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From a game design perspective, what games stand out to you as some of the best?
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Super Metroid, Final Fantasy Tactics, Prey (2017) + Prey - Mooncrash, XCOM: Enemy Within, Resident Evil 4, Super Mario 64, Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Ōkami, Dark Souls, Demon's Souls, Hyper Light Drifter, Fez, Hotline Miami, Dishonored, Mass Effect 2, Portal 2, Gone Home, Resident Evil (GC/Wii), The World Ends with You, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, Fluidity, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, Hitman (2016) - Season 1: Episode 6: Hokkaido, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Plants vs. Zombies, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, The Punisher (Arcade), Diablo...

You know, for starters.
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I don't know anything about game design, but I know what I like.

Master of Orion has long been a prime example of what I like. Unlike other 4X strategy games, it's streamlined; it doesn't suffer from the "kitchen sink" syndrome. Pick a small map, and you can even play a game in an hour or so, the way you might play a game of chess.

RPGs in general, from Pool of Radiance to Baldur's Gate to Geneforge and many more, impress me with their wealth of imaginative detail. Though it's not what I look for in a game, I can't help but be amazed that anyone would put so much careful, painstaking work into a story-based game like that.

Realistic wargames like Harpoon impress me because of all the meticulous care that goes into mapping the game to real life. It's amazing to see one done well. About the only ones I play anymore, though, are submarine sims like Silent Hunter III.

The "Rogue-lite" strikes me as a brilliant evolution in game design, as it manages to make permadeath tolerable and even enjoyable. I love Darkest Dungeon and look forward to finding time for it again someday soon.

Chessmaster and other classic-game designs stand out as brilliant works of both AI and presentation to the user. A wannabe chess master can do worse than spending lots of time with Fritz or Shredder or HIARCS or any good chess engine or package.

What's got me enthralled lately is Age of Wonders III. It was a very good game in its first iteration, back in 1999. It got better and better over the years, and now it's practically a masterpiece. For me, it captures all the joy of a fantasy RPG while allowing me to play a strategy game and not be locked into a story. It also strikes a nice balance between strategy and tactics, including both and giving the player a range of choice.

Lots of wonderful games around these days. I'm sure my comments above barely scratch the surface.
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Patrick Carroll wrote:
I don't know anything about game design, but I know what I like.


Same. I think that makes the answer more interesting.
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There are games that I love but would hesitate to list in response to a question like this.

I love Final Fantasy VII, and parts of it are brilliantly designed, but...

Same goes for FFXII. Truly compelling design in some areas, with very dumb and conspicuous design gaffes (the triple-percent chests being public enemy #1).

I tend to think of the question in terms of how tightly something is designed in a meticulous, coherent way. I love Skyrim, I love some parts of Skyrim's design, but I can't bring myself to say that Skyrim is well designed.

The American-British novelist Henry James (1843-1916) once referred to 19th century novels as "loose, baggy monsters" - Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, etc. In contrast to literature where every word has been mulled 100 times over (Flaubert being the quintessential example at the time that he said it).

I see game design through a similar lens. I love Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and while I would never call it "badly designed," what it is is brilliantly designed with all sorts freewheeling nonsense playfully weaved in.
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I was just talking about this a bit yesterday.

One game that stands out for me is Splatoon. The way paint is used is so dynamic, it's kind of crazy. Paint is your basic means of attacking. However, paint is also your "territory" - you move faster on your paint, enemies move slower on your paint, you can refill ammo and hide if on your paint, you can use your paint to climb walls, and your paint will cover the enemy paint if you attack the terrain. Also, in casual mode, territory % is the win condition. It just ..... works so well.

Another game that spurred the discussion was after I watched the GDC Retrospective of Into the Breach. I felt it really clever that enemies telegraph their attacks and turn orders, and you have to solve how to defend yourselves and the local buildings. The combat in that game was pretty dang incredible, and it was tightly focused on only a few types of attacks, but HEAVILY focused on position, both yours and manipulating the enemies positions. But, it had a few (in my opinion) flaws that its predecessor FTL: Faster Than Light didn't have, which make the game not nearly as memorable for me. (for another topic, I suppose.)

