What Makes a Good Game?
The Characteristics of a Good Video Game
Hades. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It Takes Two. Resident Evil Village. Ghost of Tsushima. The Last of Us Part II. If these games sound familiar, that’s because they’re the recipients of the ‘Game of the Year’ Award by various publications and events. They may not be from the same year or publications, but these games earned their title. How, though? What makes a good game anyway?
A Good Story
Stories connect people to each other. Whether it’s because they relate to the characters or what happens to them, a good story can be a great device to keep players attentive and engaged. Stories are a common device to use as a vehicle to justify some gameplay points or to give the player a purpose to power through the game.
Bioware is particularly good at creating stories — just look at the success of Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Both games were lauded for their gripping stories across games and in other collaborations. Telltale Games also makes heavy use of stories in their games, almost making interactive movies instead of games.
It’s one factor of a good game, but it’s not the end-all-be-all. Sometimes, if a story is pushed onto the game, it can detract from the experience rather than add to it. Otherwise, the more likely scenario to happen is that the story will get ignored in favor of other aspects of the game.
Tying in with the story, characters are the primary driving force of a story. They’re the ones acting and reacting to the events, and players like rooting for a character they particularly like. Gacha games are a perfect example of good characters, at least, good enough to attract players to buy currency to get them.
Genshin Impact is one good example of a game with a good storyline and characters. Each one is created distinct from all the others, even the twin Travelers. One might fill the same role as another, but it would be in different ways. Take for example Fischl and Albedo. Both of their E skills provide a passive source of extra attacks. However, they have different elements and functionalities. Oz is basically a stationary turret, while Albedo has an elevator flower with an area of effect.
Playable characters all have distinct backstories as well. Even when they intersect with one another, it’s well planned. Their clothing and general designs have so much thought put into them. Who can deny the game’s success, when thousands of players spend their money to get their favorite characters?
For some games, the characters can elevate a mediocre storyline. Even if the story is pretty cliched, if the characters were done right nobody would really criticize the game.
Gameplay is what you’ll be doing for the majority of playing the game, so of course, it has to be good. It should be engaging and challenging, but not impossible. Some games may have the simplest controls (think Flappy Bird) or have complicated combos or maneuvers (most fighting games like Tekken).
Different games have different styles. RPGs can have top-down, third-person, or first-person perspectives. They can also cover a variety of modes such as shooters, MOBA, action, and even RTS (real-time strategy). Shooters are either in third-person or first-person perspectives, though they can also be shoot ‘em ups (schmups for short), which cover bullet hell games (like Touhou, R-Type, Raiden). There are also card games, platformers, as well as puzzle, strategy, and survival games.
Then again, games nowadays mix and match these modes or gameplay styles. Hades is an RPG, yet at the same time, it has rogue-like elements to it. Devil May Cry games are RPGs and also hack-and-slash games. Overwatch is a shooter game but has MOBA mechanics and influences. Games can’t be fit into neat little boxes anymore; it’s now possible for them to overlap in similar gameplay or themes.
This makes it easier to jump from one game to another, provided they have a pretty similar take on gameplay. Players of Counter Strike can easily play other FPS games such as Call of Duty, Valorant, or Apex Legends. Dark Souls players can move on to hack-and-slash RPGs like DMC or Monster Hunter, with a significant decrease in difficulty. Although it should be noted that Dark Souls is in a different category on its own, even if the gameplay is similar.
Graphics is what you’ll be looking at while playing the game. It can be a deal-breaker for some players where if the graphics are bad enough, they won’t play the game. However, there are games that deliberately use this tactic, making its other factors carry the game. Triple-A games are where the best graphics are found (this can still be up for debate though). Those games are well-funded to hire the best artists and graphic designers, so it’s no wonder.
One other aspect of graphics is if it’s buggy. It can be good for laughs, but it can also be a pain to play through if nothing works as intended. The general consensus these days, though, is that players won’t stand for a bug-infested game (see some Bethesda releases and Cyberpunk 2077).
Sounds for ambiance and atmosphere also have an effect. That feedback when landing a hit should be noticeable and satisfying. The music should fit the location and mood of the situation. A good soundtrack adds to the whole experience, while a bad one would just leave players confused.
An article explaining why this is important can be found here. There’s a stark difference when playing a game when it’s muted and when it’s not. Audio cues are a big help, especially for combat-based games where enemy movements and attacks can make specific noises that alert the player so they can react appropriately.
Everything is Subjective
The problem is subjectivity. Players are people, and each one has different preferences from others. That means, what works for you wouldn’t necessarily work for another. For example, there could be a pair of siblings who both like RPGs. However, one would rather play Untitled Goose Game while the other likes Bloodborne. They would agree that the other game is good, but would rather play the game they prefer.
So how do Game of the Year awards choose their games? Well, they consider criteria much like what’s listed here, as well as look at the game’s sales and reception. Players would leave a review of the game and recommend it to friends or not.
If a majority agrees that ‘this game is good, it gets bumped up in popularity. Steam has a good system in place, where reviews are automatically summarized in a rating category. Ever since the practice of ‘review bombing’ appeared, it has adapted to show ratings across a length of time. That leaves an overall rating untouched by the influx of dissatisfied reviews.
Fortunately, many players have overlapping preferences, and some are open to experiencing things outside of their comfort zone. Even though people remain biased toward their own preferences, they can still appreciate the game for what it is.
It’s okay to not understand how a GOTY awardee won — your preferences just don’t match the judge’s preferences. That’s not a good reason to start criticizing the winner, though. You might have a favorite game, but that doesn’t give you a license to force other people to like it too.
A Good Game is One You Enjoy
What makes a good game? As long as you, the player, enjoy it, then it’s a good game. Whether the graphics are bad or the gameplay terrible, as long as you’re having fun playing it, it’s okay to say that it’s a good game in your book.
It’s fine to read reviews when choosing a game; just don’t let it influence your expectations too much. You might like a game with so many negative reviews, but you won’t try it because the reviews already colored your opinion.
That means you shouldn’t judge a game before you try it. Graphics, storylines, and characters are somewhat easy to overlook if the gameplay is enjoyable. However, it’s harder for the reverse (gameplay is bad but everything else is good). Still, someone is bound to like that kind of gameplay.
Some games also get overlooked due to a more high-profile game being released at the same time. These end up as hidden gems or cult classics because they’re actually good, they just didn’t get the recognition they deserved — they were overshadowed at the time of their debut. As much as those deserve their good ratings, some games deserve their negative ratings.
In the end, it’s you who choose what games you want to play. Others also choose which games they want to play. While a perfect game isn’t possible, these GOTY-worthy games are the ones that come close to it, despite their flaws.
So don’t worry too much about reviews and enjoy the games you want to play!