I listen to the Triple Click podcast. It’s hosted by three game journalists — Maddy Myers, Jason Schreier, and Kirk Hamilton, who chat about whatever game topic is on their minds at the moment. Recently they talked about their “personal canons” — in other words, the TV shows, movies, and video games that impacted them the most. What I found most interesting about the podcast was how their canons belied what elements they look for when they approach a new piece of media.
At first I was going to make this post with my own canon as a response to their episode, but it has morphed instead into what things in general I look for when I play a video game. For as long as I’ve been giving reviews, I don’t think I’ve ever actually spelled out a list of criteria of what matters to me in a game and what doesn’t. So in one way, think of this as a list of my favorite games of all time; and in another way, think of this as my official manifesto of my benchmarks for reviewing games.
1) Narrative Transport
The first thing I look for in a game is that magical feeling of feeling completely whisked away to another world. It’s not necessarily escapism — as terrible as the real world is, I’ve found a way to deal with it. It’s more like… I have a wanderlust for fantastical worlds. Regardless of the game, I’m looking for a good Narrative Transport. The first way I think games achieve this is through its soundscape, meaning its sound design and soundtrack. The second way is through its visuals. However, I’ve found that graphical performance isn’t as important as having a unique and consistent art direction to convince my eyes that I’m in a real place. As long as it can convince my brain to cross the threshold into their world, and help me stay there, then I consider a game well-made.
Games that, for me, are “canonical” for giving me that narrative transport are Metroid Prime (that HUD is a genius way of putting the player in Samus’s shoes), Luigi’s Mansion (Luigi’s whistling is just the thing to pull me in), The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (the moments of quiet ambiance are just to calming), and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (that heroic soundtrack can’t be beat).
2) Emotional Reaction
I see video games as art, and I approach any piece of art with the confidence that if I invest in it and analyze it, then I’ll be rewarded by the creator’s emotional content. It doesn’t matter if the game is childish and cartoony or mature and somber, I’m willing to go on whatever emotional ride the developers have prepared for me. Bonus points go to games that help me acquire any epiphany or introspection. If the game’s motifs sing harmoniously through its story, mechanics, and art direction, and especially if it make me think more about my life, then I’m going to call it a masterpiece.
Games that are hallmarks for giving me strong emotional reactions are The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (there’s always something new to gain from its dark and complex themes), Super Mario Odyssey (the game is just joy incarnate), Golden Sun, and Xenoblade Chronicles (it and its sequel became resonant allegories for existential problems that I had been struggling with at the time).
3) Gameplay Flow
If you ever find yourself planning, strategizing, experimenting, and acquiring more skills at a steady pace, and you don’t want it to end, then you are in a state of gameplay flow. I love being in this state. Gameplay flow is a result of good level design, pacing, and mechanics working together to make even minor decisions feel important. Most games organize their gameplay into a “gameplay loop” – where a player begins and ends a segment of gameplay. That loop may be an RPG combat system, a level in a platformer, or a diverse crafting system. If gameplay is the language of video games, then designing a gameplay loop is like telling a sort of “action narrative.” At the very least, the loop needs an introduction, a twist, and a conclusion in order to feel satisfying to play. The difficulty also needs to challenge the player to either perfect a skill or try an alternate solution, while also not wasting the player’s time. Difficulty is especially a delicate balance to achieve.
I want to differentiate between a compelling gameplay loop and an addictive Skinner Box — the former rewards the player’s skill, strategy, and exploration, and it’s designed to allow the player to take frequent and long breaks; the latter reinforces continual attention and/or monetization, most of them involve randomized loot elements (aka gacha games, lootboxes, etc.) and are designed to take over your life.
Games that I believe are exemplary of strong gameplay flow are Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Pikmin 3 Deluxe, Star Fox 64, and Super Mario Galaxy 2.
However, none of these games would be what I think is the game that defined me. That game belongs to a special pixelated monster catching game. You might have heard of it. While it may not be the best example of any of these three key game elements, Pokemon Red & Blue combined these elements in such as way that it caused a tectonic shift in my childhood. While primitive in graphical detail, even in 1998, the soundtrack pulled me into the world, and Pokemon’s cries convinced my brain that Pokemon were real creatures. I would even open the Pokedex just to listen to their cries. The coming-of-age story with a bully of a rival got me riled up and determined to be better than him. The mysteries surrounding Mewtwo and the legendary birds was enough to pull in my curiosity. While the Gen 1 combat system was simplistic in comparison to Pokemon’s current generation, the type advantages were easy enough for my kid brain to grasp yet difficult enough to master. Earning gym badges, exploring the world, leveling up, seeing Pokemon evolve, and learning new attacks all blended into a strong gameplay loop. While all the other games I’ve mentioned previously surpass them, Pokemon Red & Blue are the games that absolutely defined me. I wouldn’t be the same person without them. They would belong in what the Triple Click podcasters would call their “personal canon.”
I guess that also means that a game doesn’t have to be necessarily ” the best game” to impact you. In fact, a game’s flaws only make it more interesting to talk about. If you succeed at designing at least one (and hopefully more) of my key three elements, then I will likely be more willing to forgive those flaws. If my multiple-post spiel about Golden Sun didn’t already spell that out, then I guess nothing can.
Is there anything you find so compelling in a game that you’ll forgive other flaws? Any common patterns you notice?