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Top 5 Ingredients of a Great Game

Like everything that has ever happened, and everything that is still yet to come, there are games that are great and games that are terrible. The great stay with us, strong and solid upon a plinth of golden memories. The terrible are washed down river with never a second thought. But what makes a game great? Can a game be called great on the basis of just one factor, or is true greatness formed from the amalgamation of assorted ingredients that congeal together birthing a title to stand in the halls of gaming history? Here is a list of 5 basic elements that I feel form the necessary constituents which, when properly mixed, result in a great game.

1. Location, location, location. 

A game has to have a village, city, country, planet, a whole universe that you want to be in. A game that has no lovable location, not in the graphical sense of ‘pretty’ but rather a world which entices and draws you in, will not be a great game. The player has to be enthralled by the presented environments, whether that enthralment is one of intense attachment or one of immense hatred, it matters not. All that matters is that the player is immersed into the world. A game that makes the player hate a particular location is one that truly understands how to draw a player into a game. Imagine you, the player, are the offspring of a noble family in a great city. Your parents are brutally killed and butchered after the city is sacked by a vast army and you are labelled a traitor. Everywhere you go within the city you are spurned, hated and mocked. You should now feel resentment towards the location of the game, yet this does not make the game bad, instead it provides a key ingredient in making it great.

2. Challenge.

This is a tricky one to get right. Case in point, FPS difficulty settings. Boiled down, all they do is increase enemy bullet damage and AI ‘intelligence’ so they know exactly where you are. This does not increase the challenge, in the basic form of the word. All this achieves is to make the game seem harder than it actually is. Real challenge lies in decisions, puzzle solving and choice. Take a game as simple as Tetris. No one can deny that Tetris is a great game, it’s one the worlds most famous games. Yet it offers a challenge, simple to understand, yet hard to master. Moving on the harder challenges, we have games like Portal, Braid and Myst, behemoths of gaming legend that test the mind as much as reactions. Challenge is also reward based, as Ivan Pavlov was fond of saying. A game with incrementing challenges and rewards as a pace-setter serves to extend the longevity of a game whilst also maintaining constant quality.

3. A compelling protagonist.

This one only really concerns games that have a protagonist, i.e. Tetris can be removed from this equation. A story-driven game requires the player to actually have an attachment to the main character(s) that they play. Although this seems incredibly obvious, many games fall short of this despite having other aspects spot-on. For example, I never truly felt any emotion for Marcus Fenix in Gears of War. The setting of the game was excellent, the environments beautiful and compelling, yet I could not have cared less about the fate of my ill begotten hero. I never felt any reason to care whether he lived or died, but I did care about the fate of the planet, Sera. Without a protagonist that demands respect and attachment, a game can fall shamefully far from being termed great. The player needs a reason to play the character they are forced to (even with customisable faces), otherwise the game feels empty and hollow, without sustenance or reason.

4. Freedom.

This ingredient is very special, and is very dangerous to handle. Freedom, for me, means the extent to which a game reacts in relation to the choices and decisions of the player. Whether this results in positive or negative consequences is inconsequential, it’s the actual feel of the game reacting to what you’ve done. I understand that some game genres thrive under linearity, but even those could be vastly improved by adding more freedom. Take Minecraft, for example. The game has no story line, no conversations, dialogue or a definable world per se, and is only bounded by the players imagination. The sheer amount of freedom to create in Minecraft is vast, and you actually see the world physically change with regards to your actions. More definitively, there exists Deus Ex, one of the greatest great games to ever be great. Your choices and actions in Deus Ex all lead to meaningful, diverse and interesting situations which culminate in a very intense and personal experience. A great game needs a world thriving with choices that matter and are not just added on to make you feel like you’re changing the end result (see Mass Effect 3).

5. Endless possibility.

It’s hard to put into words what this means. The French have a saying, ‘Je ne sais quoi’, meaning ‘I don’t know what’ It’s a perfect saying for this ingredient of a great game. Endless possibility is that certain aspect of a game that keeps you playing, that makes you do another playthrough, that entices you so fully that may as well up sticks from reality and move into the game world. Again, Minecraft offers endless possibility – the world is literally at your (blocky) fingertips, ready to be moulded into anything the player desires. RPGs know the weight of this ingredient, and they milk it for all that it’s worth in the way of constant improvements, better loot and ‘getting ever stronger’. This factor also pertains to new abilities, mechanics, puzzles or story developments. It’s that special drop of an essence that makes it hard to put a game down and do other things. Games that manage to infuse this particular ingredient into their final product are well on their way to greatness.