Why Do Some Games Create an Unforgettable Impression?
In a 2016 article, writers on Time.com talked about how games have become an integral part of our culture. What truly hits home is their remark that Mortal Kombat’s growling “Finish Him!” can be [under the right circumstances] as evocative as a Beatles tune [for some]. And that completely captures the theme of this piece.
Certain games have become household names or larger-than-life personalities. They have captured the love and affection of millions throughout the world. Players have memories associated with certain games that rival those like one’s beautiful high school days worth reminiscing. With a key distinction – the game can be relived to some degree anytime.
Pokémon games – why did they spawn a whole franchise of merchandise, TV shows, and more? More notably, why do people have such a strong bonding with games such as Mario, Call of Duty, GTA, Final Fantasy, Assassin’s Creed, Zelda, Tomb Raider, Tom Clancy games, The Elder Scrolls, or God of War?
Witcher 3 – why was it more than just a game? It was the prerequisite for the Netflix show. Not the books, which have a much more captivating grip on any audience, but the game. Even today you will find players slashing a forktail in Fyresdal or game hardware reviewers including Witcher 3 when they discuss benchmarks.
Many have discussed why this happens. And some have articulated it fairly enough 1.
Witcher 1 and Witcher 2 did not cut it in terms of popularity and sales. But with the third installment, CDPR must have done something right.
In this article, let’s dissect what makes a game have that sacred “emotional connection” for most of the people who play them. That little “something right”, which hooks an entire generation so much that gamers continually go back to relive their favorite characters, moments, battles, and more. It is almost like an addiction. There is a dopamine hit awaiting in those familiar lands.
Defining emotional connection
This is not about any and every game. As a form of art, games have the power to influence and stir from deep within – much like animation, where principles such as exaggeration and breaking away from reality can be used, as tools, to hit the audience harder with a particular message.
Consequently, it is hard to find anyone who has played a fair bit of games to not have an emotional connection with at least one game. It could be a cherished childhood getaway, for example. But that is not the premise of this piece.
This piece will discuss games that have built a strong emotional connection with a majority of gamers (regardless of when commercial success finally came to them).
That is to say, there can exist a world and game more powerful and emotionally superior to Pokémon. But Pokémon is what spawned a whole franchise that rivals Disney, not this game X. Let’s not compare qualities or the power of just about any game to stimulate our hearts – rather let’s focus on games that have become household names, and remain relevant even today for some reason.
Games end up having long-lasting impressions on players. A good way to determine this connection is how many times you have played the game (barring esports like Dota 2, which can be considered practice and not an emotional throwback).
Key factors instrumental to the coveted emotional connection that any game developer dreams about:
- Nostalgia and generational leaps
- Innovation and a stroke of genius
- Hero’s journey and the three-act structure
- Attention to detail and going the extra mile
- Refining the gamer experience
A game’s replay value (let’s call it replayability) is determined by a bunch of stuff. Unlocking extra features, rewarding subsequent playthroughs, secrets, or alternate endings all make replaying a game much better rather than just increasing the difficulty level of monsters.
If a gamer happens to come across a sweet change in the world during their second playthrough because of a mission finished in the previous playthrough, then it is much more rewarding and memorable than the wild dogs now taking 500 sword slashes to die rather than 5. That is just … lazy.
Some games have an upper hand here because they have a nature of never really “finishing”. Civilization 6, Skyrim, Cities: Skylines, Minecraft, some Sid Meier games, etc. are good examples.
So, before anything else, a game has to be replayable or must have some playback value in a way that subsequent playthroughs will reward the player in some form.
Good mechanics include entirely new discoveries, alternate endings, a branched storyline, elaborate character customizations or modding, randomization, and so on.
To reinvest precious hours into a game finished already is a commitment. And a game that can make gamers commit this much has already taken the first step to developing an emotional connection with them.
Why do gamers come back to a game? That is precisely what the first ingredient is. It is so lovable and impactful that you would rather be replaying it despite so many other games being available to you.
Nostalgia and generational leaps
The psychological ramifications of video game nostalgia are a completely different topic for another day. A piece on The Psychology of Video Games 2 notes that:
A lot of its psychological weight is due to how nostalgia relates to our identity and maintaining congruity between our current and past concept of ourselves.
And nostalgia can, therefore, make a game much more powerful than intended by the game developer.
Humans associate games or certain aspects of a game with nostalgia. And how does an entire generation of gamers, both casual and die-hard, develop the same brand of nostalgia collectively?
Whenever a generational leap occurs, such as a new piece of hardware or an entirely new graphical utility being leveraged, a whole generation of gamers leaps up for it.
