How do you know when you are playing a truly great game? One that goes beyond just a simple fun experience that you will forget shortly. One that goes beyond being a notch on your proverbial gamer belt. How do you know when a game that is an instant classic and not simply a game that is a fad? Does it have to have time pass? Does it have to be rated high on metacritic? This question goes for all art. When do we know we have experienced a masterpiece?
In the last few weeks I have been playing through Xenoblade Chronicles on the New 2DS. It is a fun game with gigantic environments to explore. I have progressed slowly in order to savor the game and enjoy every aspect. I chose to play this game after hearing many good things about it. I have enjoyed other “Xeno” games, though I know they are not explicitly connected. I also love RPGs. Xenoblade seemed like a match made in heaven for me. Or a match made on the Bionis if you prefer. Twenty hours in, I am enjoying the game, but I already know that this is not a legendary masterpiece.
It is hard to put my finger on why. Then circumstances revealed a new simple criteria for discerning which games are masterpieces.
My Journey to Recognizing a Masterpiece:
I was given a visa gift card for Christmas. I debated the many different ways to spend it, but I settled on a used Wii U. I picked up a cheap one from Game Stop (I know, many people hate them). This route let me get Mario Kart 8, Smash Bros., Nintendo Land, and Zelda: Breath of the Wild for all under $250. Any guess on which game spurred me to purchase a Wii U? Believe it or not, it was Nintendo Land. The simple mini games are great with little kids and large groups.
One day when the kids were out, I started up Breath of the Wild to check out what all the hype was about. I died. Repeatedly. Fall off a cliff. Drowned in a pond. Fall of the tower. Get slaughtered by strong enemy. Fall of the plateau. Freeze to death. Crush self with metal box. Fall of the tower again…and again. The game was not necessarily hard. It did forced me to learn by exploring and trying things. Thankfully the game does not punish you drastically for dying. It better not if it is going to make you figure things out by trial and error.
I beat the first shrine. Then the next. And the next. I got off the Great Plateau, only after exploring each nook and cranny. Then I began my life as a nomad, exploring each inch of the wide open wilderness. I would see a distant mountain and then set out to climb it.
I began to try to sneak times to play the game. We only have one TV in the house, so I would let others watch things as I sat back and played on the Wii U Pad. The first time I did so, the battery for the pad died in 10 minutes. I thought I must not have charged it well. I left it plugged in. Adjusted the cord to try to get the connections just right. After a second time, I knew the battery on the game pad was faulty. I decided to exchange it quickly so to avoid being stuck with a defective game pad on a new Wii U.
When calling Game Stop, a representative informed that I would be welcome to exchange it, but I would lose all my saves. While I was sure there would be a way, using SD cards, I also confronted the real possibility I would lose all my progress in the different games. On a recently acquired console this is not much of an issue, except for Breath of the Wild. This would set me 10 hours back.
In that moment I knew I was playing a masterpiece. I actually was excited about having another chance to start again and explore in new ways. Experiencing each view, shrine, story, and challenge in a completely new way. The opportunity would be a gift. Replay value is often a marker of a good game. Here though I was excited to start again if I lost my progress.
I then thought about Xenoblade. The thought of having to start over and lose my twenty hours would be gamer agony. Not because I have a personal attachment to that save file, but because there was a great deal I did not want to have to repeat. Once has been good. Twice would be like losing a term paper or a novel to a computer virus.
For me there are few modern games that have reached this level. Metroid Prime, The Last of Us, and Halo: Combat Evolved instantly come to mind. Which games then would you not fret about losing a save file? Which ones would you be happy to repeat as many times as necessary?
Those ones are the masterpieces. Those are the legends.