I played Thief this month when I got it free for PS3 from PlayStation Plus. Thief is not a great game. It’s mostly a pretty mediocre game, especially if you’ve played the far superior Dishonored. The story is dull, poorly paced, often incoherent, and not particularly well voice acted. The gameplay is only okay, and the design of certain areas and sequences is a poor match for it. But level 5 of the game—the asylum—is one of the scariest levels in gaming that I’ve ever played. It made the time I sunk into the rest of the game (20+ hours) worth it. It is truly a diamond in the rough—a brilliant moment in a morass of mediocrity. If you start playing Thief and feel the way I did about it, I recommend that you do what you need to do to get to chapter 5, then decide after that if you want to just turn the game off (you won’t miss anything particularly amazing if you do).
How does this happen? I have no idea, of course. I haven’t spoken to the developers, and I doubt they’d tell me if I did. (“Excuse me, but I was wondering how this one level of your game wound up amazing when the rest of it is so dull.”) Some things you can tell from gameplay, though. Part of it is that the asylum level uses the stealth mechanics differently than the rest of the game. The asylum’s less about sneaking past guards in bottlenecks and more about not being sure quite where the threat is. It’s also about learning how the threat works—by falling prey to it in ways that kind of punish you for failure without being unfair or forcing tedious repetition on you. Basically, the gameplay mechanics and storytelling of chapter 5 are different—and way better—than the rest of the game.
I won’t say that awesome levels in terrible games happens often. What I’m talking about is a significant difference in quality level, and maintaining brilliance even for a whole level is no easy task (in fact, like many scary games and levels, Thief’s asylum gets less interesting toward the end, but the first hour or more is terrific). But it does happen. Sometimes a few moments of brilliance are enough to make the whole game a more fun experience. Other times they’re simply bright spots amidst the slog. Let me show you some examples of what I mean.
After Thief, the best recent diamond in the rough than comes to mind for me is the Bioshock 2 DLC Minerva’s Den. Bioshock 2 was fine. It wasn’t a terrible game. It was your consummate uninspired sequel. Take the premise of Bioshock, swap out your dystopian ideology (communism instead of Ayn Randian objectivism), dig a little more into the backstory of Rapture, ship your game. Eh, okay. But the Minerva’s Den DLC changed up the storytelling style, offered a more tightly designed gameplay experience, and had me engaged throughout its entire runtime (which, being a DLC, was admittedly brief). It’s a little easier to see how this bit of brilliance happened. First, it was a different team that designed the DLC (I think they may have worked on B2 as well, but they had free rein on the DLC). The core of the Minerva’s Den team went on to found Fullbright (Games) and develop the terrific, unusual Gone Home. Because MD was a DLC, they could take risks with the story and gameplay in an arena with a manageable scope, and it paid off. This is one of the best things about DLC (and indie games): they encourage risks and innovation in a way that AAA titles can’t because of their financial bottom line.
Then there are games that are pretty good to begin with but have a moment that lifts the entire game experience from good to great. Our examples here will be Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, CoD: Modern Warfare 2, and Braid. SPOILER WARNING: spoilable moments in each of these games will be discussed in this paragraph, so skip to the next paragraph if you wish to avoid that. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare could have been just another CoD shooter with the minor perk of being modern…until the nuke. When the nuke goes off, and your player-character’s chopper goes down, and you regain control over him…only to die while trying to crawl…somewhere…the game changes. Suddenly this video game about exciting shooting is also about how being a great soldier isn’t necessarily enough to keep you not dead. Suddenly the stakes are personal—your character has been killed, and you were there. For a minute you thought you had control, but you couldn’t save him. This willingness to kill off player-characters and major allies continues through the Modern Warfare series, but of course it never has the same impact as the first time, when we weren’t expecting it. That moment took CoD 4 from good to great by using gameplay (player control) and storytelling in a shocking new way. CoD: MW2 added a new twist with the (skippable for those too disturbed by it!) airport level, in which the twist was not that you die (though you do) but that first you participate in a terrorist atrocity (or at least stand by and watch it happen). This was unsettling and thought-provoking on a number of levels, and set the tone for the rest of the game like the nuke did in CoD 4. MW3’s campaign had no new tricks up its sleeve and so rested mainly on the laurels of its multiplayer (which was just fine, of course, but also didn’t add anything brilliant to the offerings of the previous games). Braid, too, was a fun game from the beginning – a mind-bending puzzle-platformer. The between-level texts struck me as a bit pretentious, but not so much that I felt like abandoning the game. But when I got to the end, the reveal in the last level changes your impression of everything that’s come before, like of like in The Sixth Sense or another film with a twist at the end that makes you want to rewatch the whole movie right away. This took Braid from “fun” to a game that I still think and talk about from time to time even years later. The twist was mainly story, but it related to the time-altering core gameplay, so it wasn’t just story: it was, in a sense, an explanation for why the game mechanics are what they are. It’s pretty cool stuff, and it has me excited to see what Jonathan Blow’s next game, The Witness, will have to offer.
Some of these games are bad or mediocre with a bit of good in them. Others are elevated from good to great by a brilliant moment. In another article, I discuss the opposite situation, in which an otherwise good or great game is dragged down by a terrible moment or game mechanic. But for now, what do you think about these great moments in awful (or otherwise just good) games? Can you think of other examples that I’ve overlooked? What about terrible endings to otherwise good games?