More than just a spit shine
(Note: While South Park: The Stick of Truth is the negative inspiration for this article, the game is quite enjoyable. Using my amazing powers, I can say that the review of the game will go up next week and it will be positive.)
It struck me as I was picking up a dildo for Mr. Slave that the quest didn’t make sense. Not because a child was going to the post office to pick up a sex toy for someone he didn’t know, but instead because I never had any reason to grab the package in the first place. I had not yet met Mr. Slave and had no reason to believe that he was in need of mail. Stick of Truth allowed me to start and complete a quest without having to go through the trouble of acquiring that quest. More than not making sense in our world (much of this and other game worlds don’t), the quest didn’t make sense in the context of the game. This was an example of a lack of polish and it ever so briefly pulled me out of the game.
Polish is hard to nail down, but the general idea is that the developer has removed the aspects of the game that pull the player from the experience. Obvious examples of polish are things like bugs. Crashing to desktop is a sure way to ensure that any momentum is lost. In many cases, polish is more subtle than that. Polish also includes things like difficulty spikes, poor translation, or terrible interface design. It effects all aspects of the players experience and prevents them from interacting with the game as easily and cleanly as they would like. Whenever the play begins to question the game world, chances are the game lacked polish.
Polish matters because a lack of polish disrupts the experience the game maker is attempting to create. Most games have a feeling they wish to impart on the player and failure to remove the roadblocks can destroy that feeling. For example, I still remember the Hades level in the original God of War where the player is forced to climb rotating bladed pillars. They spun so quickly and became frustrating quickly. They destroyed my feeling of invincibility and replaced it with wonder as to why such a challenging but fun game devolved into a twitchy Frogger knock off. I began to think, not about Kratos and his mighty struggle, but why the developers decided to squeeze in this terrible idea. When I’m ripping apart Greek monstrosities, I shouldn’t be encouraged to pause and consider the merits of a certain section of a level.
That’s not to say that polish guarantees a perfect game. A polished turd is a polished turd. Polish reduces the friction between the player and the base game, but it does not ensure that the game itself is any fun to play. Poor story, mechanics, or level design won’t be hidden by a well-tested interface. Instead they are more exposed as they provide contrast with the problematic aspect of the game. If the controls are tight and the graphics are clear, then the player knows that the problem is the game mechanic and not the input surrounding the mechanic. The same can be said of even good games. It’s a fact that players look for different things in their games. A well-executed game in a genre I don’t like isn’t likely going to change my view of that genre. It might convince me to continue playing that game long after I would have put down similar games and that is worth considering.