Apr 07

2017

How We Judge a Good Game—Part 3

Posted by: Rachel E. Towers | Comments (0)

As part of our support for the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels, we will be posting an irregular series of blog posts discussing important design and writing criteria for games. We hope that these can both provide guidance for people participating in the Contest and also help people understand how we think about questions of game design and some best practices. These don’t modify the evaluation criteria for the Contest, and (except as noted) participants are not required to conform to our recommendations–but it’s probably a good idea to listen when judges tell you what they’re looking for.

If these topics interest you, be sure to sign up for our contest mailing list below! We’ll post more of our thoughts on game design leading up to the contest deadline on January 31, 2018.

This is the final part of our three part series in designed to give concrete ways in which our Guidelines connect with our Judging Rubric. For a refresher, here’s the previous blog post where we covered Creative Stats, Balanced Choices, and Conflicting Goals with Satisfying Endings, and here’s the first blog post where we covered Inclusivity, Length and Coding Efficiency, and Setting and Plot. Here we’re going to cover writing Original, Interesting Characters, and what we look for in Prose Styling, in addition to explaining what the judges personally look for in games to give you a better understanding of how we approach things.

Original, Interesting Characters (15% of score):
Characters should be fresh, interesting, and distinctive. They should feel different from each other, and have their own personalities and motivations distinct from the PC’s. Interesting characters require a balance of characteristics that make them identifiable, relatable, and unique. The details of what this means, however, is fairly specific to the game. For example, a gritty noir may have characters that are most identifiable by the different way each one talks, relatable in that they have very human vices, and unique in their complex motivations and desires. A more heroic epic, on the other hand, may require characters to be identifiable in much more vivid and exaggerated descriptions, relatable in that they represent more absolute emotions and thoughts, and unique less in their complexity and more in how literally one of a kind they are.

In keeping with the ideas of inclusivity, characters should not play into stereotypes. While the reasons negative stereotypes are damaging to marginalized groups is relatively obvious (anyone should be able to understand the implications of having all the villains be the same ethnicity, and all the heros be another), games should also avoid ‘positive stereotypes’ such as “all women are nurturing”, “all Asians are good at math”, “all black men are good at sports”, and “all indigenous people are naturally spiritual.” These stereotypes limit characters from being unique and interesting in addition to limiting our understanding of the roles available to minority groups.

Games with characters which are fun, interesting, engaging, and relatable are likely to score higher in this category. Games with characters that are entirely defined by their tropes, or their physical characteristics, or that are indistinguishable from each other, are likely to score low on Interesting Characters. Games that lack enough distinction between characters, or that otherwise lack characterization, may receive an 0 in this category.

Prose Styling (10% of score):
Your writing should attempt to be as word-perfect as possible: that means correct spelling, grammar, and usage. While prose styling beyond those elements is subjective (How good is this writing? Does it engage me and do I want to keep reading?) we expect to see evidence that you’ve worked to submit clean copy to us. Writing should conform to our Style Guide both in terms of text (second person games should use first person options) and punctuation (no smart quotes, correct em-dashes, etc.)

Games which are beautifully written, or that deeply engage the player with their prose, are likely to score higher in this category. Games which are boring to read, or that that contain odd, confusing, or difficult writing are likely to score lower. Games which are unintelligible, which lack proper punctuation, or that are otherwise very poorly written may receive an 0 in Prose.

Judge’s Choice (5% of score):
The Judge’s Choice category is, obviously, how much the judges like your game. While it’s possible to discuss what makes a “good” game to the point of exhaustion without getting anywhere–especially once you start trying to account for taste–there are still three major things we can start off for games that are widely appealing. Most objectively, how does your game hold up as a cohesive whole? Cohesiveness can mean a good, logical interaction between stats and end states, while the lack of game balance, like having branches that are excessively difficult or far too easy to reach, or that have systems that make the player’s choices meaningless, can indicate some cohesiveness problems. Likewise, stats that match up meaningfully with theme and storytelling indicate a good game, while games that have odd combinations (such as a core choice of strength, agility, intelligence in a love story) might lack a sense of cohesion.

There are also more subjective standards. For example, is the game enjoyable? There’s a certain element of “fun” which can be very elusive both to make and describe, but the degree to which a game is gripping–how much it makes you want to keep playing to see the end–is a strong indicator. It’s very possible to paint by the numbers and end up with a game that at first glance appears decent, but in actual play isn’t all that enjoyable. In avoiding that, it’s very necessary not to lose that element of enjoyment in trying to hit all the right keys. Finally, and already mentioned briefly, is taste. While our rubric is designed to put the best games at top irrespective of our personal tastes, the fact of the matter is that we all play games and read stories to have a good time. So rather than break down what’s good and what’s bad for this category, here’s what the judges have to say about what they personally enjoy in our games:

Dan: A good story is like a good joke. The ending has to be surprising but inevitable in hindsight. A great ChoiceScript game makes players complicit in the process, allowing them to surprise themselves in ways only they could have predicted.

Jason: The thing that I want is to not be asked the same question repeatedly. I want the choices to be in different registers; about different plotlines; to be at cross-purposes. I want narrative tension. I want to be anguished by having to make a decision. In short, I want to be compelled to replay the game.

Becky: Does the story make me feel something? Does it make me want to know what happens next – by letting me connect with the characters enough to feel invested in their stories; by setting up enough tension in the plot to make me want to see how it gets resolved?

Adam: I focus on whether a game keeps me hooked. I want a game to grab me early on and make me determined to play more. I want choices that keep me interested–and that means I want variety of choices, not a repetition of the same choices over and over again. When I get to the end of the game, I want there to be different strategies that call out to be tried in a replay.

Mary: I tend to look closely at the prose of a game. I like to see polish at a sentence level–that is, prose that moves me through a scene in an exciting way, or slows down to a level of detail when I need to know more about an interaction or what’s happening. The dictum of fiction is: “Does this sentence reveal character or move the plot forward?” If it doesn’t, cut it.

Rachel: There’s a certain joy in having everything intricately–yet still neatly–tied together. When subtle changes in one early choice ripples out, the consequences of which gather steam until it shifts the whole course of the story, it feels like anything can happen.

And so along with the rest of the Judging Rubric, that makes up everything we’ll be judging our games on. Of course no game is or can be perfect in all of these categories, but each should make should strive to be as good as they can in all of them.

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