I’ve been wanting to talk about this for a while… there are times when a game (or series) that isn’t necessarily the best overall does one thing exceptionally well. Something so unique and special that it is important for us to take a look at it, to recognize what that aspect is. Now, some of these games are going to be good games overall that do something fantastic, but we’re focusing mostly on those unique successes. The one mechanic that makes the game something truly special, whether the game itself is actually good.
This list is not in any particular order, as these mechanics are not really comparable to one another, so while it is numbered… the numbers are not an indication of quality in this case.
Oh and as some of these elements are story-based, this post will contain some spoilers. You’ve been warned!
6) The Last of Us – Uncompromising Character Design
The Last of Us was an amazing game in many ways… but probably the one I haven’t seen in a game before, and the one I’d like to see more of, is the willingness to make a main character you’d disagree with.
Joel did many things that were questionable over the course of the game, and while questionable acts are hardly unusual for game characters… most of the time these questionable acts are put in a light of the greater good. Or the character you’re playing is truly a hero that was forced into doing it… not so with Joel. Joel is a character with some severe psychiatric issues, that come to the forefront gradually over the course of the game. And it all comes to a head at the game’s ending, when you’re forced to kill at least one, if not 3, doctors who are trying to save humanity.
The act makes perfect sense for Joel… but many mixed reactions were seen over it as it felt like a betrayal of you, the player. You are supposed to be in control – that’s what gaming is about, right? You’re controlling the character, you should have some choice! But not here… here you’re roped into the actions Joel would take, because while you are the one playing the game… Joel is really the one in control here. And that was a hard pill for many to swallow… but it’s one that creates a truly fascinating story. Without that unwavering drive to make sure the story is what it is without any care for the players’ reaction, the Last of Us likely would’ve ended up as just another zombie shooter…
5) Journey – Friendly, Anonymous Multiplayer
Journey is one of the greatest gaming masterpieces ever created… for many reasons. The aspect of its design that I find the most fascinating, and the most successful, is its approach to multiplayer. Virtually every other multiplayer game that has been made offers some potential to be a jerk… some potential to troll potential other players, to make their experience less satisfying.
But not Journey. There’s really nothing you can do in Journey to harm another player… you never speak to them, you can’t hinder them in any way. By adding this layer of anonymity and cooperation to the game, they’ve created something truly special. Something that transcends what ‘cooperative gaming’ is supposed to be. Each experience in Journey is altered by the random, anonymous person you’re matched with.
You can experience anger, sadness, joy, friendship, loss… all because you know that this person is there now, and only now. If they go too far away, you may never see them again. If they refuse to move forward, but you want to… you may have to abandon them. I always reference back to an experience I had with Journey… I had done a cooperative run with one single individual the entire way through. We made it to the game’s climactic ending, and when I landed at the end of the epic flight scene, I stood at the edge of the precipice looking back because this person, my ally… my friend wasn’t with me. I just stood there waiting, feeling tears at the side of my eyes as I worried that maybe we’d been separated, maybe he hadn’t made it. Then suddenly, he appeared and landed next to me, and I laughed and nearly shouted with joy at the reunion.
I have never experienced something like that in a game before, nor since… and it’s all thanks to the multiplayer of Journey.
4) Fuse – Ordinary Enemies Are Fun
Fuse was not a good game by anyone’s standards. It was mediocre in nearly every way. The shooting was mechanically successful, but ultimately lacked soul. The boss fights were unmemorable and felt exactly like every boss you’ve seen in every other third person shooter. The character designs were forgettable. The soundtrack and effects were plain and ordinary. Oh, but at least the graphics were full of lovely greys and browns and oranges, something we’ve never seen in a shooter before… right? But most shocking at all was that the weapons were, for the most part, so very pedestrian. They were the standard cookie cutter weapons you expect from every shooter… it began to feel truly like Insomniac had forgotten what had made them so special.
And yet, they managed to do one thing absolutely right… one thing that almost no other game manages to succeed at. In Fuse, the ‘throwaway’ rooms with waves of enemies, the ordinary fights with tons of plain soldiers or mercenaries or whatever to fight… are incredibly fun. It is in those moments, those places in between the ‘high points’ that the game shows it’s only true promise. You get to see all of the special effects of the few unique weapons in these rooms, you get to watch how they all interact with each other creating some truly hilarious chain reactions, and you get to feel powerful. If only the rest of the game could’ve been as well designed…
3) Catherine – Balance Between Difficulty and Forgiveness
Games these days are becoming easier. There’s no real question about that… look at all the fanfare over Demon’s and Dark Souls. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the increased accessibility but it does lead to a certain something missing from a lot of games. And with the way modern game design is, the difficulty settings on most games end up just making things more frustrating rather than actually pushing your abilities – victory at a higher difficulty doesn’t really make you feel good in most games. It’s a strange situation, because it seems almost like developers have forgotten how to design challenge…
Well, except for Atlus. Catherine is a fantastic example of how to design challenge without making it frustrating. A large part of this is just how engaging the puzzle design is, but the real key is that they made it forgiving. Checkpoints are frequent enough, and intelligent placement of bonus lives encourage you to just keep trying. It’s a brilliant combination of challenge, clever design, reward, and motivation; and it’s exactly how you make brutal difficulty work.
2) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – The Outside World
I make no secret the fact that I disliked Skyrim. No secret is made of the fact I found the game incredibly flawed, buggy, and awkward. Skyrim is one of the most overrated games in history… but despite it’s numerous and, to me, damning flaws… it did do one thing incredibly well. One part of Skyrim was far superior to anything I’ve seen done in any other game prior: the outside world.
Bethesda created one of the most fascinating and diverse outer-worlds I’ve seen. The world was pretty, it was interesting, and it was large. But by far most importantly… above all else… they made the world feel alive. The world would’ve been perfectly fine if you weren’t there… every part of it feels like a normal world. There are predators hunting prey, folk travelling, bandits lying in ambush for a wayward merchant… and the events don’t always wait for you. More than once I came upon the remains after one of these things had occurred, other times I’d be in the middle of one event and I’d see another happen completely at random.
It was incredible… and it is what sets the world of Skyrim apart from other open worlds I’ve seen.
1) Sound Shapes – Creating a Soundtrack
Last on this little list, but certainly not least, comes Sound Shapes. Sound shapes is a fairly rudimentary platformer… yet one part of this game stands out as unique…
This, of course, is the way music is integrated into everything the game does. As you reach new points in the levels, new instruments and sounds begin playing, making the track more complete. To make matters even more interesting, they incorporated the music into the terrain of the various levels. Parts of the scenery would change based off of where in the track it was, and you’d have to learn the song as well as the terrain to proceed. It was one of the most beautiful and utterly intriguing gameplay mechanics that I’ve seen.