The thing to first understand about a game is that is can never, ever be perfect. There is a lot to balance between story and mechanics, immersion and agency, making the player feel like an involved and invested part of the game while also transcending that and making them feel like an empowered part of the narrative. No game can be perfect, there is far too much to balance, too many plates to keep spinning at one time to not have at least a little wobble somewhere. Even the process of game creation, of forcing endless cuts and rewrites to fit what is possible with the tech being used to build it all makes creating the perfect game incredibly difficult. All this I would have happily said to you last week but when I played Geometry Wars 3, everything changed.
The first thing to understand about Geometry Wars is its humble origins. The original Geometry Wars was created as a way to test the Xbox controller by Bizarre Creations who were working on Project Gotham Racing at the time. There was no need for narrative or story, just pure mechanics and this, it would turn out, would be incredibly important to what would eventually become Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions. I already mentioned how the inherent need to balance narrative in a game may be the ultimate detriment to it being perfect, but if you strip the need for narrative out you are left with pure mechanics. Once the game itself doesn’t feel like a vacuum due to the lack of narrative, then it does nothing more than give tightly designed mechanics the room to shine.
Geometry Wars 3 is, at its core, a twin stick shooter. The player uses the left stick to move their craft and the right stick to fire in a direction of their choosing. The playable surface changes from level to level; sometimes it will be a circle, sometimes a cube. Sometimes it will be flat and sometimes it will be full 3D, allowing you to move all around its surface. There will be random environmental challenges like moving walls, cut off areas or blocks that kill you if you touch them. Your ship can take one shot and then it dies. Depending on the rules of that particular level you may only get one life, or you may get many. The controls are beautiful and responsive, in the split second it takes you to identify a threat you can move away from it or destroy it and this is vital to the games brilliance. Any lag, delay or feeling of unfairness in this area would scupper the games perfection instantly. The ship reacts as fast as you can and this is vital.
I already mentioned how the inherent need to balance narrative in a game may be the ultimate detriment to it being perfect, but if you strip the need for narrative out you are left with pure mechanics. Once the game itself doesn’t feel like a vacuum due to the lack of narrative, then it does nothing more than give tightly designed mechanics the room to shine.
Enemies come in all shapes and sizes, once again varying from level to level. Some will hunt you down, some will die and spawn smaller versions of themselves, some will run from your fire only to reappear from the other side of the level and smack you in the back. It is up to you to identify their patterns of behaviour, manipulate and deal with them accordingly. Enemies are coded by both shape and colour, offering two instant identifiers that you will need in order to keep track of what is happening on the screen. Levels tend to start slow and then get more and more hectic and the biggest threat to your ship is not always the closest. As time goes by it becomes an insane challenge to both react to what is happening in the now and to try plan for the future. You forget about your score and do your best not to make the fatal mistake of blinking. The game sucks you in and demands a level of focus that few games can justify.
Your ship itself also brings its own variables, having access to a range of super attacks and drones as you move further into the game. Some nuke the entire screen or drop mines or fire homing missiles. Your drone can add further fire power to the fight, or ram nearby enemies or even collect the tiny green score multipliers that are so vital to success.
One of the smarter moves in the game is the scoreboard, which tells you how you are doing in relation to your friends who also play the game. Competition and the endless cycle of thinking “just one more try” is at the heart of the genius of Geometry Wars 3. Even if you lack the skill to top the leaderboards and dominate your friends you can always compete with yourself. The never ending desire to beat your own high score is incredible. One round turns into ten and you fall asleep thinking of the best way to maximise your score on certain levels.
While it may sounds like all I have done here is describe the game it should be noted that I have also pointed out that Geometry Wars 3 has everything a great game needs to have. It has replay-ability and enough randomness and surprise to keep you engaged. It has enough flexibility to adapt to different play styles while maintaining the same core mechanical challenge that appeals to the player and that makes the gameplay experience a universal thing. The game presents a stern challenge that is equal for all players and also gives you the tools to overcome that challenge. There is no difficulty level, the game is the game and you either play it well or you play it poorly. Your deaths are caused by your mistakes rather than some pre-programmed “gotcha” moment that the developers inserted to mess with you. The game is demanding and flexible with replay value and it is all built on a foundation of incredible tight mechanics. All this makes it a great game.
So where is the perfection? First we need to understand what perfection actually is. It’s not the 100% itself, but rather that last 1% that is missing from so many other things. It’s the difference maker between the great and the best and it is often so slight and so hard to spot that it is assumed missing from things that have it and declared present in other things that lack it. With Geometry Wars 3, the perfect is not in the parts that make it up, but rather in what those parts become in conjunction with each other.
All games need a hook, a reward loop to keep the player engaged and playing and in Geometry Wars that hook are built into the very fabric of the game. As you kill the little enemies you score points, they also drop little green geoms that give you a reward multiplier as you pick them up. The next enemy you kill is worth more and drops more geoms, meaning a never ending cycle of ever more valuable enemies. As the level progresses, more and more of them spawn in, meaning more and more points, a greater and greater multiplier and progressively more tension. The risks in dying are so much greater when each kill is worth 10,000 points than when they are worth 100 but the demand for risk is always increasing as more and more screen space is filled enemies leaving behind ever more valuable multipliers. It’s a simple and genius interplay of mechanics that naturally and effortlessly build tension and immersion as the level progresses.
First we need to understand what perfection actually is. It’s not the 100% itself, but rather that last 1% that is missing from so many other things. It’s the difference maker between the great and the best and it is often so slight and so hard to spot that it is assumed missing from things that have it and declared present in other things that lack it.
The fact that eventually an enemy will make contact with your ship is inevitable and knowing that your time to earn possible points is finite actually increases the player’s willingness to take risks, to dive headlong into a cluster of multipliers and use their only super to escape upon the assumption that it is the best possible moment to do just that. The randomly moving enemies and never ending impact of the players’ action lead to a frantic, unscripted ballet towards the number one spot. This will be met with either glory or crushing defeat. Either will inevitably be followed by one more game and it is all powered by that simple risk/reward feedback loop at the core of the experience. Live to score points, live long enough and risk death to score big points and when you do eventually die that defeat is both frustrating and crushing…but rapidly dissolves as you play one more round.
While I think it is foolish to set a checklist for “perfection” that games should adhere to if they wish to take that title, I do think it is very possible for a development team to aim for perfection within the limited area that their game seeks to cover and I find it impossible to think of a single thing that could have been done with Geometry Wars 3 to make it a better, smarter or more complete experience.