What is it that makes a game particularly memorable?
When you finish a game, you want to feel as if you’ve accomplished something. By the time you beat some games, you want to really feel you’ve made the game world a better place through your actions (or, perhaps, you have intentionally left a horrifying wake of devastation). You’ve solved all major problems, and probably a lot of minor ones as well. Maybe you’ve beaten a particularly tough platformer or shooter and you feel like you’ve done a superhuman feat or twelve. The important part is you feel like you’ve done something significant or participated in a memorable story. The main pieces used to bring about this feeling are plot and challenge.
Unfortunately, this sense of accomplishment can be out of reach when playing a game. Sometimes, this is because the game simply doesn’t establish a concrete goal or follow through on it, but other times there are a variety of details that might do away with this idea. Whether the plot is unbelievable, the game is too easy to beat, or some other reason, sometimes games just don’t feel like they give this sense of completion.
Some games lack this feeling by making the game entirely reactionary. Your characters are so busy going from event to event, without any consideration of why they keep going, that by the time the game ends you don’t really think of your accomplishments as more than stimulus-response – all you did was the only thing you could do given the situation. Compare this to a situation where the characters make a definite decision to follow their path, despite possible consequences (take, for example, the scenes before the final sections of Final Fantasy VII or Wild ARMS 2, where each character specifically decides to finish what they started). If the player can empathize with the characters because they have to make a risky decision, that will only make the game that much more involved.
Other games lose the feeling by allowing the player to lose interest. If the game is plot-driven and the world seems so utterly disconnected from reality then you can’t empathize with anyone. A similar problem happens if the plot is so contrived that it’s impossible to believe. Take for example Final Fantasy VIII, where you find out all the characters magically knew each other beforehand but each one managed to forget it. The plot doesn’t have to be gritty or overly realistic, but suspension of disbelief can only carry you so far.
Challenge is a major factor that can create a sense of achievement. Just as a game with 2-hour cutscenes between half-hour long sections of simple gameplay does not make the player feel like they have accomplished much, a game that is only gameplay would not be very interesting if it could be beaten without any effort. Even in the case of “breakable” games where you can easily become immensely powerful, there is still a sense of accomplishment that comes with breaking the game. If the game’s brokenly easy from the beginning, though, it wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment to beat it. By comparison, games with a solid amount of challenge, whether it is strategic or simply involves hand-eye coordination, make you feel satisfied for completing them. Particularly if it’s something you can be proud of accomplishing, you feel good for finally having overcome those obstacles.
Some genres simply don’t yield an overall sense of accomplishment. Any kind of simulation game that doesn’t have a set goal (such as The Sims) can’t have much of a sense of accomplishment simply because none of them have an ending. You can, say, get a Sim to light himself on fire after you lock him in a room, but you can never say you beat the game. These games can be fun as temporary diversions, but I tend to stop playing them is because there’s no endpoint – just aimless improvement. In the end, the player has to remain self-motivated to play the game.
This disease is also common to MMOs; no ending means the only accomplishment can come from competing (or cooperating) with other players. Some people actually find it more entertaining to create their own goals. Whether it’s playing through a favorite RPG with a special restriction (probably the best-known is the Single White Mage playthrough of Final Fantasy) to increase the challenge, or trying to beat a fighting game without using the “kick” button, sometimes a player can generate his or her own feeling of accomplishment.
What are some examples of games that instill this feeling? I would say that most RPG games do, as they tend to have a more involved narrative. In Fallout, for example, when you complete the game you get scenes showing what happened to each town after the end of the story; if you get several good endings (or bad ones, depending on which you prefer), you feel better about having taken care of all the peoples’ problems. As you see the problems you solved, you get a feeling that you really did help out (or kill) a lot of people. Another example is Gunstar Heroes. Although the game barely has a skeleton of a plot, the gameplay on the more challenging modes is difficult, to the point where beating the game without continuing is in itself an accomplishment.
Some exceptions I can come up with are Final Fantasy X and Xenosaga. Both are heavily story-based, yes, but neither is particularly difficult. Final Fantasy X is incredibly easy, and doesn’t even require much effort to beat (although it may take some effort to sit through some of the scenes). Xenosaga is a bit more difficult, but the feeling throughout the game is very mechanical; something happens to you and your characters are forced to do something about it immediately, and the game is very linear-feeling. Add this to the background of episodic content with obvious foreshadowing and few answers throughout, and you probably won’t feel like you’ve done much until episodes II or III.
In the end, even experiencing a particularly memorable plot or accomplishing a particularly challenging task can make a video game much more entertaining, adding dimensions to a game that would otherwise not be quite as fun.