The World Ends with You was already mentioned, but also really neat design wise.
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One game that sticks out in my mind as I think about this question is ArmA III, and I find it interesting because it's almost too well-designed for my tastes. It's a military simulator, and the attention to detail in that pursuit is as overwhelming as it is incredible. Tons of controls, systems, commands, vehicles (each with their own controls), etc. Adding to that the physics, weapon behavior, and smaller details like allowing you to use a compass, map, and radio to triangulate the position of an enemy, ally, or location, the complete picture of what is there is legitimately impressive. The learning curve can be enormous (I'm nearly or over 100 hours of playtime and still learn/forget things), and I don't know that these detailed systems always make the game more fun, but it's impressive design nonetheless.

I'd be remiss not to mention iRacing as well given it has been my latest addiction. Car and tire physics, laser scanned/true to life tracks, and dynamic track temperature that forces you to change the way you drive are all incredibly well done. It's probably the most "sim" sim game that I've ever played.

More controversially, Final Fantasy VIII because I love it for all the reasons most people hate it. The complex junction system, "drawing" your magic, and enemies scaling to your level, etc. Would I say it's objectively good game design? No, and the thoughts of most people would indicate as much. But it all clicked with me, and functions in a way that works for my tastes.
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ghostpants wrote:
...and I don't know that these detailed systems always make the game more fun, but it's impressive design nonetheless.


For some reason, this reminded me of something a friend of mine said years ago when we were talking about movies: "and the Oscar goes to... Sean Penn for MOST acting!!"

I agree that complex systems and steep learning curves won't always be a sign of great design. Occasionally they are - The World Ends with You is just ridiculously over-designed but it's all so carefully thought out... as I was learning it I couldn't believe how well it all worked together. It was still very intimidating to learn.

Quote:
More controversially, Final Fantasy VIII because I love it for all the reasons most people hate it. The complex junction system, "drawing" your magic, and enemies scaling to your level, etc. Would I say it's objectively good game design? No, and the thoughts of most people would indicate as much. But it all clicked with me, and functions in a way that works for my tastes.


I think FF8 continues to be mis-understood, and there's some stubbornness there rooted in the context of its release. It's very good "upside down" game design. And it makes sense for Squaresoft to have done it - for them, it is the 8th game in a well-worn genre. For most US fans, it is the 2nd game in a brand new genre (not for me, but sales-wise I think that is an accurate statement).

A lot of the lingering hard feelings toward FF8 are based around perceptions that fall apart if you have any real experience with the game - that you have to draw-grind to get spells, or that summons (with their overlong repetitive animations) are necessary to beat tough enemies, or that level scaling means that enemies always keep pace with your progression, etc.
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GeoffreyB wrote:


Despite being a PlayStation fanboy, I have never played a game in the Lunar series. I need to change that.
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Katamari Damacy - the way things flow together and scale as you get larger is almost magical, and makes the world feel very good to roll around in.

Psychonauts - Every level not only has its own art style and theme, but its own game design.
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Osirus wrote:

Psychonauts - Every level not only has its own art style and theme, but its own game design.


This is one that floated through my mind when I was rifling off a bunch in my first reply - it's borderline for me in a way that helps illustrate how I think about strong design.

Conceptually, Psychonauts is ambitious and creative - a surprisingly wide range of surprisingly good ideas. In that respect it runs circles around a lot of games.

There are a couple of things about the game that have always bugged me. One is that it emphasizes collecting things as a means of unlocking advantages for Raz, but 1.) some figments are actually difficult to see in terms of color and background. You can be staring right at a figment and still not see it at first. That really takes the wind out of my sails. 2.) the game acts like the shards you pull out of the ground are going to be important, but the last thing that seems to matter is the metal-detector, calling into question why those shards are in the game at all.

On top of that, toward the end of the game, Psychonauts pushes its platforming harder than the control scheme / physics / geometry can reasonably support. I'm thinking of the asylum tower or whatever it's called. This is where Super Mario 64 looms ominously over the design, much like it does over Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. The harder you push SM64, the stronger it performs. Psychonauts has an "eyes bigger than stomach" problem with its most elaborate platforming.

But in many other respects, the game is a tour de force of design, and I'd still call it one of the 10-15 best games of its generation. I know its one of your all-time favorites, and these comments aren't meant to dislodge that impression. Just to say that, for me, a great game can have a couple of design drawbacks that put an asterisk next to it in a discussion like this one.
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JohnRayJr wrote:
Osirus wrote:

Psychonauts - Every level not only has its own art style and theme, but its own game design.


This is one that floated through my mind when I was rifling off a bunch in my first reply - it's borderline for me in a way that helps illustrate how I think about strong design.

