American sports commentators have a wonderful expression that they use to describe a general sense of ‘where the team is at’. The team’s morale, how well they gel with their coach and their sense of team spirit are all referred to loosely as ‘the intangibles’. It’s a term reserved for those elements that can’t really be measured, but which undoubtedly have an impact on the team’s performance.
I’ve been thinking about the intangibles in games, those small elements that, while difficult to quantify, can help to elevate a title from being simply pretty good to something great.
There are plenty of aspects to a game that can be assessed objectively. You can take a game, see how many polygons it’s throwing onto the screen, observe the physics and the post processing effects and you can say it’s technically proficient. In other instances you can apply subjective assessments without worrying about being out of line with your readership. After all, terrible voice acting, such as the kind seen in Men of War, say, isn’t going to be convincing to anybody.
You can play an action game and say the controls feel fast and responsive, a seemingly subjective statement which is actually derived from a series of measurable factors, such as the time between button press and on-screen action, the length of wind-up animations etc. Anecdotally, you can observe occasions where you knew what you were supposed to do but found it difficult to complete the task because the controls were imprecise. In the hands of a reviewer who has played a lot of games in his/her life these statements are likely, overall, to be considered and fair.
But then there are the intangibles. Sometimes a game, in spite of its flaws, is charming or brilliant in a way that others just aren’t. It’s the difference between feeling as though I’m playing a game, and feeling as though I’m in a different world. It’s an unusual and brilliant experience, but a nightmare if you’re tring to stay objective about things.
Once upon a time, about five or six years ago, at school, I received an art project back from being marked (this is going somewhere I promise). I was pretty confident it was going to do well but probably not take a top grade. I was right, but the comment scrawled next to the mark, the reason for the reduced grade was, and I quote: “lacks fizz”. I found this comment so infuriatingly vague that I actually confronted my teacher and tried to pin down an exact definition of “fizz” in an artistic context. After about ten minutes this went nowhere, but I was forever left with a knowledge of the lingering irritation of vague and unhelpful criticism. This ‘fizz’ element, the ‘X Factor’ or whatever you want to call it, needs to be broken down and properly explained. Every impression you have comes from the game itself, there’s a factor, or a combination of factors that makes something special.
So let’s try and examine exactly why these moments connect in the way they do.
Firstly, examples: the flooded, half-ruined decadence of Bioshock’s Rapture. The monstrous concrete prisons and dog-eat-dog status quo of Butcher Bay in Chronicles of Riddick. Vast shadowy capital ships emerging from the nebulae of Freespace 2. The suave and macabre city of Vena Cava in Grim Fandango. It’s ridiculous to talk of these experiences in terms of polygons and shaders, it undermines the fact that by some feat of luck or incredible design, these games have created moments of pure inspiration.
It’s not about the graphics. A degree of technical expertise is needed to render a world or situation to the extent that the gamer isn’t torn out of the experience, but the bar for this is lower than we might expect. Grim Fandango’s low polygon models marched across relatively low res 2D backgrounds and the game dumped mouse support in favour of a clunky movement system, but that didn’t get in the way of the brilliant concept, writing, vocal delivery and visual design. Dungeon Keeper’s low res sprites and lack of modern graphical bells and whistles still can’t dampen the addictive dungeon building, inspired units and dark humour. If the idea is good enough, and the writing, visual and audio design are on the same wavelength then poor graphics are surpassed by the concept.
Gaming incorporates elements from almost every other existing medium. Art, music, architecture, writing, games use them all extensively. If every single one of these aspects are of high quality then it means you’ve probably spent a lot of money, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into the kind of inspired experience I’m talking about. The musicians, artists, designers all need to serve the concept. I like to think of a modern dev team as as a vast multimedia orchestra, working together to create an alternative reality.
So, forget the visuals for now, first it’s in The Idea. We’re talking about the central vision, the essence of the world you’re trying to create. Generic Tolkienesque fare probably isn’t going to cut it here, it needs to be bolder than that. This is where it helps to have, say, Tim Schafer on your side. Then there’s the chain of artists, designers and coders who have to try and deliver The Vision, and this is where it gets especially difficult. Modern triple A titles will have teams over a hundred strong working hard to deliver the product. How do you make sure everyone is going in the same direction? Good management, of course, but also a belief in the project, close collaboration between departments and a sense of passion and enthusiasm. The intangibles.
Passion for the subject matter has a habit of finding its way into the finished product. A telltale sign is in the extra stuff, the neat touches that don’t need to be in a game but are in there anyway. Locations such as Rapture feel as though they’re more than just levels in a game. Rapture feels like a place with a history. It’s all there explicitly in the audio logs and more subtly in the tipped over chairs, smashed bottles of bourbon and blood-stained party hats, it’s in the protest signs littering the floor when you first exit the bathysphere and in the bloody scrawls on bathroom walls. The war that broke Rapture wasn’t just physical, but a war of philosophies and ideas taken too far. The world of Bioshock is more than the corridors you walk, there’s a whole fiction that stretches beyond those walls, and even beyond the player’s story. Somehow it’s this sense of a greater world which draws me in and makes for a great gaming experience.
Similarly remarkable achievements have come out of the Indie scene. In smaller teams it’s easier to rally around an idea and coordinate your design, especially if your art, music and writing guy is one ridiculously talented person, as is the case with Kyle Gabler and the sublime World of Goo. For other examples of small teams producing unique visions look no further than Braid, or Introversion’s Darwinia. Even games like N show great cohesiveness in their design. with N, the mechanics are everything. The game is entirely about jumping, the sense of momentum and the level design, audiovisually N is as simple as that, no backstory or flourishes, stark and basic, it works perfectly. It’s a fitting homage to the sheer entertaining simplicity of the platforming genre as a whole. It’s that sense of the designers knowing exactly what they’re making, and showing that awareness in every aspect of their game.
Of course there’s bound to be a subjective aspect to all of this. Perhaps you didn’t really dig Bioshock, maybe Rapture’s inspired dripping Art Deco dystopia didn’t float your boat. Perhaps you weren’t charmed by World of Goo, finding it to be just another puzzler in a world of Bejewelled clones. In those instances I might gently imply that you’re a soulless husk of a human being, but that’d just be my opinion, y’know? I’d rather not be so cruel, so instead I’ll just pointedly refer to the success of these games, in sales and widespread critical acclaim, and take a moment to consider the odd combination of genius and luck it must take for a team of one hundred people to come together and make a truly great game.