This has happened several times. What this means is that a large community builds nostalgia towards that game title, given it does everything else right (in terms of story, characters, and game mechanics, for example).
Any new breakthrough, such as ray tracing for a more recent example or the transformation of game consoles to handheld devices with the Game Boy Color, is likely to be met with much fanfare. All the games designed for that platform or technology, therefore, see a huge jump in player counts. And that is how an entire generation becomes glued to a specific game title, which is bewildering when you think about it.
Today, games can come in remastered versions to leverage more updated technologies, but a true generational leap is still by far one of the biggest reasons why some games become so sensational and others of the same time, which might be technically superior, simply fail to create long-term memories.
It would be remiss to not talk about the statistically superior advantage of new hardware or console technology when talking about leaps, relative to software improvements.
Exclusive games, quality peripherals, and ergonomics – everything goes into building the perfect platform to game on. The 90s, for example, were full of so many different consoles, but the Sony PlayStation (1994) truly came out on the top in a big way 3. As such, it propelled many games into popularity, games that are still making new installments today.
This hardware and game-specific nostalgia that is shared across an entire generation are key for any game to become sensational. This also ensures that there is an active community that loves to talk about the game and share tips, among other things.
Innovation and a stroke of genius
Innovation and a stroke of genius both apply more fully to installments in franchises that already have a solid base, though not necessarily a classic or legendary tag.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) was the fourth game of the franchise. It completely reimagined the way modern shooters work. A progression system, perk bonuses, polished controls, and a few other nifty innovations that only a dedicated team of developers who care about and know about their players can imagine went towards improving the emotional bond players already had with the Call of Duty.
Innovating is not hard when you already have a franchise and millions of players. More holistic innovation comes from indie studios which revolutionizes the way a genre is treated.
It is interesting to remember that butchering a series is perhaps remarkably easier than innovating things that will bring in more love. The moment a game studio stops caring about its players and paying attention to the experience, it effectively kills the series and sometimes.
It is not always true, however, that innovation of this proportion only happens in franchises. Sometimes, it is also precisely what spawns a memorable franchise.
Ensemble Studios revolutionized real-time strategy gaming by introducing a game, Age of Empires, that was based on actual history (of course, not truly “accurate”, but you get the point) as compared to fantasy or sci-fi that other RTS games were based on back then.
Critics might have been quick to point out that it was a hushed marriage between World of Warcraft and Civilization, but it was so much more.
Age of Empires‘ Intelligent AI and a different take (though it was inspired by Civilization’s art) reshaped the RTS genre, and consequently, Age of Empires is today a game that millions have been influenced deeply by, of course, only after disregarding people who do not like the genre to start with, because RTS is one of the least-popular game genres.
One of the more subtle cues that subconsciously influence how we feel about a game is its soundtrack. It is really one of the most important things that decide the level of immersion someone would have during a playthrough.
Witcher 3’s soundtrack was composed by hiring Polish folk singers and musical talents for a Slavic feel 4, as the game’s roots are in Poland (the lore, the game studio, and Andrzej Sapkowski’s original books are all Polish). It is an album by Marcin Przybyłowicz, Mikołaj Stroiński, and Percival.
Any good game knows how to bring out the expected emotions through music and sounds. In many ways, composing the perfect soundtrack for a game is much like composing the score for a film.
Think John Williams (Harry Potter; Schindler’s List; Star Wars; ET), Hans Zimmer (Gladiator; Inception; Interstellar; Tenet), Ennio Morricone (The Hateful Eight; The Good, The Bad, The Ugly), Max Steiner (Casablanca; Gone with the Wind), James Horner (Titanic; Avatar; Braveheart), and so on.
These people know precisely how to bring out the emotions in the audience. Such people exist in all media, for example, Ramin Djawadi made Game of Thrones and Westworld completely different worlds just with his music.
And there is no reason why games should not have the same level of mastery over their soundtrack to amplify emotions.
The one handicap games have is that they are user-controlled and not a preset narrative, consequently making it hard to guide emotions perfectly. For example, one might end up slaying monsters in Witcher 3 for countless hours. The composer has to be prepared for that. The music should not become dull over time, neither can the music ever end. That is where music composers have it much harder than TV or film music composers.
The thrill, excitement, fear, happiness, or action can be felt in the soundtrack of Skyrim, Zelda games, God of War series, Final Fantasy games, and more recent games as well such as DOOM Eternal and Red Dead Redemption 2.
Music is the one thing that transcends human communication and understanding. Whether it is the medieval instruments in electrifying battle hymns of Witcher 3 or the cosmic tunes played behind Super Mario Galaxy – a good soundtrack adds a touch of authenticity.
