I've been talking a fair bit with a friend of mine about video games: how they're designed, what they do for us and our brains, and what makes the difference between a good game and a great one. In the spirit of sharing, I thought I'd put my two cents out on the Internet for all to enjoy. Join me, won't you?
One of those Big Questions floating around the Internet for the past few years has been, "Are video games art?" I think this is a worthwhile question to ask, and I'm pretty much on the positive side, but it's not necessarily the best way to approach video games as a subject. I talked a long while back about Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good For You, and in it he makes a good point about video games: video games may have gotten bigger, cooler-looking, and generally more sophisticated, but they are still games. All games, from Tic-Tac-Toe to poker to Scrabble to Grand Theft Auto IV, are a series of rules and constraints with one or more victory conditions meant to challenge a player's (or players') skills and cleverness. Video games can be used as a medium for engaging and interesting stories or experiences, but for them to truly be "games," there must be an interactive component—the aforementioned rules and constraints in which the player(s) act. Generally, a game creator can focus on one aspect or the other—either the story/characters/experience, or the gameplay—and deliver a novel experience in one of the two. Alternately, they can try to innovate in both arenas, but that's extremely difficult and there's only a handful of successful examples.
I'm being confusing here, I know. Let me explain by way of a few examples.
I just recently got a copy of the 2005 game Psychonauts, which was recommended to me by basically every gaming review site, gaming blog, and gamer friend I know. It's the story of Raz, a young boy with psychic powers who sneaks into a summer camp for kids with psychic powers, and who uncovers a horrible conspiracy to use these kids' brains to power an army of psychic death tanks. As you can probably guess, it is not a terribly serious game. It is, however, an amazingly well-written and hilarious game. Not only does every character have a distinct personality, they each have unique lines of dialogue for virtually every situation: you can use any of your dozen psychic powers or two dozen objects on a character, and chances are they'll have a unique and hilarious response to each one. The levels themselves are brilliant flights of weirdness and fancy, everything from a bullfight taking place in a black-light velvet painting to a Godzilla-style rampage through a city populated by tiny, talking lungfish.
But here's the thing: as a game, just as an exercise in performing tasks within a certain set of rules, Psychonauts really isn't that innovative. The way in which you navigate and interact with the three-dimensional environment is essentially the same as most other modern 3D platformers—everything from Mario Galaxy to Tomb Raider to the modern Prince of Persia games. You run, you jump, you hang off of ledges, you shimmy up poles, you swing on trapeze bars. Yes, you also have crazy psychic powers, but these don't substantially change how you play the game.
Now, let me be clear here: this is not a bad thing. I am not knocking Psychonauts for having a control scheme similar to most other modern 3D platformers. There's a reason this mode of interacting with an environment is so popular; it works. It's simple, moderately intuitive, and provides the player with enough tools to play the game without overwhelming them with control options. This way, you can pick up Psychonauts and, if you're at all familiar with any other recent platformers, you can grasp the essentials of controlling Raz within seconds. Psychonauts is a great game not because it forces you to learn an entirely new way of playing a game, but because it takes a relatively simple and commonly understood playscheme and uses it to tell a humorous and engaging story.
So what's the opposite look like? What does a game that trains you in new ways of manipulating objects or solving puzzles but has little or no story look like? Well, there's plenty: Pac-Man, Tetris, virtually any casual game now on the market. These games either don't have stories or give only the barest nod towards a story.
My favorite example, though, is a game which does have a story, and a pretty funny one at that, but for which the story is just an excuse to teach the player new skills: Katamari Damancy. I'm sure 90% of you have not only played this game or its spinoffs, you're even hearing the theme song in your head right now (naaa na-na-na na na na na, na-na na na-na na...). For the rest of you (hi, mom!), here's a quick recap of the game's story. One night, the King of All Cosmos (a man so flamboyantly dressed that Liberace would tell him to turn it down) goes on a drunken rampage and accidentally destroys all the stars in the sky. He instructs his son, the Prince of All Cosmos (the player), to make new stars out of junk he finds lying around on Earth. This isn't a bad story, necessarily, but it's pretty thin. But then, it doesn't need to be War and Peace, because the real purpose of the game is to show off a brilliant and innovative control scheme. As the Prince, you roll around a large, sticky ball (the "katamari" of the title) in various environments. This ball will stick to, and pick up, objects smaller than itself. As it picks up more objects, it gets larger, allowing you to pick up even larger objects. So in a given level, you may start off on, say, a table, picking up small chocolates and chess pieces. You then get large enough to pick up plates, books, small pets, maybe the table that you started on itself. (By the end of the final level of the first game, you're picking up entire islands.) The controls are literally unlike any other game: you use both of the thumbsticks (like little joysticks, mom) to steer the katamari, push it, reverse its direction, and so forth. It's confusing and difficult at first, but eventually becomes second nature.
Katamari Damancy's story is actually pretty funny—the King of All Cosmos is a wonderfully surreal character—but it's just there as a reason for you to roll up stuff in a giant ball and send it into the sky. Similarly, Psychonauts' gameplay is nothing new, but the story and characters are what make it such an incredible game. Each of these great games—and let's be clear, they're both great—does something novel in one area, even if that means making sacrifices in another.
The obvious question, then, is: are there any games that innovate in both arenas? Can a game have both an intriguing, well-written story and a clever, novel approach to gameplay? I say yes, but my list of examples is pretty short. Off the top of my head, the best example I can think of is Portal, which has received accolades from virtually every game reviewer and has a list of awards as long as your arm. I'm not going to describe the plot or the gameplay here; with few exceptions (still reading, mom?), every person reading this knows at least a little about the game. However, I want to point out two things: first, that Portal is a pretty short game; even poor players (i.e. me) can beat it in less than ten hours. This implies that creating a game that was both well-written and well-designed was taxing enough that it ended up being relatively small. Second, that the central gameplay mechanic of Portal was created by a group of video game design students for a game called Narbacular Drop, which had none of the plot or clever writing of Portal; those students were then hired by Valve to create Portal. They were the innovators behind the gameplay; another group entirely were the innovators behind the story.
In any case, my basic point is that video game creators tend towards innovation either in form—the media itself, in this case the gameplay—or in content—the story, the characters, etc.—and that neither one is necessarily better than the other. I'm willing to go out on a ledge and claim that this is true of most art and artists, but that's a philosophical debate for another day.