I begin this letter a bit dismayed, because I certainly didn’t mean to say what Laura says I’ve said. I’m not very interested in playing massively multiplayer games. Most crucially, I do not associate the “purity” of games with the amount of time you devote to them and wouldn’t even if that wasn’t a line of thinking used to discredit women or anyone else.
I will, however, confess a bias for interactivity—for gameplay. It is a video game’s most important quality, the thing that sets it apart from other forms of entertainment. It is not the only thing commendable about a game, but it is the thing that most distinctly makes a video game a game instead of a video. Interactivity is also the aspect of games that we are least practiced in critiquing, because we lack the centuries-shaped grammar and vocabulary critics have forged to discuss some of the other things we commonly experience in many games: visual art, writing, music, and, at times, acting. Everyone in this exchange has done good work in his or her careers trying to describe what wonderful interactivity feels like, but I bet we all also recognize how out on the frontier it feels when we’re commending a video game’s gameplay or the feel of its controls. It’s easier to take a shot at a game’s bad voice acting or praise its art direction.
But gameplay is the aspect of a video game that I most want to be good, interesting, and fulfilling. I’ll suffer bad graphics, dull stories, and poor soundtracks to experience it. It is the thing that enraptures guys who love Candy Crush and women who love Call of Duty, making hardcore gamers of all of them.
Take the 2014 Xbox One title Sunset Overdrive. Visually and aurally, it’s a tough game to like. It features a grating hard-rock soundtrack and a bevy of garish characters who make eye-rolling jokes about how they know they’re in a video game. This game disappointed my eyes and ears. I discovered its value with my hands, as I played it. Noodling at its controls for a few hours, I learned its odd mechanics and eventually discovered that what I had at my fingertips was access to a virtual, three-dimensional superpowered parkour simulator—a game of violent acrobatics that allows me to virtually skate along power lines across several city blocks while shooting monsters down in the streets, then run along the exterior of a skyscraper, drop onto a parked car, bounce off its roof, and somehow dash through the sky before running across a body of water. Here is a game with basically no elements that I enjoy other than its gameplay, yet that is enough to make it one of my favorite games of the year.
Wonderful interactivity can come in many forms. It can come in the challenge seen in the mobile game Helix to rapidly draw circles around a petri dish of floating critters without making accidental collisions. It can come, as it did in the extraordinary 2013 game Brothers, in giving a player a chance to guide the lives of two brothers, one with the player’s left hand and one with her right.
We’ve all seen the arguments that another 2013 game, Gone Home, isn’t a game because you can’t fail in it—because you mostly walk around while experiencing a story. It certainly fits my broad understanding of what a video game is, and I enjoyed its interactivity—exploration through a house seen, first-person, through the eyes of the player’s character.
To bring things back to 2014, I am enchanted by the gameplay of Crypt of the Necrodancer, a punishing game that has your pixelated hero exploring randomly generated dungeons filled with monsters who move to the beat of the game’s soundtrack.
Some of these games I’ve mentioned are, I guess, more interactive than others, but a game’s quantity of gameplay isn’t a predictor of its excellence. The quality of its gameplay—and the way that gameplay integrates with the other elements of the game—can be.
When I lament my lack of experience with the multiplayer games I mentioned previously—Counter-Strike, Street Fighter, etc.—it’s not because I’m looking to spend dozens of hours playing a game in order to enjoy it. I lament my lack of experience with them and their typical absence from year-end discussions like these because people love these games for their gameplay, and should the next great game be released under our noses, I want to be sure we don’t miss it.
Perhaps Blizzard’s hit virtual card game Hearthstone is the next of these all-time great interactive creations. I sure wish I played more of it so I could say. And perhaps Flappy Bird, that simple spring 2014 obsession that had us all tapping to get a bird to fly through an infinite series of gaps, is? After all, games with all-time-great gameplay need not be multiplayer games or even complicated ones. (Didn’t Tetris teach us that?) The gameplay tuning of Flappy Bird—the way the bird moves with each tap—puts it among 2014’s most captivating games.
The risk I think I’m taking here is that I may be overemphasizing the value of a game’s replayability, of its ability to make people want to play it again, day after day, year after year. I know that can’t be a required trait to laud a game. I don’t want to play the mechanically fascinating 2007 game Portal a second time. I don’t want to play Gone Home again. I liked them both quite a lot the first time, and that was enough. The Last of Us: Left Behind joins that list, even if my favorite moment of that game simply involved pressing a button repeatedly to make the two lead characters share jokes. Deep gameplay that was not, but it was wonderful—but it only needed to be wonderful once. I’m curious whether the rest of you think that it matters whether your favorite games of 2014 are games you’d play again.