Hero’s journey and the three-act structure
Just like in theaters, novels, and films, a story in a game is likely to follow a three-act formula 5 or be about a hero’s journey 6 (a 12-stage narrative which can be dumbed down in the case of a game to just a few or fleshed out to even infinite stages).
Most games that have become sensations over the last few decades have followed one of the two, if not both.
Let’s take the example of Pokémon here. The Japanese Red and Green installments of Pokémon were meant for Game Boy and came out in 1996-99. Reprogrammed as Red and Blue for international release, they allowed a player to embark on a hero’s journey.
It was a voyage, an epic, refashioned into a creature-collection RPG.
If a game can pull off a proper three-act structure or a hero’s journey that is enticing, it will win hearts almost immediately. Games that focus on worldbuilding or are open-world RPGs have the upper hand here as other genres cannot really have a similarly detailed story.
Attention to detail and going the extra mile
In Witcher 3, Geralt’s beard grows as you play through the game. Drivers close their windows during rain in GTA San Andreas. Reznov in Call of Duty: World at War exclaims surprisingly when you get a kill without a scope. And so on.
There are countless examples of game developers including nifty details in their games, most of which will go unnoticed by a vast majority of the gamers. But that is insignificant. The point of these little details is not to get noticed.
If these details were not there, nobody would miss them. But the moment you take them all out from a game, you have a much duller game.
Attention to detail and the same towards the NPCs, ambient creatures, and the grunts, only goes on to show the sheer dedication a game developer has for its game. However, only after you have a loyal base of gamers can you expect such things to bear fruits.
When a game franchise is still new or the first installment of a lineage, developers do not really have time to put in all the hard work. They just need an operation copy of the game that focuses on the USP.
But over time, studios and developers become increasingly involved with their own creations and they want the players to feel the same way. As such, it is only natural to pay attention to the smallest of the details, or at least as far as feasible in terms of economy, performance, and time.
Some studios are better at attention to detail than others. Rockstar’s GTA franchise is a great example. Here are examples testament to Rockstar’s commendable attentiont to detail:
- In Vice City, more objects are added to the Vercetti Estate interior and rollerskates work much poorly on the sand.
- In San Andreas, your driving stat influences CJ’s driving animations
- In GTA 3, businesses open and close at specific times and there is always a rainbow after the rain.
And so on.
Going the extra mile is surely one of the most painstaking things for a game studio.
For example, doors are a pain for game developers. Player interaction with doors has always been a nightmare. Go through this video from Vox to appreciate the amount of work The Last of Us Part 2 has put into doors (and why doors in game development are extremely difficult, so much that most games just make a two-way opening door that the character interacts with for the sake of it, which is conclusively illogical no matter how you think about it):
Making a realistic player-door interaction and a proper door that does not defy common sense – that is one of the examples of going the extra mile.
But not every studio has the time or the budget to go the extra mile and fine-tune physics, mechanics, and the world in general. A random crate used to hide a pesky corner. A ledge you cannot jump over even when it is shorter than you. All this is fairly commonplace, used as a compromise.
Functionality and logic are not hard to grasp. Sometimes, they are just hard to develop in a game. Game studios often compromise due to looming deadlines and a shortage of capital.
Sometimes, solutions do not even exist, or solutions to some problems would require programming that would bloat the game a lot, unless a mathematically talented game programmer comes along, something that happened during the development of Quake III (the fast inverse square root algorithm – YouTube explainer by Nemean | Medium article by Shaw).
All in all, visual appeal, graphical fidelity, and level of detail are sufficient to make a game immersive. It is a little like this – every asset in a game is hollow. Including a stone. That is not logical. You go unexpectedly close or find yourself in a weird angle and you can see its hollowness.
But it is also the best way out to optimize the game because not everyone is running the latest hardware with unlimited resources or the $6,000 BFGPU (and that is not just a figure of speech).
Game engines also have their limitations. If making a game significantly more realistic and by doing so, going the extra mile means that the game will need much larger texture files when most people are gaming on 8GB VRAM, it is simply counterintuitive. Compromises are imminent.
It is not always easy to aim for perfection. More often than not, the main vision-holder of the game might not even be directly involved with the development and might not have foreseen some technical hurdles in their overall vision.
As such, games are likely to leave a few things out and not be truly perfect. The ideal, perfect game today, given the graphical fidelity we expect now, will need heaps of processor and GPU prowess to just run at 60 FPS, which is increasingly becoming too low for most high-end gamers.
In a beautifully argued article on The Artifice 7, Piper CJ writes:
“The fully-realized universes of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and now Ruthfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles don’t have to be literature-specific. The same care and development goes in to the creation of the games we love with the unique added benefit of being able to stay in that world, even after the story has finished.”