Conceptually, Psychonauts is ambitious and creative - a surprisingly wide range of surprisingly good ideas. In that respect it runs circles around a lot of games.

There are a couple of things about the game that have always bugged me... Just to say that, for me, a great game can have a couple of design drawbacks that put an asterisk next to it in a discussion like this one.

I guess that gets at how one envisions "best" -- most/greatest successes, or fewest/smallest failures. With brakes on your car, best is clearly fewest/smallest failures, and that's going to outweigh any innovative cool features on brakes which might fail slightly more often. With a musician, to me "best" means made the most songs I love, rather than at least one song I love and the fewest songs I dislike.

One can certainly view video games either way.
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Osirus wrote:
JohnRayJr wrote:
Osirus wrote:

Psychonauts - Every level not only has its own art style and theme, but its own game design.


This is one that floated through my mind when I was rifling off a bunch in my first reply - it's borderline for me in a way that helps illustrate how I think about strong design.

Conceptually, Psychonauts is ambitious and creative - a surprisingly wide range of surprisingly good ideas. In that respect it runs circles around a lot of games.

There are a couple of things about the game that have always bugged me... Just to say that, for me, a great game can have a couple of design drawbacks that put an asterisk next to it in a discussion like this one.

I guess that gets at how one envisions "best" -- most/greatest successes, or fewest/smallest failures. With brakes on your car, best is clearly fewest/smallest failures, and that's going to outweigh any innovative cool features on brakes which might fail slightly more often. With a musician, to me "best" means made the most songs I love, rather than at least one song I love and the fewest songs I dislike.

One can certainly view video games either way.


Well put - reminds me of another tidbit from literature that I can't remember well enough to quote. Something about defining beauty as the greatest range of motion within the smallest space. Which is certainly akin to how I think about Super Metroid.
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Osirus wrote:
JohnRayJr wrote:
Osirus wrote:

Psychonauts - Every level not only has its own art style and theme, but its own game design.


This is one that floated through my mind when I was rifling off a bunch in my first reply - it's borderline for me in a way that helps illustrate how I think about strong design.

Conceptually, Psychonauts is ambitious and creative - a surprisingly wide range of surprisingly good ideas. In that respect it runs circles around a lot of games.

There are a couple of things about the game that have always bugged me... Just to say that, for me, a great game can have a couple of design drawbacks that put an asterisk next to it in a discussion like this one.

I guess that gets at how one envisions "best" -- most/greatest successes, or fewest/smallest failures. With brakes on your car, best is clearly fewest/smallest failures, and that's going to outweigh any innovative cool features on brakes which might fail slightly more often. With a musician, to me "best" means made the most songs I love, rather than at least one song I love and the fewest songs I dislike.

One can certainly view video games either way.


I sort of agree with this. Sort of. If it has bumps, but I don't mind those much, then I'm with you. Thing is, when it comes to gameplay/pacing bumps, there's something that games do which music doesn't: you can't skip the actively bad parts. If I'm listening to music, I can very easily ignore what I don't like. But this is not true for games, which can force me to go through a kind of sequence that I actively detest. These sequences, if moderately frequent, do manage to tank my enjoyment.
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Both the design and layout of the world and the way the puzzles are created to make you learn the rules makes The Witness (2016) some of the best design of a game I can think of.
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When I think of amazing game design, a couple of titles come to mind.

The Last of Us is one of the best games I've ever played, and not just because of the story, gameplay, or graphics, but because of how well everything is put together from start to finish. From the moment you're on the title screen, the game is engaging. It has one of the most impactful prologues of any post-apocalyptic game I've played, and really sets the stage well for the rest of the game. Naughty Dog put so much thought into the minutest details, that the game world feels fully realized.

TimeSplitters: Future Perfect. This is a game that I go back and play somewhat regularly (it's about time for another playthrough). The story, the characters, the humor, the level design, the extra game modes, etc. This game was really well put together. It's a shame we kept getting hints and rumors about a TimeSplitters 4, but it never panned out.

Assassin's Creed: Origins. I've never been a huge fan of the AC games. I played the first one a ton, but the combat got really repetitive and I ended up getting so tired of it that I didn't even play the next couple of games. When Origins came out, it looked like a fresh start for the series, so I decided to give it a shot. This is one of the most impressive open world games I've ever played. The characters are well done, the world is very well realized, the missions are exciting and interesting, and the game play is solid. So much work went into the game's historical aspect that they decided to release a standalone history tour version of the game that teachers and students could play to learn more about the culture and architecture of those times.
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I completely disagree that Okami was well designed. In my opinion it was a giant convoluted mess where every idea anyone on the development team had at any point in the design process was included into the game.

