Have you ever played a game and thought, “There’s just nothing quite like this”? Yeah, this article is about that: games as an experience. More specifically, it’s about defining that feeling and making it a useful artifact for game theory and criticism. Heady stuff, I know.
I think, subconsciously, gamers recognize when games go beyond categories like genre, story, platform, and all other bounds. There is some reason that Skyrim, despite being an incredibly average game, is one of the most remembered ones, when plenty of other open world fantasy RPGs exist. And no, it’s not because Skyrim is coming to Toaster in 2024.
I would like to identify what separates the re-released Skyrims of the gaming world from the (essentially same game every time) Call of Dutys of the gaming world. This dividing factor is that Skyrim is an experience, while Call of Duty games have experiences.
What In the World Does That Mean?
All games have experiences with them – every single one. The act of controlling a character is an experience. So is the act of solving a puzzle. Fighting an enemy. Exploring a map. A driving game, inherent to its genre, has the experience of driving. Experiences are the individual elements which each contribute to the “overall” experience of playing a game. Take CS:GO, for instance.
In CS:GO, players have the experience of facing one another. It can be tense, memorable, and heart-pounding, but it’s kind of a given for a PvP game. It also has the experiences of using weapons, positioning in an area, coordinating with teammates, managing resources (money, health, ammo, and time), and countless other things. It’s full of experiences, but it’s not an experience. It is not an experience because none of these things make it stand out in a way that other games don’t. I’ll touch more on this later.
An experience is when the act of playing a certain game transcends the individual elements that construct the game’s play environment. Briefly, it’s when a game uniquely delivers itself in a way that is more than the sum of its parts. Have you ever heard someone say: “You’ll never play a game like” say, “Silent Hill.” That means that, according to that individual, Silent Hill is an experience in and of itself. You can play plenty of games that are scary and foggy, but only Silent Hill provides Silent Hill, according to this example.
Is Mayonnaise an Experience?
All games have experiences, but not all games are an experience. This sounds like nonsense, but again, we’re talking about “an experience” as a lens for critical assessment, not as common parlance.
To go back to CS:GO, I would personally argue that it is not an experience because most people can find games that scratch the same itch. I could play Valorant for a very similar experience overall, or play Rainbow 6: Siege to emulate the time-crunch objective-push. I often play Insurgency Sandstorm when I want to feel the power of the right gun at the right time but don’t want to play CS:GO.
All of these experiences that people play CS:GO for can be found in and accessed in other games without necessarily losing something in the experience that is unique to CS:GO. Of course they’re different games, but let’s be honest, CS:GO is not the Mona Lisa of shooters. You can scratch the itch a hundred different ways. I think most people would agree that CS:GO is a well-crafted game – excellently crafted, even – but still, it’s not a gameplay experience only provided by that game. So, if a game doesn’t become an experience solely through smart implementation of mechanics, how does it become one?
Wolfenstein 3D Was an Experience
To consider a game as an experience, you must consider the game as a whole. Not just the gameplay or the story or the aesthetics or the lore, but every aspect together. As a caveat to this, you can divide modes of a game without it being dishonest in the assessment. For example, many of the Battlefield 1 campaigns were an experience, but the multiplayer was perfectly average.
Even if you consider everything about a game, it can still become an experience due to the novelty of the elements within it. For example, Wolfenstein 3D isn’t much of an experience anymore. Well, not from a game-first perspective, at least. There is something experiential about playing a historic game that defined the First-Person Shooter genre, but that’s not the game providing that experience, it’s the context outside of the game. Like the experience of PvP, it’s inherent to the game, not created through it.
Regardless, at a time, an FPS game was an experience – you couldn’t play anything like it. Now… well, it’s not. In this way, games stop being “an experience” when they achieve such status solely through innovation and not through unique artisanry. As the innovation becomes the standard, so the experience becomes just another aspect.
In a similar way, games that provide unique mechanics, aesthetics, and story can be an experience, and it’s harder for such games to lose this status, but it can’t be the only thing standing out. Hunt: Showdown has some fantastic art design and a unique approach to shooters and battle royales as a whole. That being said, I cannot say that I’ve never played a game like it. I haven’t played a game that controls like it, nor looks like it, nor with the same setting as it, but it’s not an experience. It’s a great game, it’s very unique, but it’s not more than the sum of its parts.
To conclude, to judge whether or not a game is an experience, you must consider them in their entirety, not in the elements they do best, though an exception exists for specific game modes. Additionally, games can achieve “an experience” status through sheer innovation, but if they do, they can lose such status as others catch on.
When An Experience Becomes a Genre
Okay, lets make this all even more complex. Sometimes, games are an experience. When a game that is an experience sees itself become so popular that many games offer the same elements, it often ceases being an experience… but it might birth a genre.
Dark Souls is what I’m talking about, and maybe Metroid or Castlevania (I’m just not familiar enough with the later two to say with certainty). Demon’s Souls came first, but it just didn’t strike right to become “an experience.” Now, though, we have an entire genre named for the franchise. A Souls-Like. Or Soulsborn. Or Soulsborneiro. Is Dark Souls an experience? Not anymore, I don’t think, but it has become a genre because of how compelling the experiences in it are.
Dark Souls, unlike Wolfenstein 3D, became an experience by merit of gameplay elements alone. Like Wolfenstein 3D, when others caught on, its limelight faded.
An Example of What Counts (In My Opinion)
Half-Life has plenty of other games like it, but I would argue that Half-Life is an experience. If you want to play a fairly linear shooter, you could play Bioshock, Dishonored, Deus Ex, and more. I would say, though, that there is no combination of games that provides you with the same experience that Half-Life does – not even Half-Life 2 has the safe affect. Half-Life is an experience.
If you haven’t played Half-Life, you should. It’s one of the greatest games of all time. It is the only game that I’ve played where I can say it’s better when it’s over – not because it sucks to play, but because the ending is just that good. To this day, I constantly find myself yearning for a story that is so subtly told yet hits as hard as it does. Games should leave you with an appreciation of the experience of playing, and Half-Life does.
Making All This Useful
Now that I have so arrogantly strut in to the game criticism conversation and declared that some games can be argued to be “an experience,” I’d like to tone everything back and try to make this term useful. First, obviously, whether or not a game is “an experience” is subjective, especially if you haven’t played or seen many other games. I’m sure Pong was an experience, and for the alien that recovers a phone with nothing but Candy Crush, that’s an experience. The point of this term is not to define something as an “ultra mega super +10 best game of all time” to win arguments online.
Secondly, a game being an experience does not mean it’s good. Often times they are, but sometimes they’re just average. Again, Skyrim. I think everyone should play it for a little bit because no other game aligns its various elements to create the same experience, but I would not rate it a 10/10 game. Or a 9/10. 8/10 is generous. You get my point.
Identifying games as an experience should also, as I’ve said, separate the game from the context. Absolutely nothing for me compares to the sun-bathed early mornings playing Super Smash Bros on the N64. That’s an experience, but the game itself is not. So separate yourself from what you like, what you don’t like, and what gives you nostalgia. Separate yourself from the 1 v 4 last-second clutch-defuse.
That’s all I have. If you thought of a game that hits the “an experience” criteria for you, comment it below.