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What makes a game truly great?

2 min read

Having finished playing The Last of Us, I have been contemplating great games I’ve played.  There have been many, but which of them are really memorable, and why?

For a long time, I was convinced that it was fantastic plot with believable characters.  Give me a great story with some cool people and it should make for a great game.  Yet this isn’t always the case.  I mean, look at Dragon Age 2.  It wasn’t a bad game, and it had an interesting plot and a whole range of intriguing characters.  But the gameplay was just wrong – too much back and forth, repetition and the one dungeon that was recycled throughout.

So maybe all we need are good game play mechanics.  But no, I can’t say that either.  I mean, I thoroughly enjoyed Prototype (I know, I’m the only one), but it was so weak on story and character that the rest of the game fell apart – somehow the “you are mutant, go!” approach to plot didn’t resonate with gamers.

Then we have some great games, such as Beyond Good and Evil.  It really wasn’t anything special regarding graphics, or even game play or plot.  Yet the way the story was woven together, and how the game play was used, made for a truly unique and exciting game.

Or there’s The Last of Us, which goes beyond any game I’ve played in years, if not ever.  Why?  The plot isn’t particularly brilliant, and most of the game play borrows from one game or another.  And yet, the relationships, the attention to detail, the realism, they all come together to make it such a special game.

Now, I’m not saying that a game needs to be great to be enjoyable.  Sometimes, all you want is pwnage, and there are games you will reach for again and again just to blow of steam and relax.  Yet there are games that define gaming for you and raise your level of expectation.  So I ask you, what makes a game go above and beyond?  What takes it from the level of being “a good game” to being memorable, exciting or even reinvigorating as a gamer?

  • HvR

    Combination and different levels of good plot and good game play. Most important X factor is uniqueness I think everybody wants to play something they have before.

    • Ultimo_Cleric N7

      Agreed, its the combiniation that makes it. But to me a truly amazing game is one that the player is ENGAGED in. Something that sucks you in. INNOVATION is another thing. If you dont change things up during the gaming experience, people will get bored fast.

      EDIT: Look at ME2, DA:O, Deus Ex: HR, GoW 3, HL 2

  • Zubayr Bhyat

    I’d say anything that differentiates itself enough to feel fresh (and not go weird) while keeping the rest competent and tight with a good plot. The flaws will be there, but if something is executed well enough it becomes legend.

    Thief’s a good example.


    • Dark dense and thicker than a syrup ATMOSPHERE jacket. DRIP DRIP DRIP DRIP
      That is why The Last of Us is pure fcking immersion. DRIP DRIP DRIP.

      • Metro Last light could have nailed it but they fudged it with all the tits and childish DUKE NUKEM teen boner humor.

        • Even Abe’s Oddysee drips in atmosphere.

          • Skyblue

            Second that and that’s why System Shock 2 is still my favourite SP game of all time. Pure ‘shit your pants’ tension and complete immersion. Other mentions go out to Thief, Unreal (1), Bioshock (1), Demon’s Souls and Half Life.

          • Skyblue

            Almost forgot Alan Wake, also very good.

          • That OOOOOOOOOOZED atmosphere from start to the VERY memorable credit music.
            Narrative should always be on par with addictive gameplay and it worked.

          • Argentil

            +1 for Demon’s Souls and Half-Life.

            It’s been a while since a game has made waves as big as HL.

          • Trevor Davies

            Shodan has the creepiest voice work EVAR

      • Hammersteyn

        And Dark Souls

        • You hit the nail on the head and it does not even have any music besides the boss battles.

          • Hammersteyn

            The silence and darkness in the caves, dulling ones sense is whats the worse for me.

          • AND THAT MY FRIEND 🙂 is why Resident Evil is not Horror,

            Silent Hill 2 on the other hand makes me shit my pants just thinking about it.

          • RinceWind

            Agreed. Silent Hill 2 with the mist scared the fuck out of me man.

          • amazing how shit 15 year old graphics is more potent and powerful when compared to today’s $100 million budget popcorn Amnesia AAA games.


          • Umar Kiiroi Senk?

            Silent hill 2 story was so greatly intertwined in the game it gets inside your head

          • RinceWind

            Exactly. Man, why can’t they make a decent game for the current gens? That difficult? Must everything have Baysplosions in?!

