This is a pretty well-established fact by now, I would have thought, but the issue rears its ugly head any time something interesting but flawed such as Papo & Yo shows up and is, overall, worthy of praise but riddled with technical issues.
Let’s stay with Papo & Yo for a moment to illustrate my point. (I won’t be spoiling the game here, so read without fear.)
Papo & Yo is, technically and objectively speaking, filled with flaws. The frame rate is pretty poor at times, there’s a lot of screen tearing and the collision detection is occasionally a bit off.
Does this make it a bad game, though?
Does it prevent it doing what it sets out to do?
This is ultimately all that should matter. And yet IGN notes that “poor design outweighs any interesting concepts”, ultimately concluding that the game is “bad”.
Well, yes, if judged next to something that is longer, more polished and designed primarily as a “game”, I guess Papo & Yo is “bad”. The problem comes when you consider the fact that all games are not created equal. Papo & Yo was put together by an extremely small team who did not have the budget to do more than they did. It succeeds admirably in telling its powerful, emotional story despite its technical flaws, which cease to matter almost immediately after starting to play. It was also not designed to be a “good game” — it was designed to be a vehicle for telling its story.
I’m reminded of a post I wrote a while back concerning visual novels and interactive movies. Back in the dawn of the CD-ROM era, if anyone dared to release a title like this that focused on the story at the expense of what would be traditionally called “gameplay,” it was slated without mercy. The mantras of the day were “gameplay is king” and “graphics do not make the game”.
To be fair, a lot of these “interactive movies” were simply poor stories, too, largely proving that (at the time) game studios simply did not have the budgets to compete with Hollywood. But some were enjoyable, and I can’t help feeling that some of them may have had a better response had they been released today with better technology and storage capacities.
You see, gameplay isn’t king. Not all the time, anyway. In something like Geometry Wars, sure, gameplay most certainly is king, though the beautiful neon presentation certainly doesn’t hurt. But in something like School Days HQ or Papo & Yo, gameplay is not king. Gameplay is not even in the king’s court. Story is king. And alongside this comes the necessity to judge a game based on how well it is achieving its objectives rather than how “good” it is compared to all other games. In no other medium do we judge individual creative works against everything else ever created in the same medium. No; we judge bestsellers against bestsellers; literature against literature; arthouse movies against arthouse movies; blockbuster against blockbuster.
Both School Days and Papo & Yo are “bad” if we’re to judge them against other, more “gamey” experiences. In School Days all you do is watch animé sequences for 20 minutes and then occasionally get to pick between two options. In Papo & Yo all you have to do is navigate the environment and solve some fairly simple puzzles. But neither game is setting out to be a “fun” game. Both of them are setting out to do one thing and one thing only: tell a story. They accomplish this in completely different ways. And they both succeed admirably, regardless of their game mechanics and regardless of any technical issues.
Most gamers I speak to on a regular basis seem to recognise this fact. So why, exactly, do we persist in judging all games to the same standards? This isn’t about giving a “free pass” to “art games”, as I have seen a few commentators remark in the last few days. It’s about judging a game on just one thing: how well it achieves its goal. Screen tearing (which, let’s not forget, blighted the original Uncharted to a very noticeable degree) does not affect how well Papo & Yo spins its tale just as, to flip the argument around, the stupid, nonsensical story doesn’t affect the fun factor of Call of Duty.
As always, then, the best way to judge whether or not a game is something you want to play is simply to try it for yourself — or at the very least discuss it with your friends and get the opinions of people you trust. “Good” and “Bad” are relative, arbitrary and ultimately quite useless descriptors when referring to creative works, and so I firmly believe the sooner we get out of the habit of judging all games against some ill-defined “canon of greatness”, the better.