As mentioned briefly in Versus Series 1, there are four components to every game: 1) a goal; 2) a way to achieve the goal; 3) obstacles to the goal; and, 4) a way to bypass the obstacles. Readers of that post may have wondered which video games I felt were lacking in one or more of these areas. At this juncture, I won't fall into the trap of calling out specific titles--instead, I'm going to go after an entire genre: "action games."
However vague their genre title, action games traditionally give us clear examples of the larger genre they are in--the "gated game." Gated games were originally created for the arcade, and are designed to unlock rewards for achieving goals in the game. While rewards can run the gamut from fifteen minute-long cutscenes to cold cash, many times the reward is simply the game itself. By completing the goals given in Level 1, the player is then allowed to play Level 2. (Action games will also use a cliff-hanging story as part of the reward, too, though most action games don't make the mistake of relying on it to keep the player playing.)
The problem with this structure is that it is based on a model that is now defunct (see Home arcades and the death of a game). With the move into the home, the games lost their appetite for quarters, and thus, their central obstacle. Now the gated game genre is in an awkward position: they must strike a balance between withholding their content and giving the player the content they already paid for. This winds up resembling a staged fight, where the strongest fighter pretends to put up a formidable fight, but is ultimately defeated by their clearly inferior opponent.
After all, the primary strength of a gated game is that it makes up the rules as it goes along. The player has no reasonable expectation that Stage 2 will play under the same set of rules as Stage 1--in fact, quite the opposite. Changing the rules (e.g., how many spaceships must be destroyed to pass the stage, or how many bullets it takes to bring down the level boss) is part of the convention of gated games. Since the main opponent of the player in a gated game is the game itself, having the ability to change the rules arbitrarily gives the game an enormous--some might the ultimate--advantage against the player. Anyone engaged in a contest between someone who has the power to change the rules of the contest at will has no hope of winning against an opponent who desires to win.
So far we've been concentrating on the obstacles in gated games, but the confusion in obstacles comes from a more foundational problem--a gated game has no goal. Yes, the player is given goals throughout the game, but achieving these goals will not cause the player to win and, more importantly, not achieving these goals will not cause the player to lose. At the beginning of the game, the player has no way of knowing which goal in the long list of goals she will be given will result in her besting the game. This is because the game will arbitrarily decide which goal is the final goal. Theoretically, the game could provide an endless amount of goals and the player will never win, even if the player never loses.
(Some gamers wouldn't mind this, and in fact desire it. While their desire may seem like some kind of masochistic Sisyphus complex, it is actually the truest desire anyone playing a gated game could have. If the ultimate reward for achieving a goal in a game is to receive more goals, the only way to lose the game is to have the game end.)
So by removing one component of the gated game (the obstacle), we see that it is missing another crucial component--a goal. As the other two components spring from the goal and the obstacle, it must be said that a gated game is a very poor game by these standards. 1) The player is presented with no goal to ultimately achieve; 2) The obstacles are arbitrarily designed by an opponent who has no desire to defeat the player; 3) The ways to achieve the goal are arbitrarily given to the player in piecemeal; and, 4) The ways to defeat the obstacles are also arbitrarily designed by an opponent who arbitrarily designed the obstacles. Chess, this is not.