          • Umar Kiiroi Senk?

            It easy and action sells. I miss the days of games making you think and even those truly amazing game that just changes the way you see and think about things

          • That is why Final Fantasy became a poop poo after the static backgrounds and voice acting. To many bells and whistles.

  • ElimiNathan

    Zoe, your articles are really good, we can tell you really love gaming. Big ups to you

    • Zoe

      thanks so much! really appreciate it 🙂

  • ElimiNathan

    I think its all in the details

    • Zubayr Bhyat

      The details are everything. I think the key is to make the connection with the gamer enough to get their attention and form a bond with millions of lines of code. Deus Ex (the first, not HR) had crap combat but the story and plot combined with excellent damage system (even in its time) kept me playing it at least ten times over.

    • The devil is in the detail 😛

  • RinceWind

    Good question. Look at Farcry 3, meh story, but one of the best bad guys in any form of media that I can recall. The mechanics were good, nothing new, but I didn’t have to fight with it. FF8, emo story but what a story it was. Time spent, 100 plus hours levelling up. Bioshock Infinite WOW. Story, visuals, my wife Elizabeth (and I wouldn’t cringe so much saying that if my mother wasn’t also called Elizabeth, Electra issues, much?) Batman Arkham Asylum. Wow, story, mechanics, beautiful world! I don’t think there is any one thing, no quintessential sweet spot as it were that one has to ensure is done right to make a brilliant game. To me asking that question is like asking ‘why are here, what is the meaning of life?’ And to me? “I’m not a gamer because I have no life, I’m a gamer because I want to have many” (stolen).

  • brad coetzee

    Um, Prototype is my 2nd favourite game on my xbox. I’ve played it through 3 times. Alex Mercer is like the Hulk mixed with Spiderman mixed with Mystique. Just absolutely fookin deadly. So the story was kind of weak/generic but jumping a 100ft through the air and hurling an M1 Abrams at an Apache more than made up for it.

  • Argentil

    For me, there were a few moments where I just had to stop and think. Most of it was story or character-inspired thought, but there were times when I thought to myself that tackling a level in an unconventional way was really brilliant. The Last of Us does a lot of things well, it does other things in such a way that you’re left a bit flabbergasted, in a good way. I think it will be different for everyone. I had quite a few moments of awe while I was traversing a level, like how impressive the algae looked in the water Joel was trudging through, or how brutal the animations were. There were elements in the bones of the game that I appreciated, as well as the meat itself. This is what makes this game what it is. Technical mastery, emotional weight, characters with believability and depth, a setting and tone that leave you gasping for more by the time it’s over, and themes that get you thinking outside of the context of the game alone.

    • You share today’s BELLS with Darren Peach.

      • Argentil

        Why thank you.

        • No, thank you 😛 We need more of this on gaming sites where us gamers can talk about the game in depth. I am tired of all the politics. I want more games debated like this.

    • Darren Peach

      The one thing that stood out was the upside down gunfight. Where the hell did that come from. Out of nowhere….Brilliant in terms of game play. I also thought the Sniper section was very bleak. The guy sounded like Woody Harrelson. So Isolated yet so much depth.

      • Zoe

        i also loved that part! the upside down gunfight was insane and perfectly done. i was so impressed with the physics, and the absolute terror of it. spot on!

        • Guest

          I forgot about those for a minute…..Just reminds me of the multiple levels of depth achieved in this journey. ( I read the Article )

  • Hammersteyn

    If all games were at least half as good as Last of Us. The whole world would be a better place.

  • Darren Peach

    The Last of Us stands out as something truly great. The pace, narrative and human nature of the relationship in this game has gone above and beyond what we can expect in a modern game. I finished it a week ago and I am still smitten with it. Want to give it another play-through but I am also worried that the second play-through will shatter that warm feeling I have towards what I consider to be the best game I have ever played. BioShock Infinite is another, Very forward thinking narrative and premise. My only concern is when games start taking on more profound subject matter ( Spec Ops :The Line ), Does the inherent violence in these type of games start to become a moral issue for the game industry itself ? We run through a game gunning down thousand of AI’s without consideration towards the moral or ethics of it but when you tackle the Idea of morals and ethics in games themselves, The overt gratuitous violence somehow seems wrong. As weird as that sounds, But games have been built on the back of many violent shooters and yet the way forward is games with a narrative of greater value.

