If you were to ask me what video games were, and I answered quite mechanically "a sedentary activity that involves gripping a molded piece of plastic and pressing the inset buttons based on human reactions to artificial images displayed on a screen", it is unlikely that you would reply that it sounded intense, physical, or anything other than monotonously boring.
Thankfully, my robotic definition is anything but accurate. As I'm sure many gamers will agree, video games do have a tendency to be rather intense, physical and downright satisfying. How many times have you beaten a particularly difficult level or mission and sighed with relief, noticing how fast your heart was beating?
What follows is a list, in no particular order, of what I believe are ten of the most viscerally satisfying gaming experiences and what they say about myself, gamers and people in general.
1. BOOM! HEADSHOT!
A friend of mine recently made this point to me: Games seem to reward headshots, which is strange, considering that outside of zombie IP's, it's probably a better idea to go for center mass. Why aim for the head? I thought about this for a second, and then I replied "Because they feel good." And they do! Even in a game like Halo, where headshots aren't rewarded with a healthy spray of gore a la Gears of War, it's still a triumph to plant a projectile in your enemy's cerebrum. So satisfying, apparently, that there's an entire playlist of games on Halo: Reach's multiplayer that revolves around headshots.
But what do headshots say about us? Two things: That we love to show off our skills, and we love to humiliate. Rather than go for a sure kill by pumping a shot or two into the chest, we go for the kill that says "I thought I'd let you know how terrible you are by taking an extra second or two to blow your head off."
Speaking of humilating someone with your obviously superior skill, what says "Get that trash out of here!" more than killing an opponent in an FPS without firing a bullet? Not much. Back in the day, games that my younger friends refer to as "Oh my god, old!", such as Doom, melee was a sad(unless you had the berserk power up) pair of brass knuckles that meant you had run out of bullets. These days, it's perfectly acceptable to bash someone's brains out with the stock of your rifle, your chainsaw bayonet, a hunting knife or, hell, a golf club. The only time a bash isn't particularly satisfying is when the infamous "double-bash-cancel-out" occurs. Dammit, Halo.
What does bashing say about us? Is it that we're frugal with our bullets? Ammunition might be scarce – if you're close enough, just give 'em the old one-two. More likely, I think it's a perfect way to tell that special someone that they're just not worth the bullets.
In the same vein as headshots and bashing, there is the "assassination" or "execution" for the Gears of War -minded. Maybe you're playing Halo: Reach and you find yourself behind an unsuspecting opponent. Perhaps you're playing Gears and you've just come upon a downed combatant flailing on the ground. In either scenario, do you show mercy? Of course you don't. They don't call you the Reckoner for nothing. Actually, no one calls you that. Just the same, what do you do? Do you snap his neck, or do you jam a knife in it? Do you chainsaw him, or do you knock his head off with the butt of your shotgun? Maybe, just maybe, you go for the classic curb stomp.
Either way, you've taken extra care to let this person know that a) they should have been paying more attention or b) suck on this. There's nothing redeeming about assassinations. I can personally vouch that I feel nothing but pure, seething hatred every time someone does it to me in Reach. Just bash me, man. I know I shouldn't have been camping. You got lucky, there's no need to rub it in…but it (bash) feels (bash) so (bash) good (knife).
4. ZOMBIE MASSACRES
Some might say, myself somewhat included, that the whole zombie trend might be rotting from the inside (forgive me). Nevertheless, it doesn't change the fact that it's incredibly satisfying to mindlessly slaughter hordes of undead. When you need to work out your sociopathic tendencies without actually hurting anyone, giant reptiles with neon green blood don't quite cut it and if you keep reloading the airport scene from Modern Warfare 2, people will start to talk. Enter the undead. Realistic enough to satisfy your sick urges, monster-like enough that your family won't think you're maladjusted. After all, it's just practice, right?
5. BEATING SOMETHING BIGGER THAN YOU
The idea of the "underdog" goes back all the way to the story of David and Goliath. More realistically and coincidentally more relevant to gaming, it probably actually goes all the way back to the group of Cavemen and the Mammoth. Being relatively small creatures with easily wounded egos, it makes sense that humans are fascinated with the idea of taking out a much larger foe than themselves.