A driving force behind why this happens is the adventure quotient.
Whereas the hero’s journey and the three-act structure are both specific to story-based and predominantly single-player games, the modern equivalent of those formulas is perhaps transforming the idea of adventure into something that can be enjoyed individually and as a group. In both cases, it is an adventure that the developers are trying to imply.
Adventure is single-handedly the most important part of most popular game titles. Being able to travel, feel, and adventure as a character or with a character is a driving force behind the majority of the love people have for games.
Game franchises such as Call of Duty and Battlefield have built their emotional connections with players even in multiplayer scenarios, though it is arguable how instrumental the single-player mode was.
On the other hand, franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider have it easier. Being single-player, they can truly perfect the individual gamer’s adventure and curate a narrative that gives them goosebumps, as they have complete control over how the narrative proceeds and how the adventure is chronicled.
Refining the gamer experience
Gauging what the gamer needs is not hard today with the social media, forums, and communities we have.
Saints Row: The Third provided gamers with an autosave feature that did not penalize people (for example, those playing Skyrim) for forgetting to save manually. Allowing gamers to skip cutscenes is also a good idea, but not if your cutscenes are short and crisp, which actually build up the story much better (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots).
Similarly, there are a bunch of things that some studios get just right. In fact, pausing cutscenes in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a lifesaver if you happen to get a call or have to rush to accept your pizza delivery. Gamers do not want to lose any moment, but let us say if you happen to get an important call when playing GTA IV, you either have to skip it altogether so you can pause or let it play without paying attention – both being bad compromises.
Games that get things right more often than not improve the gamer experience.
But the list is inexhaustive. Where do you draw the line? For example, to some, even captions are important but not all games can afford to have them. It is really an act of balancing and choosing the best experiences to incorporate while leaving everything else.
Surely many will be unhappy with the lists used here. For example, much more captivating than Tomb Raider was Hellblade for me, and I would prefer Ori and the Blind Forest over most of the games exampled here.
But as mentioned, we are keeping things strictly emotionally deep and commercially successful or wildly popular. In broad strokes terms, this means all the games that have become a sensation, a household name almost, and have sold the most copies in the world.
But some classics are left out due to specific reasons.
Games that have become irrelevant
Tetris is a classic. But it fails to build an emotional connection if someone plays it today. In contrast, if someone plays The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time today, either on Nintendo 64 or through an emulator, there is a good chance they will be hooked and explore more Zelda titles.
Relevance is important. Not all games can stay relevant. Some game categories have been completely phased out. And those categories will not create emotional connections anymore.
This means players experiencing Tetris, Pac-Man, Oregon Trail, or The Legend of Zelda (1986 NES Classic) for the first time in the last decade would not feel the same way. People playing Blizzard’s 2004 technological breakthrough and adrenaline rollercoaster that they smartly veiled as World of Warcraft, however, can still work wonders.
The same goes for titles like Quake, Doom, Counter-Strike, Half-Life, Halo, Diablo, StarCraft, or Street Fighter.
Online games make things overly competitive (which is the whole point). For example, GTA is a historic franchise. But GTA V Online is not the same thing. When things get competitive, they lose touch with the gamer on a deeper level. This touch is maintained throughout a single-player story-based game like Assassin’s Creed.
But online multiplayers are the future of gaming, are not they? What can a game studio do in this case?
Well, one option is to go the Call of Duty route. You load everything into the same game from an elaborate campaign to a battle royale and from a large-scale PVP mode to massacring zombies. And now, players have to think twice before even starting a new game because they have run out of disk space (mostly console gamers).
Alternatively, you can choose. Choosing one specialization between single-player and multiplayer is much better.
Yes, the world needs its fair share of Fortnite, TF2, Dota 2, League of Legends, PUBG, Overwatch, and Counter-Strike but the world also needs games that come in seasons and not patches, because only these can create deep emotional bonds with the players.
Which other franchise do you think falls in this category?
- Vargas, Santiago. “Why do game sites still use Witcher 3 for benchmarks?” ↩
- Madigan, Jamie. “The Psychology of Video Game Nostalgia“ ↩
- Sawyer, Logan. “10 Best Consoles of the 90s“ ↩
- Vohra, Atharv. “A Relatively Formal Analysis on the Sounds of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt“. ↩
- Wikipedia. “Three-act structure“ ↩
- Wikipedia. “Hero’s journey“ ↩
- CJ, Piper. “Emotionally Investing in Games and Their Characters“. ↩
What do you think? Leave a comment.