    • Argentil

      This is another thing I loved about TLOU. The violence was so visceral, and there was always baggage to killing, even if your opponents were despicable opportunists. I felt that Joel’s violence was necessary, but I couldn’t help but distance myself, and feel uncomfortable with the heavy-handedness. This game does a better job of relating violence in video games than any other I’ve played. Killing is detestable in this game. Ellie will give an alarmed gasp, or remark when Joel kills. It leaves you feeling a bit hollow and guilty.

      • Elizabeth did the same when you did a melee. I hope it is a new trend because us gamers need to be reminded of how desensitised we have become.

      • Darren Peach

        I completely agree. The narrative presents itself in such a way that the only way to illustrate the moral ambiguity is through the reaction of the girl, Yet she takes on violence herself as a means to survival. The situation warranted it. The end is a Masterpiece. The ultimate contradiction, All that violence to reach their goal yet when faced with the choice, He chooses to save her. Selfish or Humanity in play ?

        • Argentil

          Try not to spoil it.

          • Darren Peach

            Sorry man. I just assumed most would have finished it by now.

          • RinceWind

            Not yet! At least you warned of a Spoiler. I am waiting for the PS3 price to come down and I’m buying it just for this game.

        • Zoe
          • Darren Peach

            I forgot about those for a minute…..Just reminds me of the multiple
            levels of depth achieved in this journey. ( I read the Article )

    • You share today’s BELLS with Argentil.

  • Tbone187

    Depends on the type of game but : Gameplay mechanics, fun factor, sense of achievement, realism(both graphics and gameplay) and story lines…combined, and you have a deadly cocktail worthy of legendary status…

    • Argentil

      I wouldn’t factor in realism. Journey, as an example is one of the best games I’ve ever played, but it trumps two of those conventions. The story is implied for the most part, with some short cutscenes to give you a general historical overview of the setting. It leaves you with a strong feeling that you’ve experienced something moving by the end of it. The best games are unforgettable experiences.

      • Tbone187

        Not sure hey…some of the most memorable games incorporated realism…res evil2, mgs, heck even the blood in MK was memorable for the time…Racing games like Sega rally & Daytona USA added realism to racing…Tekken in fighting could be used as an example as well…but you also get memorable games like bubble bobble, pac man and the like that simply excelled at fun factor with no story or refined graphics…So I’d say it’s too vast to pin down to specifics…

  • Warren Ross

    The best games have conviction: they may not be technically superior in any way, or even be particularly original, but you can feel when you’re playing something that was created by a group of people with a genuine love for the material. Batman – Arkham Asylum, Bioshock Infinite, XCom, Mass Effect…going further back there are games like Full Throttle, Star Control 2, Doom, Civilization, System Shock, Ultima VI, Wing Commander 2, Diablo, Dune 2 etc.

    So many great games, so many different genres…but all of the best ones were crafted by people that completely believed in what they were creating; people who truly bought into bringing a particular vision to reality.

    • hear hear. Like Hotel California. It just ooooozes soul no matter how many times one listens to it. Just 1 example of a billion pieces of art where the passion is followed through like a little parasite. One can just tell.

      • Or one can enjoy music from Paris Hilton’s computer generated trash.

  • Galbedir

    Give me a game containing a character with feeling and emotion that you connect with, a story with twists and surprises that keeps you wondering and a decent gameplay time (Non of this 6-8 hour trollop!). Then you have a game I will throw money at. One particular game that comes to mind in the past are…Soul Reaver: Legacy of Kain series (God I miss these)

  • But does ICO and Shadow of the Colossus share the same mantel?
    Even the language was made up.

  • Umar Kiiroi Senk?

    Feels….a game that leaves me with many feels…thats a great game for me……i remember playing chrono trigger when i was young. And seeing chrono die was just so perplexing for me as i felt things i never didbefore in a game

  • ALKi1234

    It would be a crying shame if ND choose not to make a sequel……please ND for history’s sake!

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