What do you look for in a video game?

When you pick up a video game, what type of entertainment are you looking for? What is the element that usually draws you in the most? Do you play for the story? Do you play to be challenged? Do you play to pwn n00bz? It seems that we all seek different sort of gratification from the video game medium.

This conversation started when I mentioned the “innovative” game play in Prince of Persia. Why is it innovative? Shamus probably explain this much better in his video:

Reset Button: Most Innovative Videogame of 2008 by Shamus Young

Prince of Persia is innovative because it removes character death from the equation. It’s simply impossible to die in the game. Each time you botch a jump, your sidekick will rescue you and drop you back on the ledge you fell from. Every time, an opponent knocks you out he regenerates some health but you get to stand up, and try again. I haven’t actually play this game yet, but to me that sounds like a grand idea. I can’t tell you how many times I gave up on a game or turned to cheat codes because it was just to frustrating to continue. The truth is that I do not play video games to be challenged. While I enjoy a reasonable challenge, I am ultimately more interested in the unfolding story. When I’m playing a FPS game I want to feel like a bad-ass action hero and do hero like stuff. I don’t want to play memory based puzzle game that forces me to memorize the position of every enemy and trap, and then perform a complex set of maneuvers with flawless timing. That doesn’t sound like fun to me at all. I require a steady stream of new stimuli to retain my attention and keep me going. Repetition bores me to death, and thus I find games built around the DIAS game play model to be needlessly frustrating and boring.

I really get no enjoyment from “mastering” a level or learning how to flawlessly clear some area. I get more of a kick out of beating my enemies by flying by the seat of my pants, and improvising on the fly. If I die, I slightly adjust my strategy and try again. If I die 50 times in a row making only minimal progress in each iteration, I’m hitting up the internet for cheat codes or quitting the game. So a death free game sounds like a great idea to me.

My brother on the other hand is totally opposite. He seems to get off on challenge, and when he heard about Prince of Persia gameplay he could not believe someone would actually pay to play that game. He was surprised and appalled that someone would take out the all the “fun and challenge” out of a game only to “cash in on the casual gaming hype”. This is a strikingly different approach from mine, and I’m actually amazed that we actually like a lot of the same games.

He is more of an RTS person though. Just the other day I saw him re-play the exact same skirmish battle in Medieval Total War over and over again. When I asked him about it, he explained that he tries to learn good strategies against the Mongol horde. So he would sit there and play skirmish after skirmish just to brush up his tactical skills. And it’s not like he was stuck, and needed this training to proceed in the story mode. He admitted that his armies were winning most of their battles but with considerable casualties. He was just trying to discover a the best way to mercilessly pwn the computer with minimal losses. He would invest time and effort in training his skill and work his way through all these scenarios slowly ramping up the difficulty along the way. Why? Because he was getting a kick out of overcoming the challenge. It was not about winning – it was about the way he won, and the road that led him there.

I found this interesting because you would never catch me doing something like this. This actually sounds like work, and a major time investment. I have precious little time to allot for my video game hobby. I want to be able to fire up the game play for two hours and actually make some progress. I don’t want to spend days training and mastering new techniques. I want just enough challenge to keep things exciting, but not enough to actually force me to stop completing quests and achieving objectives. I want to experience the story.

I want to be Gordon Freeman and pretend I’m actually having conversations with Alyx and that I actually understand what the hell is going on in the Half Life universe. I love games like Morrowind and Oblivion which allow me to play my own, morally ambiguous, demented character and write my own stories. I like to sneak into a cavern full of bandits wearing Fin Gleam helmet (permanent night eye) and kill them off one by one by sniping at them from a distance with my magical bow not because the combat element is particularly fun an exciting. I like it because of the story I’m creating there – I’m a magically powered assassin hiding in the shadows, killing without ever being seen.

Most people I talked too enjoyed the original FarCry. I played it on an off for a while because initially it was fun in small doses. I never finished it though because it just kept increasing the difficulty, while using a rather unforgiving checkpoint based save system. Not only that, but it also featured a character I completely did not relate to. I just didn’t like him and I could not buy into the idea of one dude slowly exterminating hordes upon hordes of of trained soldiers and mutated monsters.

I love playing Gordon Freeman because he is a fucking MIT PHD! Not only that, he has no personality to speak off – his personality is mine to define as I’m playing the game. Is Gordon a stuck up jerk? Is he a genuinely nice guy? Is he soft spoken guy, or a brash loudmouth? Does he sound like a PHD – expressing himself in precise scientific manner, or is he blurting out cliche one liners every time he shoots a guy? Does he use the HEV Suit binoculars to zoom in on Alyx’s ass? I think I enjoy imagining my personalized version of Gordon Freeman interacting with the game world in his own quirky way much more than actually paying the pitched battles. When I actually like the characters, I find it easier to suspend my disbelief.

