Imagine you're listening to your favorite kind of music: a symphony, a rock band, a chiptune; anything with multiple instruments or parts. Each component splits and recombines, coming together in harmony to make the whole vastly greater than any one element.
Video games are the same way. Video games are largely the work of teams of creators working together to try to create a unified whole from multiple pieces: scenery, character design, music, game mechanics, writing. The artistic achievement that is a video game is, like a film, the work of every one of those distinct creators working toward a shared vision.
Now imagine one of the parts in your imaginary music is off. Too fast, or a little flat, or too overwhelmingly loud. It's difficult to ignore the parts that don't work; that off element draws your attention and can be so distracting that it risks ruining your enjoyment of the whole work.
This is true in video games, too. Sometimes contrast can be deployed to a pleasing effect. Take Minecraft (2009), for example, with its deceptively simple graphics and fractally deep game mechanics. But many a game has failed because one part of the whole is catastrophically bad. Often these failures are on the technical level, where games simply fail to load at a certain point, bosses are glitched and unbeatable, or multiplayer exploits destroy any hope of a level playing field. But sometimes there are artistic failures. A bad game mechanic will ruin a game, no matter how brilliant the art.
And sometimes a game is a brilliant success where just one chord is off—not necessarily far off, either. The game as a whole hasn't failed, and the artistic work hasn't failed. But it's an instructive critical practice to examine the places where discord between elements of a game occurs, and investigate how it can happen.
The Weight of History
The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (2015) is one of the best RPGs I have ever played, hands down, and this from a long-time Dragon Age and Bioware loyalist. The Witcher 3 works brilliantly at threading the needle between many of the conflicting demands of the connoisseur RPG audience. It's a game with a linear plot, but with enough freedom in what problems you choose to tackle next that you seldom feel a lack of choice. There are hundreds of quests, monster hunts, and treasures to find, but none of it is procedurally generated, and so you never feel like your character is doing busywork or simple grinding for its own sake.
At every point this game signals that this is a serious work of art exploring the horrors of war, persecution, and unforeseen consequences. The world is deep and rich, and includes thoughtful touches showing an attention to economy and worldbuilding rarely seen in such a game; there are farms and hovels, ruins, taverns, and battlefields. But there are also mines and forges and sawmills. There are operations for fabric-dyeing and pottery-making. There are apiaries.
Relationships are many-layered and unpredictable. And the characters, too, are richly varied and nicely deep, from Dandelion, your Lothario friend with a heart of gold, to Yennefer, your sometime lover, a powerful sorceress. In fact most of the women in the game are written to be fascinating and, mostly, very powerful: the Lodge of Sorceresses; your daughter-figure, Ciri; would-be queen of Skellige, Cerys an Craite.
It's a shame, then, that all of this thought and careful characterization goes out the window when the game gets to character design, which seems to posit a nation of powerful women who by and large cannot work out how to tie the laces on their clothing.
In some cases, as with the sorceress Keira Metz (whose nipples are just visible at her neckline) you can squint and justify the artistic choice as characterization of a sexually aggressive woman. But in the case of women like your daughter-figure, Ciri, the peek-a-boo window in her top is deeply uncomfortable sexualization that actively works against the paternal feelings that interactions with her are intended to evoke.
This isn't meant to be pure moralizing, either. In games like Bayonetta (2010), sexualization is an important part of the overall tone and mood of the game. But in The Witcher 3, it isn't in tune with the rest of the symphony. It's the wrong note.
So why is this one element so at odds with the direction of the rest of the game? Probably history. This is the third entry in the franchise, and the Witcher series started out with an approach to female characters that was unwelcoming to players who identify as women. In prior installments, just about every female character was sexually available to you, the hero. Moreover there was a set of trading cards for you to collect by banging each one. The rest of the series has evolved and matured as the series gained its artistic footing, but the art . . . not so much.
There are other ways that elements of a game can work against one another as well: for example, a game mechanic can be directly at odds with the writing in a game.
Lifeline (2015) is a mobile game with an absolutely brilliant structural conceit and game mechanic. An inexperienced scientist, Taylor, has crash-landed on a remote and uninhabited moon. You are their only contact. Taylor sends you a series of communications styled to look like text messages, and after every message you can choose one of two replies.
