How does one set about making a Great game? Not just a good game, a fun game, or even a 99 Metacritic game. I mean a game that takes a place in the canon, and will still be relevant well into the future.
Here's a caveat: I've never made anything Great, certainly not on my own or as a primary creator. So I don't have any answers. But I'd like to make a Great work, and I like thinking.
Of course part of what's prompting me to think about this is the recently released list(*) from the Smithsonian's "Art of Video Games" exhibit. I don't want to argue with the list, or even comment on the inclusions. But drawing up such a list ties in with a lot of thoughts I've been having recently about how to aim for the heights of our medium.
Here's my basic thesis: In order to be Great, any work must have something to say. It must have a theme that speaks to some aspect of the human condition. It does not need to be an original theme, but some aspect of the expression must be original.
Once a work has a theme, of course, it's not done - now the creator must bend every aspect of that work, at least partially, in service or support of that theme. In books this means the characters, dialog, plot, word choice, and potentially even things like chapter construction and footnotes. Movies add more, with visual style choices, actors, music, and sounds.
Video games have another problem when trying to reach this goal, however. In addition to the settings, characters, dialog, plot, visual style, and sounds all working in service to the theme, the gameplay must as well. If your gameplay and your narrative don't align, you end up with "ludonarrative dissonance".
But gameplay is hard to get right. Probably, you want the gameplay to be fun (although, perhaps it's more in service to your theme to have gameplay that's not fun), especially if you're making a commercial game. And so as you're making your game you will find lots of things that aren't fun, and you'll change them. If you're really unlucky, though, your core mechanic or some aspect of it will prove to be not fun, or unworkable for some other reason. And remember, this mechanic is one that you've chosen because it ties directly into your theme - it works in service to the central idea of your work.
So what do you do? Toss the mechanic, and design something fun? Ship the game as a flawed but true-to-vision work that's not fun? Toss the theme, and come up with a new one? Decide that perhaps video games aren't the medium in which to express your theme? It seems to me that any of these will probably result in a less-than-Great work, or no work at all. It's possible that you can come up with a new, fun mechanic that meets your theme, but more likely you'll end up falling short of greatness. I think a game can get away with other aspects not fitting the theme - it's likely the case that all Great works are flawed in some way - but gameplay is central to the idea of what a game is.
Under the additional constraints imposed by attempting to make a commercially successful product in the current game development environment, it's easy to see why we haven't, as a medium, produced many Great works.
* I originally wrote this post back in May, when the list was "recent". Then I sat on it forever because I worry too much sometimes.