When shopping for a new game to pick up, there are several factors that you undoubtedly consider before slapping down your hard-earned cash. You might be enticed by a game's graphical quality, sucked into an engaging story, or addicted by a solid gameplay experience. So which of these factors is the most important? Well, the answer to that is a matter of opinion, but it's also probably a bit more complex than you think.
So let's take a look at each of these elements individually.
Now, first of all, I know there are quite a few hardcore graphics enthusiasts out there (I know a few of them myself), but I would have to say that graphics aren't all that important in the grand scheme of things. I mean, really, Final Fantasy XIII was one of the prettiest console games of this generation, but it fell flat in the areas of gameplay and story. (Sorry, FFXIII fans, the story was garbage. You're fooling yourself if you think otherwise.) In fact, very few games have ever gotten absurd amounts of attention based on graphics alone (you could probably argue that Crysis was an exception).
Additionally, there are several games stylized to look like they came from a retro era. Mega Man 9 is an example, as is the more recent Oniken. Then again, you could argue that when it comes to these particular games, the graphical style does matter. It may not be groundbreaking, but it's designed to tap into those retro pleasure centers in our brains. Then again, if these throwback games don't have exceptional gameplay to back up the visual style, they generally fall flat.
I would argue, though, that the advent of polygonal 3D graphics has made graphical fidelity more important. It's hard to look at a game like Super Mario Bros. 3 and fault it for being an 8-bit game; it still looks fine. But take a look at, say, Syphon Filter, and the outdated polygon counts and low-res textures will make you want to shoot yourself in the face rather than shoot at your onscreen enemies. So here, graphics do matter, at least somewhat.
I'd almost have to make the claim that poor polygonal graphics can make a game hard to play in this day and age, whereas the next graphical breakthrough will be quickly forgotten. It's a precarious balance for developers to maintain, to be sure.
Now, I am completely fascinated by storytelling in video games. Some of my all-time favorite games are ones with incredible stories, like Half-Life 2 and BioShock. But I would still argue that video game stories are secondary to the gameplay.
Sure, I will proudly list BioShock as one of my all-time favorite games, and the gameplay was mediocre at best. Sure, there was an illusion of free will concerning the harvesting of the Little Sisters, but still, that was never a complex morality system; it was a basic dichotomy. BioShock would have to be an exception, in that the story was so damn good that the other elements didn't matter as much.
But how many other games can you think of where this is not the case? Not many, I'm willing to bet. (Half-Life 2 could potentially earn itself a spot on the list, depending how you look at it. I would argue, though, that at launch, Half-Life 2 sold itself on combat that felt really good by the standards of the time, even if this was a more subtle element than the storyline.)
This is the part where I argue that gameplay is literally everything. I mean, gameplay is the element that makes video games a unique medium. You can have a great CGI movie that has graphics that are out of this world (Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is a great example, as is just about anything Pixar has ever done.) You can tell a monumental story in a book, movie, TV series, radio broadcast, or any number of other media. But video games revolve around gameplay.
Now let's take a look at some examples so I can illustrate my point. (Sure, I admit to some cherry-picking.)
Metal Gear Solid: This game looked fantastic in 1998, and while the graphics are crude in retrospect, I would argue that they hardly make the game unplayable the way Syphon Filter's do. Also, the story was exceptional (though a bit over the top). Still, the thing that makes this game almost endlessly replayable is the fact that the gameplay was so damn good. Stealth gameplay wasn't brand new when the game launched, but Metal Gear Solid pushed the formula so far into the future that it practically invented a new genre. Be honest, it's the gameplay that really makes this one shine.
Final Fantasy VII: Another game that looked breathtaking in the 90s, and also a game with an arguably great storyline, Final Fantasy VII had gameplay that was pushing the RPG envelope. Sure, the turn-based system has since fallen out of favor, but FFVII practically perfected it. And that Materia system? That quite possibly gave FFVII the greatest Final Fantasy battle system ever made.
Portal: The Portal games have absurdly good storylines, but it's really the gameplay that takes center stage. Puzzle-solving with portals is the single element that made the original so revolutionary. Sure, it had one of the greatest video game villains of all time, GLaDOS, but it was exercising our mental muscles and thwapping down portals that made the game so much fun to play.
Uncharted 2: We here at Cheat Code Central love us some Uncharted, and Uncharted 2 is definitely the game in the series that was the most groundbreaking. The graphics were fantastic, and so was the story, but this wouldn't have mattered as much if the gunplay and action sequences weren't so incredible. The set pieces were where the game shined the brightest, yet these were merely excuses to show off the great gameplay. And the multiplayer was damn good too.
The Walking Dead: I bring up Telltale's Walking Dead series because I imagine people are going to be tempted to use it as a counterargument to my central thesis. It's the story that's great, right? While this is true in some regards, it's the game's choices that give the story its thrust. And regardless of the fact that making these choices generally just means selecting items on a list, this still counts as gameplay, and the emotional impact would be lessened if this weren't the case.
StarCraft 1 and 2: Sure, there's a great storyline in the StarCraft games, and the second one is beautiful. Still, it's the gameplay that makes us want to keep playing. Especially in the second game, where the factions are so incredibly balanced, bringing your opponents to their knees just feels good.
Call of Duty series: I don't even think I need to explain this one. Without super refined gunplay and exceptionally designed maps, the series would be barely playable.
Super Mario Bros.: The Mario games have been telling the same story over and over again for decades, yet it's the smooth platforming and great level design that keeps us purchasing them time and time again.
Minecraft: With outdated graphics and no story to speak of, Minecraft has stolen the blocky little hearts of millions.
Now, the examples I've given are just a few that support my claim that gameplay is the most important element in a video game. I challenge you to list some more in the comments section, and to come up with games that you think serve as counterexamples. Let the discussion begin!
Editor / News Director
Date: October 4, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*