It's your decision to be supportive or snarky, push their limits or let them play it safe in their quest for survival. And the game plays out in real time: if you tell Taylor to hike to a spot several hours a way, they won't be checking in with you for some hours. When they sign off at sundown, they sleep a full night (unless there is reason to wake up in the dark).
The whole game works to create a tense mood where you are ideally developing a tight bond with this stranger and invested in helping them to escape several different perils with life and limb intact.
There's just one problem: the writing isn't deep or varied enough to support the game mechanic. At several points in the game, you're asked to make a choice to, say, suggest that Taylor explore the location where they are or go somewhere else. And then you have to make the same choice again. "Are you sure?" Taylor asks. "That seems really far/it looks really scary/I dunno about this." And then they'll ask you again, and even sometimes again, in intervals as long as a few hours.
Double-checking once on a touch screen is clever. It means the player's success isn't held hostage to a simple misclick when you happen to brush the screen in an inattentive moment. But repeating the question slowly erases the feeling that the character has any confidence in you, and the idea that you are literally the lifeline (get it?) Taylor depends upon is the linchpin of the whole game.
As a result of this waffling over whether you really really mean what you've said, the game makes your erstwhile friend seem like a passive-aggressive nebbish who is asking you for your advice so that you get all the responsibility and blame for anything that happens, while constantly second-guessing you and undermining your input. Why, one wonders, are they even asking what they should be doing, if they have such strong opinions on what the right thing is to do?
By the end of the game I, at least, had begun actively rooting against Taylor. That's probably not what the game designers wanted me to do. And it could have been prevented fairly easily, by adding in slightly more branching—even purely in terms of color. Instead of saying, "I've been going that way for a long time, should I head back and not really do it tho?" it would have been simple enough to add a moment of color dialogue where the character shared a hope or dream, a fear, some small moment of human connection. The relationship between player and character could have been strengthened in those moments, rather than eroded.
And finally, sometimes a game has an identity crisis and never quite decides what it wants to be at all. I found this to be the case with Gone Home (2013), another critically acclaimed and structurally brilliant game—sort of.
Gone Home places you in the role of a young woman returning to her family's new home after a year abroad in France. It's a game of exploration, rather than violence or tense decision making. You arrive at the sprawling house on a dark and stormy night. You are alone, and your family appears to be missing. Why is nobody home to greet you? What happened to them? And why does it appear your home has been robbed? You must examine notes, tickets, calendars, all manner of ephemera strewn about the house in order to find the truth of what has happened here.
The game's setting, audio design, and overall aesthetic are directly derived from horror, and so it is natural to expect a horror game to play out from this setup. And the game consciously plays into this at more than one point. Cracks of thunder and a power outage are meant for you to jump in your seat. Red dye staining a bathtub is meant to evoke a suicide, or perhaps a murder. Every aspect of the game is laser-focused on persuading you that something terrible has happened here.
But it turns out that there is no blood here; no horror. The three main threads of the story revolve around your family. The subplots are about the father, a failed novelist, getting a second chance at success, and the mother struggling with the temptation of a lover at work. The primary thread, though, is a touching coming-out story about your little sister, who has, it turns out, chosen to run away with her girlfriend so they can start a life together.
In the face of these revelations, the constant work of the game to induce terror (or at least deep unease) ultimately comes across as cheap and manipulative. Not to say that all games don't have an element of conscious manipulation of the player's emotions; of course they do. But the mood of the game at the start is a promise about the kind of game you're playing and the nature of the experience the game plans to deliver to you.
Gone Home never delivers on the emotional arc it promises—horror. And I, at least, found myself deeply resenting the game's deception. The game simply failed to manage my expectations appropriately.
Points for Teamwork
It bears saying that all three of these games are still worth playing, in my eyes. There is no such thing as a completely perfect game, if nothing else because audiences and tastes vary so widely. It's only because of the overall high level of quality of these games that it's easy to pick apart elements that don't quite work together.
Think of an elementary school band where no two instruments are playing in quite the same key. Endearing, perhaps, but still musically difficult for the ear. And there's no way to blame any single amateur musician for the subpar quality of the whole. It's only once a whole orchestra plays together skillfully that one mistuned instrument can even catch a listener's notice.
And then again: when all of the elements of a game work perfectly in harmony, it's easy to forget how much conscious effort has gone into making it so. Pay attention next time you play. Games are even more complex than symphonies, and deserve just as much appreciation of how their layers fit together.