My favorite HL2 moments are the emotionally charged scripted events. I found the huge battle with the Strides at the end of Episode Two inexplicably boring. On the other hand scene in which you fight with the hunters for the first time was the sheer moment of awesomeness. You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s when you and Alyx are stuck in a building and you can hear and see the damn things rampaging outside. As you duck for cover behind crates and tables and Alyx tells you she is scared. IMHO it was one of the most memorable video game moments ever.

My brother thinks that if I’m into the plot and story so much, I should just stick to movies. But that is not the point here, is it? Movies are by their very nature not interactive. What I enjoy in a game is the ability to influence plot. I like games that stimulate my imagination and provide immersive experience. This is why can completely lose myself in open-ended sandbox games such as Oblivion and Morrowind but don’t particularly care for the GTA series. Oblivion has a difficulty slider I can move at any time to adjust the game to my needs and lets me create the type of character I can identify with. GTA games are needlessly difficult, usually force me to play some unlikeable thug, and make an excessive use of the DIAS game play mechanic. To this day I have never fully unlocked any of the GTA cities – the games are just too frustrating.

For me, the challenge in a video game is an optional component. It just something that makes the action more exciting – a sense of danger applied during particularly shocking plot twists adds another dimension to the experience. It is a means to an end. However when it is used as an end in and of itself, it becomes pointless and boring to me.

What do you enjoy in video games the most? Do you get a kick out of overcoming difficult challenges like my brother? Or do you enjoy participating in, and creating interactive stories? Do you enjoy immersion? Do you like PVP? Let me know in the comments.

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7 Responses to What do you look for in a video game?

  1. IceBrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux Terminalist says:

    Well, I enjoy some DIAS: Metal Slug, for example, is great, in small doses. I usually play once every two or three days and I always start from the beginning, trying to see how far I can get with only 2 coins. I’m almost at the final boss!

    For me a game must provide some challenge, I hate games were you just play-through, it just feels an empty experience, even with a good story.

    But frustration has to be kept to a minimum: I’m not playing 40 times the same level to get it right, but that never happened to me on games like Call of Duty or GTA, usually I get it on the third or fourth time, especially as you can adjust the difficulty.

    A great game for me is Max Payne 2 – You have a good (challenging) shooter with an interesting story (with great moments like the dream levels).

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  2. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I used to love games like Morrowind, but now prefer casual games I can play for a bit, then not play for days and days, then pick up where I left off. I now HATE games that require me to study all of the possibilites and combinations of gear (WoW, or any MMORPG), or that have an instruction manual that reads like a university text book (Civilization, Sins of a Solar Empire).

    My favorite game last year…World of Goo. FPSs are fun too, when I can go into God Mode and unlimited ammo and all gear and just go nuts.

    BTW: I HATE, HATE, HATE XBox 360. What a stupid interface to actually PLAY a game. You have to create a Profile, then load that profile, then play that profile, but if you want to start a new game with that Profile, you sorta can’t (Resident Evil 5) because you have all the weapons…gah. Stupid. Heaven help you if you want to play two players. What the hell happened to “play the game, save the game, restart the game, load save game, continue…”. My son and I were playing RE5, he started a solo game, but when we went back to our game, he had all the weapons from his solo game. Very annoying.

    Oh…and achievements are fucking annoying. Talk about pandering to the moron set. OOoo…I have a shiny thing because I did this thing in this amount of time. Newsflash: doesn’t make your penis any bigger, nor does it make you more sexy to the ladies.

    There…rant over…

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  3. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I’m with IceBrain here. I don’t mind a little DIAS. Once you get over that hurdle, it’s quite a great feeling! :P I do enjoy the GTA series, despite its shortcomings. Of course, like IceBrain says, if a game makes you take 40 tries, that is a little too much and it’s going on the to-be-resold list.

    My bro’s a little like yours, I would expect. He can go on and on at one game for a long time, honing his skills, while I will get bored and switch to another, and then feel a little nostalgic and then go back and have another go. Which explains my on-again-off-again relationship with WoW.

    I agree with you on Far Cry. I played it before and stopped just when the aliens started showing up. Cos I keep running out of ammo and dying each time they jumped out at you. Frustrating.

