It occurred to me while I was playing through Ico that I have no real definition of what makes a game fun. It’s an easy word to pin onto things, but difficult to describe. What about a game makes it interesting? What makes me buy a game? What makes me replay a game? Now, before you read this article, keep in mind that a fun game isn’t necessarily a good game, and not all fun games have to meet all of the criteria. This is just a loose guideline to attempt to pin down what I mean when I say, ‘Wow, this game is fun.’
In Zelda, you want to prevent some kind of calamity. In Mario, you want to save the princess. In Limbo, you need to move forward and survive. The desire of a character is intertwined with whether or not I can care about them. Do I want them to get a happy ending? If I do, I can step into that character’s role. And that’s where a fun game starts. In order for me to care about a character, I need to know what they want, as early as possible. If it takes me one minute of the game to understand what a character wants, something right happened. Team Ico is a master of characterization, and they do it all with very little dialogue to boot.
But even throughout the game, a main character should develop. Whether for better or worse, I need to see how a creed-breaking Assassin can repent for his actions and avoid corruption. I need to see a weak character ascend to become a hero, and I need to see a lonely character collect a gathering of allies. I want to get that bit of input from the gym leaders each time I beat them, and maybe a bit of snark from a rival—because that’s how I know that my main character is growing.
Lots of Characters
Speaking of characters, when I play through a game, I want to see loads of them. I want to catch them all or gather all of the allies. More characters generally mean that the environment is more fleshed out—after all, these characters had to come from somewhere. Learning the back stories of the characters is a hidden gem in the grand scheme of whatever game I’m playing. That’s not to say a lonely game like Shadow of Colossus would be unappealing. Even then, the Colossi have such character and design that even though you may not know their back story, you become acquainted with their personality as you ascend and feel guilty after you kill them. Each character in the game is just one building block in the grand scheme of things–and the more grand the grand scheme, the better.
This doesn’t mean turn based. This means I need to ration my items throughout a tough battle. I need to find the enemy’s weakness, whether it’s a glowing red eye or elemental spell. Combine that with unique move sets or specialties in a cast of characters, and I have to pick and choose how I approach a battle. Battles don’t have to be hard—and maybe they shouldn’t be, if they’re not boss fights—but they should make me think. Battles are a special kind of puzzle, and for someone like me who plays games to exercise my mind, a battle that requires simple or precise button mashing just won’t cut it.
These games don’t need console-straining, high-definition, or photo-realistic graphics. All they need is a bold, unique look that blends seamlessly with the gameplay. Could the Wind Waker or Skyward Sword have any other graphics style? Okami clearly gained a lot from its distinctive and artistic sumi-e impression. The graphics on the latest game engines might have the flashiest light scattering system or increased polygon rendering, but if this adds nothing to the gameplay, then it won’t make the game more fun to play. I prefer the distinct, yet simple, look of Limbo to the latest Final Fantasy games.
To some extent, all games have a mystery plot. You don’t know if the main character will achieve their goal or whether the antagonist will overtake them. But along with that, the character themselves could have a bit of mystery to them. Perhaps a hidden backstory or special talent that goes unexplained. Maybe the character has a secret, and the dramatic tension is everywhere throughout the game. It might be cliché, but it’s interesting and keeps me invested in the story.
When you’re done playing a game and still find yourself humming the soundtrack after you play, you’ve found yourself a good soundtrack. Similarly to the graphics, the music should be unique and bold. The play of silence and music in the Team Ico games is wonderful, and emphasizes the soundtrack all the better. The catchy melodies in Zelda games and the sweeping orchestra of Star Ocean games are all lovely and characteristic.
I remember getting to Zanarkand Ruins in FFX and thinking, ‘wow, this game is amazing,’ as if it had never occurred to me while playing through the entire game—simply because of the way they treat the music in that area. Unlike the other points, I think excellent music is a must-have for games. If a game has a bad OST, it can ruin the entire experience and make the game annoying. A good OST, however, can make a game otherwise lacking some features shine like a piece of art.
Hard Final Boss
I don’t care how hard a game is. Hell, my favorite game series is also the easiest series I’ve ever encountered. But at the very least, I want the final boss to be a challenge. Whether the game does this in the form of a boss rush or a single boss with ridiculously strong attacks and high HP, a hard final boss gives the perfect payoff when you do manage to triumph. One of my favorite final boss battles takes place in Okami—you fight the other bosses you encountered throughout the game, and then you fight an enemy that takes every single skill you’ve learned to beat. Yes, a final exam boss, but also a very difficult one.
And, as long as we’re talking about final bosses, the ending has to be happy. Don’t get me wrong—bad endings and intriguing cliff hangers do make artistic and interesting games, especially when the game is in a series. But after trudging through a game and finally making it to the ending, only to be shot down again and permanently despite your best efforts, a game sort of exits the fun zone and goes into that weird philosophical limbo gamers have to deal with every now and then.
Like a hard final boss, a happy ending is the best way to end a fun game. The main character should triumph and the antagonist should be defeated. The disease should be eradicated, the kingdom should be saved, the best friend should be freed, yadda yadda yadda. Multiple endings make the payoff even more worth it, as a bit of karma follows you throughout the game and rewards you justly if you chose the correct actions. It would be stupid to say every game needs a happy ending—but I think it would be accurate to say every fun game could use one, and if it moves you to tears–well, that’s a perfect ending, no matter how cliché it is.