“You can’t define gameplay, it’s everything involved in a video game,” an associate of mine asserted as we waited for Chinese delivery one fateful night.
“Sure you can,” argued another friend, “it’s another word for how a game controls.”
“But isn’t that just called ‘the controls’?” Replied the first.
Both of my colleagues were correct, as it happens. Encarta defines “gameplay” as “the entertainment value of a computer game, including aspects such as user interface and game design.” (Encarta.msn.com) In essence, if you are interacting with a game system be it console or hobby, pen and paper or PC, the experiences you have throughout that period of interaction make up the gameplay. Too often game reviewers will focus on that very tight-view description of gameplay, vilifying a game for having complex controls or confusing camera angles when those are only elements of a much bigger equation. Music, cut scenes, quick-time events and even online multiplayer modes and lobbies are all part of gameplay too. Anyone who has ever waited twenty minutes for a matchmaking lobby to fill only to play a mismatched game can identify with what I’m saying here.
Bearing that in mind, I tried to come up with a list of my five favorite games in terms of a total gameplay experience. That list is presented here in no particular order:
1.) Halo 3: ODST: There’s something refreshing about stomping alien hordes as an infinitely powerful super-war-machine, but as a gameplay element it can get rather stale. Being indestructible just isn’t very exciting in the long run – just ask anyone who played Too Human. ODST seems to offer the perfect foil by pitting players against the hated Covenant once again, this time as a lowly trooper. No shields, no super strength, no Spartan armor and only the sparsest weapon upgrades and ammunition supplies.
Fighting your way around New Mombasa is a visceral and fun experience for many reasons that have nothing to do with control mapping or AI effectiveness. The music, for example, is just perfect. Combined with the eerie surrealism of the stylized, broken city and the random enemy patrols it sends a chill up the spine; contributing to the vibe that we are one hopeless soldier trapped behind enemy lines. Combat played out differently to reinforce this. Players were forced to gauge every situation carefully, opting whether to strike, hide or evade every group of enemies. The game was broken up by flashbacks depicting the fates of the other members of the player’s team, which provided new terrain for the game to cover, breaking up the endless cityscape. All of these aspects combined to deliver a gaming experience that was built on the sturdy FPS foundations the Halo franchise established without being “just another Halo game.”
2.) Uplink: I’ve already discussed this game briefly in a previous article, but I can’t think about gameplay successes without this title coming to mind. In Uplink, you play as a hacker. Well, you become a hacker to put a finer point on it. Your character doesn’t have a name, a face or a body. The interface is designed so that you still appear to be looking at a computer screen. So, in essence, when a computer gets hacked in this game, you have hacked it. All the immersion big gaming companies seem to be looking for when they create prettier graphics or motion controls, Uplink creates through a little cleverness. The sum of your interaction with the game in the physical sense will be a lot of clicking, and a little bit of typing. Not from your perspective, however. No, you’ll be too busy re-routing tracer lines and stealing precious financial information from rival corporations to realize that the extent of your “gameplay” has been a few keystrokes here and a few clicks there.
3.) Super Smash Bros. (N64): So let me pitch a video game idea to you. It’s a fighting game that takes place on a number of quirky themed stages with crazy environmental hazards. All of the characters will be recycled from previous games. We’ll also include a ton of crazy overpowered items and weapons that will just fall out of the sky. Since the stages are themed on the characters, and the characters are recycled, all of the stages will be recycled too. By the way, people hate split-screen, so let’s just have 4-player multi all on one unbroken screen! Sounds good, right?
Surprisingly enough, it was. Turns out the only thing Nintendo fans love more than exploring cutesy galaxies with Kirby is smashing his face in with a baseball bat.
This one makes the list because it captures the essence of a good time. Getting together with friends to have silly, nonsensical fun you can laugh about afterward. I mean, it must have been fun, because it really didn’t have much else going for it. The music was nothing especially grabbing, the story was nonexistent and there was nothing innovative about the play style, interface or control system. It was a madcap romp through environments we’d seen before with characters we already knew. It was repackaged in such a way, however, that we couldn’t help but smile and happily take our dose.
4.) Final Fantasy X: This is my favorite game of the series. I always take flak for it. “Tidus is such a whiny bitch!” They say. “Sephiroth is such a cool baddy!” They say.
Well, Tidus may have been a whiner but at least he was a real character. He had real emotions. Even if most of them were geared toward bemoaning his fate and recovering from his latent daddy issues (latent might be generous). FFX controlled like pretty much any other game of its time save for a few button functionality switches (whether “X” meant “forward” in a menu screen or “back” for example), but it was unique in that it had voices. Voices! When the characters engaged in the endless mire of dialogue that turn most people off the RPG genre in general, they did so with these full, rich, lively voices from which characterization could be gleaned.
And the cut scenes! Final Fantasy had always been renowned for above-standard cut scenes, but Final Fantasy X was the first of the franchise built for the PS2, and it had remarkably beautiful “movies.” How does this translate to entertainment value? By allowing the creators of the game to build a fully realized world, replete with three-dimensional environments, characters able to vocalize their opinions and emotions, and a plot wending like a serpent through betrayal, doom and redemption. This world, “Spira”, became a place the player wanted to visit again and again. Driving the plot forward to its resolution was thus all the more entertaining.
5.) Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare: The RPG has been bleeding its way into every other genre of gameplay. It seems even the most stalwart gunfighters and superheroes of the modern age can’t thrive on their own without some sort of RPG-style leveling system to advance their abilities. I think this is handled most elegantly and to greatest effect in Call of Duty 4. Unlike games like Borderlands, where the implementation of RPG aspects are clunky and interrupt gameplay, Modern Warfare shoves all its shiny little RPG parts into a corner where they wait patiently for the slaughter to pause before they rear their loud distracting heads. You get all the classic RPG elements of leveling and character customization so efficiently optimized that you can manage them in the time it takes to wait for matchmaking to find you another game. The result? All of the hardcore FPS action with none of the wait, and an RPG element that keeps you devoted to improving your character. In the business, we call this “fun times.”
Even if you disagree with this list, I hope it at least speaks to the fact that there’s a lot more to gameplay than control and interface issues. If you want to evaluate gameplay, there are two vital and important questions you need to ask yourself:
1 – Did I have fun while playing this game?
2- Why, or why not?
Once you’ve answered these, you’re well on your way to understanding the fundamentals of what “gameplay” really means.