to imagine if it were possible to jump into a favorite movie, say, Lord of The Rings, and begin interacting with the people and creatures of Middle Earth just as the characters in the trilogy. The mythical goblins, orcs, uruk-hai, elves, dwarves, and those lovely little hobbit fellows would all be there, and thus could be manipulated by a viewer, or player in the case of a video game. Skirmishes in the kingdom of Rohan could be fought, magical potions could be brewed alongside elven alchemists, treasures could be quested for with a band of dwarves. One might venture to fantastical sights such as the River Guardians and Gondor, the last city of men, or Hobbiton, a halfling village in the beautiful rolling hills of The Shire. One could spend countless hours indulging themselves in a new world of such majesty, danger, and wonder, as such phenomena are possible through video games. There is a particular game where most of those activities are, in fact, brought to the player as if they were in Middle Earth, called Lord of the Rings Online, or “LOTRO” for shorthand.

If people can claim to be immersed in a world of fiction when they read J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, or watch Peter Jackson’s movies, it should not be so controversial to declare that someone can do the same with video games that represent those same works of art. All art is imitation, yet it seems that current generations (especially the older ones) are skeptical regarding this notion—they refrain from recognizing video games as an art form likely because such an idea is new and has little meat on its bones, yet, that is due to the existing lack of games that could be considered artistic. Kellee Santiago, in a TED Talk concerning the status of video games as a new artistic medium, compares their primordial artistic quality to how the detailed, artful paintings of the modern age evolved from what was once poorly-drawn scratches on cave walls by early humans—this is in rebuttal of Roger Ebert’s recent argument that “video games can never be art”, which is actually the title of the article in which he made this argument. Santiago is, of course, implying that one needn’t be ignorant of this birth of a new art form, and says “video games are already art.”

Now that it is clear that both film and video games are art forms, another question needs to be answered: why does it seem like the world of film criticism vastly surpasses that of video games, since film critics delve into great detail and are able to form sturdy, concrete conclusions, whereas video game critics seem to only scrape the surface of games in their reviews? Such a question implicitly concedes with Ebert’s argument, given that film, a medium more widley recognized as an art form, is backed by better, more trusted criticism—film critics seem to know exactly why any particular movie is great or terrible, but gaming critics cannot do the same for video games. On his blog, Pentadact, Tom Francis explains why this assumption arises:

“Half of [all game critics] apparently think games meaningfully break down into ‘Presentation, Graphics, Sound, Gameplay, and Lasting Appeal’. And the other half believe they’re unquantifiable pixie dust and anyone who wants even the faintest idea of their merits should have to read 3,000 words of waffle.”

The reason that the video game world lacks good critics is because most critics have no idea what they’re talking about. The goal of Videosyncrasies is to offer critics and players alike the tools they need to build up some idea of what they’re talking about when someone asks them “what makes a game great?”

Here, each videosyncrasy will be more clearly defined, so as to establish a better level of understanding of each. Also, let it be known that each of the following are originally declared and defined by indie game developer Tom Francis, in an article on his blog—they will simply be re-used and expanded upon in this paper. Challenge is the difficulty of a video game, simply put, while not necessarily being the health of enemies or the time allotted to finish a race—it has to do for the most part with the intuition required of players to figure out how to solve the problems presented to them. Freedom is a games’ variety of options that the player can choose in order to overcome challenges or customize their game-playing experience—it is not necessarily infinite vastness of space or innumerable randomly-generated items for players to use, but it does necessitate that no matter what the player chooses to do to, there should be an interesting outcome. Reward is as it sounds: the promise of unlocking or unveiling new environments, items, characters, skills or abilities, and even plot points to the player. Feel is a combination of the audio and visual elements of a game, specifically audiovisual feedback, in order to make the player ascertain the feel of something, and is, in all practicality, the varnish for a well-crafted game—it also must be taken into account that feel is a fairly subjective videosyncrasy, since not everyone likes the exact same sounds and visuals. Lastly, Fantasy is the setting and all of the characters and art and, well, stuff created for the player to indulge in, it is the world offered to the player in which he or she is invited to discover and explore. To illustrate the level of analysis that videosyncrasies make possible, the following three games are used as examples: Minecraft, Nidhogg, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.