Sunday, January 31, 2010

It doesn't matter if it's not gameplay

I'm not trying to be the blind man telling the others what an elephant looks like, but I think it's pretty clear so far that the aspect of video games I am most interested in is the game aspect.  By this I mean almost entirely the rules of the game.

The rules of a game are as central to the game (any game, not just a video game) as a plot to a novel and a melody to a song.  A game cannot be separated from its rules.  Anything that can be termed a game has rules.  The only question is, how good are they?

Video games are much more than a set of rules.  In fact, since the rules are usually entirely contained within code that the player cannot see, most players will never actually see any rules.  This is perhaps why gamers have chosen such a variety of ways to determine the quality of a game, from the amount of gore to the animation in the "cutscenes."  As far as the rules of the game go, these things are typically entirely arbitrary.  It's like judging the plot of a movie by the selection of songs on the soundtrack.  However, people do it; which led to the creation of what may eventually be my catchphrase, "It doesn't matter if it's not gameplay."

Cutscenes don't matter.  Voice-acting doesn't matter.  Blood effects don't matter.  Dynamic shadows don't matter.  Historical accuracy doesn't matter.  Texture resolutions don't matter.  Soundtracks don't matter.  Story doesn't matter.  The level of difficulty doesn't matter.

Now, I don't mind a high level of quality in any of the above features--in fact, I'll go as far as to say that I quite enjoy it.  But my contention is that the set of rules of a game is so powerful, none of those above features can add or take away from it.  Let's think about chess: while we would all prefer to play chess with silver and gold pieces on a crystal board, we can have the same experiences playing with bottle caps on a piece of paper.  The quality of board and pieces is purely decorative, while the game exists outside of them.  As it is for chess, it is for all games.  (That may be another catchphrase I'm working on.)

Many times, I will agree with others on the quality of a video game outside of the rules, but that will not sway my opinion on the video game as a whole.  I like games--I am bored quickly by toys and I have yet to see a video game rival any actual film on film's terms. 

As we've discussed earlier, viewing a video game as a game is only one of many ways to enjoy or critique it.  To someone viewing a video game as a film, cutscenes do matter; voice-acting does matter.  To someone viewing a video game as a toy, blood effects do matter; dynamic shadows do matter.  The important thing here is communication: what do I mean when this particular video game is "great"?  Do I mean it's a good game, or a good toy?  How does the video game think of itself?  How does the person I'm talking to view the game?  As we learn to establish these things, we will begin agreeing with each other more consistently and also be well on our way to making video games better toys, games, films, etc.

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