This is reflected in our video games, never more prominently than in one of the most basic elements of gaming: the boss battle. These are not scrubs, cannon fodder or stormtroopers – they are Darth Vader and the Emperor, they are giant sentient spaceships, they are princess-stealing-dragon-reptile-duck-turtle-monarchs. Sometimes they're Greek gods or colossal behemoths. What they have in common is that you, lowly player, are not expected to defeat them. But you always do, and it always feels like a triumph. The bigger they are, the harder they fall and the more powerful you become. There can be only one!
We are taught (hopefully) as children always to do the right thing. Share, don't hit your brother or kick the dog. Don't take things that aren't yours. Eat your vegetables. Can you imagine what it would be like if we played our video games like that? Oh, I need these parts to fix my spaceship and they're far too expensive but they're not mine so I dare not steal them. Kill someone? I know, I know, were at war with an army of the undead. But that still doesn't make killing right!
The fact that video games aren't real makes acting out our baser instincts that much more exciting. If you don't want to roam around an enchanted forest for three hours gathering ingredients for an alchemist so that they can give you an ancient tome or make you a quest-related potion, you're more than welcome to simply bash their head in and take it. Kill prostitutes, knock somebody's cranium in a wrench. Hell, wipe out the whole town!
7. HARD DIFFICULTIES
Higher difficulties in video games are the stuff of legend. That's probably why they get named things like "Veteran", "Ultraviolence", "Sith Master" and oh, yeah, "Legendary". In some games all it takes is some dogged persistence, while in others it's pure psychological torture. Nothing will bring out the unadulterated rage of a gamer more than ceaselessly failing at something they paid good money for. Who among us has not had to fight the urge to hurl their controller at the nearest wall or strangle the television like we're trying to kill it? Conversely, is there anything more infuriating than the braggart who shrugs off his god-like accomplishments? Anyone who claims that gaming isn't intense should take a crack at Call of Duty Classic on Veteran sometime and we'll check in later to see what kind of blood pressure medication they're on.
So you're playing Reach, and you're having a pretty good match. The two teams are right on each other's tails with most of the map heavily contested. Everyone's got their fair share of kills and deaths. Some other kid takes you out from behind with a quick tap of the B button. No big deal, you'll respawn in a few seconds and be right back in the – wait. What was that? Did he just? No. He didn't just bag me. You get on the horn with your teammates to let them know that things just got personal. You've got two options: 1) Step up your tactics and show these people you mean business or 2) Abandon all pretense of strategy and spend the remainder of the match taking turns hunting this kid down mercilessly, bagging him like a cart of groceries. You might have lost the match, but it was worth it – tomorrow his Spartan will wake up with two basketball-sized dents in his helmet.
This one might seem like a bit of a stretch (along with the picture I used) but hear me out. Let me start off by saying that I consider myself a proponent of less cinematics in games, both pre-rendered and in-game. After all, this medium is about interactivity, right? Let me do the work.
At any rate, I would consider the following use of cut-scenes in gaming one of my fondest virtual memories. The one game I would implicate for single-handedly addicting me to RPG's is Bethesda's Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. After first labeling it as far too dorky for my fourteen year-old self, after a week I had doubled in level what my two best friends had managed in a month.
I must have been playing for hundreds of hours when suddenly, in the middle of the main quest, I came upon a cut-scene. I don't remember the particulars of it, least of all if it was even visually appealing, but the break in gameplay alone was enough to startle me and my friend to jump and shout raucously for our other companion to come upstairs to view this unprecedented event we were in the midst of witnessing. Sure, I could talk about the palpable relief that comes from reaching a cut scene after a particularly difficult stretch of game, but that's the easy way out. I'd rather remember with fondness my excitement upon finding a cinematic in a game that contained only three at the most scattered throughout hundreds of hours of gameplay.
It's almost too simple. There should be an achievement for quitting a Reach match in under half of a second. Off the top of my head I'd say it takes two to three quick button taps. Or if you're a minimalist, reach over and hit the power button. I mean, how many times can you get spawn killed by grenades before you just can take it anymore? Personally, the lack of respawn in Gears 2 deathmatches has led to more ragequitting than I care to admit. Part of it really can be chalked up to immature rage, but at least some of it has to do entirely with saving face. I can only say "I hate this #@&^ game, I'm quitting" a finite amount of times without actually quitting before people think I'm all talk. This is worse than losing. I'm never embarrassed to lose. After a ragequit, well, that's a different story.
As I finish this article with much less enthusiasm for it than when I began, I'm left wonder what it says about me that many of my most visceral gaming experiences revolve around humiliation of others and unhealthy levels of rage. Alas, c'est la vie.
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