Emotional impact, a new game gauge
Games are finite state machines, they usually have a finite number of goals and rewards, the number of levels can be quantified, there is a limit to the items you can wield, the armors you can wear, the amount of enemies and ships. The graphics can be aimed at specific hardware, the sound may have a predetermined quality and variety. Everything seems to have an end and to be fair, the possibilities are as good as the platform they sit on.
This sounds really great, surely games can be measured and quantified, they can be categorized and reviewed with surgical precision. Right?
Not so much
Of course the answer is no, games are about the experience, the emotional impact they leave on the player if you will. This cannot be measured, or let me rephrase that, with our current understanding of how the mind and the body works, it’s impossible to accurately describe. You can say a game has pretty graphics, or that it can be played for long hours, but that might not mean anything to a bunch of people. You can say it has 3d support or that has 5 different characters to choose from, then again, it could be as the greatest game to some as well as fall into deaf ears to others.
Even if games are approximations of different contexts (realities or fantasies), the way they are presented can vary greatly and provoke a great deal of reactions with simple changes. Change a color here and you may anger a lot of people, change the music volume at some stage and prepare to ship a box of handkerchiefs with your game retail box.
This really doesn’t help reviewers or the consumer at all. The market needs predictability, it feeds on numbers and predictions, if I don’t get a high score at MetaCritic my game won’t probably do so well, will it? On the other hand, if I play my cards right in terms of marketing, I might not need such a solid product in terms of gameplay after all, do I?
A new game gauge
So, if we all agree that graphics, sounds, replay value are really subjective why do we have all these measurements? The answer seems to lie in the hands of reviewers and players. On one side you need to have a way of comparing the games, after all, how would you say this game is better or prettier than that one if you cannot measure them? And on the other side, you want some assurance, you need to know that if you have played this game and you liked it, you will surely like others that are similar.
Then, indulge me for a moment, why couldn’t we have an “Emotional impact” gauge? Something that tells me that the game is going to be exhilirating, that it’s going to be full of thrills or that it will help me relax after a hard day (i.e.: Flower), that will make me jump out of my chair in disgust or make me care so much about my character that I will spend night and day just to get that funny hat the Dragon Boss is wearing. Something that tells me about the experience, we tend to put labels on everything, why not put a “30% thrills, 20% sadness, 35% euphoria”.
We do get the games through the graphics or the sound (among other stranger reasons), after all, those are part of our input mechanisms. But we stick to them because of how meaningful the experience was. I might like this game for a while, but I won’t stick to it for more than a few hours if the experience wasn’t worth it. So what we are actually looking for is this elusive thing called “game experience”, it cannot be currently measured but it can be explained through word of mouth.
Two people may agree that certain game art is pretty or prettier, we agree collectively to a variety of things (fine arts, humor, landscapes, music, etc) so why couldn’t we agree on the emotional impact a game has? Even with their 3 dimensional aspects to it and all the complexities. Maybe we need the reviewers to know a little more about psychology or maybe we need to start accepting that games are more than a simple pastimes. I have seen people getting furious or joyful, sad or happy, scared and bewildered at just about any game you can think of. From traditional games over thousands of years ago to the latest play-in-the-browser-address-bar around the corner.
Maybe, this is one crazy way to force certain game corporations that have less wiggle room for innovation, to start realizing the potential of games as an emotional medium, and one that no other centuries old medium has, interactivity.
Or maybe, this crazy talk was all a trap. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that we cannot put labels on everything even if we try, that we should start worrying less about gauges and measurements, about Metacritic scores and stop judging books by their covers. Maybe gauges should be thrown away altogether and the legend at the end of the review should say “I liked it/didn’t like it, this is my opinion, now go play it and tell me what you liked/didn’t like about it”.
At the end of the day, nothing can tell how you feel about a game, so next time you doubt yourself because of someone else’s commentary (we all have done that, of course), try to force push that little demon away and go and play the game. (Source: Game Design Tales)