Jonah Schuhart, Contributing Writer
While a well-written story or a beautiful soundtrack can make a game great, no creative element of a video game contributes to its lifespan and reputation like gameplay. Gameplay is complex when it stops holding the player’s hand by making the solution to every problem obvious. Anytime it is left up to the player to display mastery of a game’s mechanics by using them creatively to develop their own strategies, the game has displayed a level of complexity. The game’s complexity is directly related to how often the player must do this and how advanced their strategies must become.
The benefit of this is that as players gain skill in a game and understand its complexities, the more attached they become to it until a community forms around the game. This is beneficial for gamers and developers alike because it means players get more enjoyment out of their games and developers now have a reliable clientele. It also means that the game stays culturally relevant for longer.
Just take a look at The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. That game is now 20 years old, but people are still playing it to this day. It’s not even that challenging, and at first, it doesn’t seem that deep. After all, it was designed as a game for children. But if a person considered speedrunning the game, they might discover glitches and exploits that add complexity to an otherwise straightforward experience.
Top Zelda speedrunners can beat the game in less than 30 minutes, bypassing a good majority of the game and skipping to the final boss after the first dungeon. Yes, it’s possible to skip from the game’s first boss to its final boss in a matter of minutes by tricking the game into thinking Link’s bottle is his Ocarina, and using that while backflipping onto a very specific spot on the first dungeon’s portal. The end result is that when Link finally does warp, it’s to the game’s final area. From there, speedrunners are forced to fight the final boss with basic items and no sword. Getting to that point takes players no small amount of skill or dedication, but it took decades of blind experimentation to discover. So whether they intended to or not, Nintendo actually created one of the deepest games in speedrunning history.
Compare that to titles like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Detroit: Become Human. These games may have good storylines, but they hamper the interactive aspects video games were created for to push for a more “cinematic” experience. This results in a game comprised of nothing but quick-time events and dialogue prompts which fail to provide an engaging, interactive experience for very long. The only thing for players to explore in these games is the plot itself — once the player has gone through all of the branching story pathways, there’s not much else left for them to do. These games also have speedrunning communities, but it’s rare to find one as large or developed as ones for more interactive games.
This is not to say those games aren’t worth playing. But the longest-lasting communities belong to games that offer a gameplay experience people can work through for years and still not know everything about. Competitive games are especially good at this because they only get deeper as players develop more strategies and counter-strategies to gain an advantage over one another.
It’s why people are still playing old games like Tetris, and it’s why Super Smash Bros. Melee is still an esports staple. Those games are complex enough that — decades after their releases — players keep discovering new techniques and strategies, never getting bored and always pushing the limits of each others skills.