The Essential Elements of Videogames

What elements keep gamers like these glued to the couch?

There are several different elements that go into creating a video game. Developers need to consider many factors when crafting a product for the gaming masses — factors that determine how the game looks, sounds, feels, and plays. These aspects are dissected and analyzed by reviewers in magazines, newspapers, and websites to determine whether games are bad, good, or great.

Many people wonder just which elements are the most important. Do good graphics trump poor level design? Can a great soundtrack make up for gameplay lapses? Can an unforgettable story be remembered if the main characters faces look like blocks? I have my own beliefs and theory on just what aspects of a game are the most important and which among them is most important of all.

I have taken five elements of video games (design, music, graphics, gameplay, story) and ranked them in terms of importance. These are what I feel are essential to create a good game and what, if improved, can make an alright game good and a good game great.

5) Graphics

Pretty graphics are very nice, but not the top of the list.

Sure, pretty much every single big-budget, moneymaking game has great graphics. But is that really the reason why the game is great? Uncharted 2 may be pretty, but what if you kept the graphics and got rid of the game’s soundtrack and story? The same can be said for Mass Effect 2, Assassin’s Creed II, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and other recent greats to grace our consoles and PCs. Graphics are definitely a very nice thing to behold when playing and can take a decent game and make it even better, but when compared to the other four aspects in this analysis, graphics are definitely something of an added bonus. A game can be great with it, but it can also be great without it. Games such as Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Castle Crashers, Geometry Wars, and several others have become classics without having eye-popping visuals. So as nice and important as graphics are, they land themselves here at number five.

4) Music

Great soundtracks make number four on this list.

A great soundtrack can make a game. The same can be said for a terrible soundtrack. Music in games are things that players will remember for a long time coming. Even back in the days of the NES, music from Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda were memorable, and are still used in their current-gen iterations. Players in the future will remember Drake’s theme in Uncharted 2, the heart-wrenching and downright eerie moments of Heavy Rain, and the epic score of Mass Effect 2. They make moments like Commander Shepherd’s emergence from Sovereign’s wreckage in the original Mass Effect ones that stay with you. No doubt, music is an essential part of every game. However, a great game can still survive as a good game with a sub-par or average soundtrack so long as it comes with good design, gameplay, or a compelling story. Games such as Borderlands, Left 4 Dead, and Demon’s Souls come to mind when thinking of this. So as important as music can be in a game, it lands itself at four behind some tough competition.

3) Story

It's evolved to be extremely important in games, but not the be all end all of games.

If a game wants to have a single-player mode that really grips its players and keeps them glued to their controllers, they need to have a story that can keep them from pressing the power button on their TVs. Story has evolved in games over the past two decades from a funny afterthought into one of the most crucial elements needed to have a blockbuster. Players remember games for their great stories and impressionable characters. You identify with Ethan Mars and wrack your brain with his dilemmas and choices as he tries desperately to save his son’s life. Sympathy and empathy is felt when Ezio Auditore is forced to watch his father and brothers hung in a public square and later swears revenge. You’re attention is firmly grabbed and you’re shocked when you discover the truth behind the initiation of the Grey Wardens. These moments and more stick with you much longer than a game’s graphics and are multiplied if combined with a great score accompanying them. But would you engage yourself in these moments or urge yourself to play to the next moment if the levels are annoying to navigate and the controls are a mess? There are also plenty of games out there with a mediocre or no story. But because its other elements are so good, they make up for the lack of plot. It is for these reasons that story gets its spot at number three.

2) Design

Huge key to games, but not number one.

How a game is laid out can cause players to enjoy their experience without a second thought or can be the one thing that grinds at them more and more, as they hold to the story or gameplay so they don’t put the controller down. The way each level or map is designed and the placement of treasures, weapons, power-ups, enemies, and more can really determine if the game is a blast or an annoying chore. Final Fantasy XIII has been kept from great scores simply because its level design is too linear and treasures are too easy to find. Meanwhile, no one had much to complain about when it came to the design of the worlds for Borderlands, Mass Effect 2, or other linear games like God of War III and Uncharted 2. There are other parts of a game’s design that can help or hurt games. Halo 3: ODST had a great co-op mode in Firefight, but Bungie received harsh criticism for making the design choice of not including a matchmaking system with the new gametype. Assassin’s Creed II implemented an economic system into the series that no one would initially think would work, but it fit into the game seamlessly and was seen as a great addition. It is simple decisions and executions on those decisions like these that can really make or break a game. However, as big a factor in making or breaking a game that design is, there is still one element that trumps all. That is why design lands at two.

1) Gameplay

Without it, you don't have a good game.

Say what you want about how good a game’s story is, how pretty it may look, what memorable moments the soundtrack emphasizes or how good a game’s design is; if it doesn’t have fun or addictive gameplay, it might as well go straight to the bargain bin at your local game store. How a game plays is what makes it essentially a good or bad game. Sure, all four other elements listed here could ruin a game with great gameplay if they’re bad enough. But bad gameplay will almost always ruin a game all on its own regardless of the quality of the other elements. That is why it is so essential for developers to make a game with a good control scheme and a well thought-out party, cover, health, fighting, or combo system. What if the combos and abilities didn’t flow so well in God of War? As much as Final Fantasy XIII gets criticized for its design, it was just about equally complimented for its Paradigm party system that added a great level of strategy to battles. Millions play Modern Warfare 2 online because of the fast-paced action of the gameplay and the ease of the controls. Scribblenauts became an instant hit on the DS because of its simple and addictive gameplay mechanic of writing objects and other things in a notepad that would then create them in the game. Despite how bad a game looks, sounds, carries a story, or is designed; these can all be overcome to create a good or even great game if the gameplay behind it all is addictive and accessible. That is why gameplay is the most essential element in creating a game and has its well-deserved spot at number one.


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Author: Mike Murphy View all posts by
Mike has been playing games for over two decades. His earliest memories are of shooting ducks and stomping goombas on NES, and over the years, the hobby became one of his biggest passions. Mike has worked with GamerNode as a writer and editor since 2009, giving you news, reviews, previews, a voice on the VS Node Podcast, and much more.

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