    How about Far Cry 2? I’ve only recently bought that game, and somehow, you couldn’t die. Or to put it in a more correct term, won’t die if your in-game buddy was still alive to “rescue” you each time you run out of health. Far Cry 2 also has that open-world concept similar to Morrowind or Oblivion, where you can go wherever you wish. The only downside I’ve been having is that the world can get pretty sparse for an FPS, and driving can be a real bitch at times. The story is like a P-type doped semiconductor though; it’s full of holes.

    @Steve: I love going nuts in games too! I have a particular savegame of GTA3:SA that I love, because in that game, I have used all my money to buy a shitload of weapons, and each time I fire it up, I try to get my wanted rating to the highest and see how long I could survive. :D

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  4. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I don’t understand what is so innovative in the latest PoP auto-rescue. If I remember what I read about it right, if you fail you have to try again a short series of jumps or start the boss at full or half health. Seems a lot like (very numerous) checkpoints to me, except the loading screen is actually hidden by a scene in which the girl saves you. For that matter, I’d much rather my own anti-death mechanism present in most PC games : quicksaves. At least my character can die, even though I won’t let him (and not some NPC).

    FarCry is insanely hard, if you try to play it like a basic FPS. Believe me, I tried : even on easy you get slaughtered. I could only survive the campaign by using stealth tactics and sniping as much as possible. It’s closer to an infiltration and stealth game as far as mechanics goes, it’s not another Doom-like where circle strafing can get you out of anything. If an enemy squad spots you, you don’t fight them off, you run in the jungle and try to lose them, then pick them off in the shadows one by one. It takes time to lose the reflexes acquired on other games, but once set on playing this way it’s much easier and quite refreshing.

    Anyway, I play some games for the story (adventure games, rpgs), and some others for the gameplay (rhythm games, puzzle games). What I look for is different in either case. If the story is interesting, I usually don’t like too challenging a gameplay because it’s preventing me from advancing the plot, which is frustrating as I want to see more. If there’s nothing but the gameplay (or a minimal cliche plot), it’s better if it’s challenging to keep me interested.

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  5. Mack UNITED KINGDOM Safari Mac OS says:

    I really enjoyed the Episode 2 final battle. It took me a while to complete even on Easy mode when I kept trying to battle the hunters conventionally with ammo instead of using the car or gravgun and logs, but for me it was one of the most intense game experiences I’ve ever had. It was massively tense and blisteringly challenging at times, with the siren going off and the strides feet from destroying the rocket when I made them foom.

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  6. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Looking at the games I play, I’d say by empirical observation that what I look for is an online multiplayer game made by Valve. Aside from that, my tastes tend to the FPS genre, but the ones with decent story (making some kind of sense, at least by in-game logic, is also a must) rather than just insipid run ‘n gun affairs. Anything Half-Life is a win (yay Valve)

    I started playing Bioshock recently… the gameplay was fun, but I honestly can’t figure our what’s supposed to be motivating the character – survive a plane crash in the middle of the ocean and swim to a nearby lighthouse, fine, but then to randomly climb into a bathysphere and plunge into the depths of the oceans? The only reason I had for doing that was because there was nothing else to do apart from swim around in the ocean some more, and the character has even less reason. He then proceeds to take the whole underwater city and mutant “splicers” thing in his stride, jam every needle he finds into his arm (no indication of what that was going to do before it happened) and generally have no reaction whatsoever to the situation beyond getting on with tasks he has no reason to care about.

    That being said it is fun to play… despite making no sense. Might play some more eventually, but I might just go happily back to being spoiled by Valve with their free DLC, frequent updates and awesomely done Half-Lifes (might try and do the one-bullet thing in Episode 1… the PC version doesn’t have achievements, but I could try it anyway. Already did the gnome achievement in Ep2 by the way, so yknow, bask in my awesomeness and stuff). That or continue waiting for Episode 3.

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  7. copperfish Opera Linux Terminalist says:

    There are only two things that are critical for me in a game:

    Storyline – something that drives me to play through. I’ll play through most games until the main storyline is complete and then I’m done. Fallout 3 may have a lot of side quests to play, but if I missed any after the main quest is over I’m not going to feel driven to go back and play them. I need to feel that the narrative is driving me on. Poor gameplay isn’t saved by good narrative and good gameplay is empty without good narrative. Far Cry 2 (as an example) was just too open storyline wise and too disconnected with travel and difficulty to feel coherent. I never even completed the first main area before selling my copy.

    Pure Gameplay – good arcade racers, and twitch games like Mutant Storm/Geometry Wars have a simple mechanic I can pick up and play easily. These games always have a place in my collection and I can keep going back to them year after year. Roguelikes fit into this category too.

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