Ninety percent of everything is crap.
Dixit Theodore Sturgeon, a sci-fi author (and sometime book reviewer for National Review) who coined the maxim in defense of his much-maligned genre. Confronted with the charge that the vast majority of science fiction is complete dross, he pointed out that the same accusation holds true of any medium. Expanding on his revelation in an issue of Venture Science Fiction in 1958, he wrote:
Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.
Now, in the case of computer games, Sturgeon’s Law might actually be overgenerous. The medium has never been guilty of an abundance of high art, and the recent explosion of mobile games and indie studios has only swelled the flood of cheap, garish, mindless, tasteless, time-wasting crap pumped out by the industry, a cataract of crud that could easily drown every hour of a distracted life.
And yet, through the muck, the rare gems shine. Science fiction gave us Dune, and Ender’s Game, and The Martian. Computer games have given us Bastion and BioShock, Shadow of the Colossus and Planescape: Torment. Every year, at least one or two exceptional works of love and genius rise above the rubbish. The trick lies in rooting them out, enjoying them properly, and wasting as little time as possible on the preponderant dreck.
You could write a thousand rules about how to tell a good work of art from a bad one. For now, for games, let’s start with three. Each of these principles might appear obvious to the point of self-evidence, but thoughtful application will go a long way toward cutting out the crap.
First, a good game has a beginning, a middle, and, most important, an end. You can finish. You can win. A clear promise from the outset that you can beat the game means that it has the chance to be a satisfying work of art, not just a machine designed to pump you for cash. A single-player adventure with a coherent narrative, a gripping plot, and a cathartic climax — say, Pillars of Eternity — belongs in the former category. An online battle arena supported by subscription fees, microtransactions, and the player’s addiction to the endless cycle of win/lose/win — say, League of Legends — belongs in the latter. If you wouldn’t waste your time and money on a slot machine in a casino, don’t waste your time and money on any game without a definite end. Never trust a developer that asks you to take out your wallet more than once.
If you wouldn’t waste your time and money on a slot machine in a casino, don’t waste your time and money on any game without a definite end.
Second, a good game is enjoyable for the right reasons. Why do you play? Is it for the beautiful artwork, the charming cast, the musical score, the thrill of the saga? Or is it out of a bored, restless itch to click-click-click-click, make the colors dance on the screen, and indulge in a bit of the old ultra-violence? It’s hard to imagine picking up Journey for any reason but admiration for its transcendental elegance. It’s hard to imagine picking up Candy Crush for any reason but a mere craving for sensory stimulation. Regard gaming like drinking. If you go to a game (or the bottle) day after day, not for the fun of the thing, but out of impulse, because you can’t think of anything better to do — then there is certainly something better to do. Go do it. A game should be a joy, not a drug.
Third and finally, a good game is memorable. It is worth remembering. All the best albums, the best films, the best novels, and the best games have the strength to carve out a permanent place in your heart. Whatever nobility, whatever strangeness, whatever sehnsucht you found in that other world should stick to you — at least a little. Think of walking away from a finished game as you think of walking out of a movie theater. When the credits roll at the end of Star Wars or Dark Souls, are you inspired by the joyous heroism of the one, the melancholy grandeur of the other? Are you wide-eyed and breathless, in awe of the experience, grateful for this addition to your inner life? Or are you . . . not? Are you, in fact, already moving on to the next vacuous, forgettable diversion, having sucked every drop of distraction from the last?
In sum, don’t play slots, don’t do drugs, and don’t waste your time on any experience not worth remembering. Look for the game that sells itself on story and art, that brings pleasure without addiction, and that leaves you feeling happy and enriched. Cut out the crap. Get to the good stuff. It’s there, if you’re willing to dig.