I think whatever success it had was in spite of its design, not because of it.

Which leads me to what I think of with a well designed game. Which is one that is narrow in scope and succeeds at what it is doing brilliantly.

Shovel Knight
Mirrors Edge
Super Mario Bros (1)
Portal
Bioshock
Rayman Legends
Kirby's Epic Yarn
Child of Light

Those are some well designed games to me.
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I like games that are elegant and manage to utilize those mechanics well. If they manage to do something interesting with their story, that's an added bonus.

Portal (2007), SUPERHOT, Mark of the Ninja and One Finger Death Punch come to mind.
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Kodeir wrote:
Thing is, when it comes to gameplay/pacing bumps, there's something that games do which music doesn't: you can't skip the actively bad parts. If I'm listening to music, I can very easily ignore what I don't like. But this is not true for games, which can force me to go through a kind of sequence that I actively detest. These sequences, if moderately frequent, do manage to tank my enjoyment.

That makes me think about one very general aspect of game design (and it's probably a moot point to most people around here): replay value.

I'm too much of a stick-in-the-mud to completely accept, or even understand, a game that's a one-off, finished product like a symphony, novel, or motion picture. The very word "game" calls to mind, for me, something that's designed to be played over and over, indefinitely, and be at least a little different each and every time. Chess and bridge are two well-known games of that type; and I'm reluctant to even call it a type, because for me there is no other type.

But for decades, and for more than one generation by now, I guess, story-based games have been the norm. Old-fashioned oppositional games are still around, but they're not what video gamers normally talk about. Most games have a beginning, middle, and end; and when you reach the closing credits, it's just like coming to the last page of a novel or seeing the end of a movie--it's done. You might someday repeat the experience, but it will be basically the same experience every time. In a game, you might choose to do some things differently and vary the experience somewhat, but you'll be aware that it's a "rerun."

So, the very best-designed games to me are the ones where, right after the last move is made, I want to say, "Let's play again. I think I learned something and can do better next time." That regularly happens in chess, bridge, and other traditional games.

It almost never happens in a story-based or puzzle-based video game. Those leave me saying, "Well, that's done. Now on to something else." I can't imagine, for example, finishing Planescape: Torment and wanting to start over and play again right away. It's much too long, for one thing. But also, I've been through the story now--read all the dialogue and had most of the experiences. The game-play challenges would still be there next time, but the story, music, art, and all would be a repeat. I might be eager to play a sequel--to have more of the experience and see what more there is to the story--but I wouldn't want to replay the original game. Not immediately, anyway.

When I get to the end of my current favorite game, Age of Wonders III, I do start a new game right away. Win or lose, I feel I learned something and might do better next time. I want to find out. Over time, I want to see my skills improve and be reflected by my increasing success in the game. I think that's the main reason I play games, so for me it's the chief mark of game-design excellence.
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frumpish wrote:
I completely disagree that Okami was well designed. In my opinion it was a giant convoluted mess where every idea anyone on the development team had at any point in the design process was included into the game.

I think whatever success it had was in spite of its design, not because of it.


If I remember, weren't your main issues with Okami that it went on for much longer than you were expecting, and that you had trouble with the controls (I don't remember what platform you played on)?

I'd say everything that's in the game is scoped out pretty carefully. On a first playthrough, it's not a short game (60 hours or so), but the only area where it can be accused of recycling is the multiple-appearances of Orochi, and the last 30 minutes or so where you run a boss gauntlet. And those are legit blemishes, but otherwise every area is carefully designed in terms of item placement, enemy placement, ability-relevance, etc.

None of that's going to matter if you want a 30-hour game or don't ever click with the painting controls (which is a somewhat separate issue of whether the audience in general can use them reliably).
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Patrick Carroll wrote:
Kodeir wrote:
Thing is, when it comes to gameplay/pacing bumps, there's something that games do which music doesn't: you can't skip the actively bad parts. If I'm listening to music, I can very easily ignore what I don't like. But this is not true for games, which can force me to go through a kind of sequence that I actively detest. These sequences, if moderately frequent, do manage to tank my enjoyment.

That makes me think about one very general aspect of game design (and it's probably a moot point to most people around here): replay value.

...

But for decades, and for more than one generation by now, I guess, story-based games have been the norm. Old-fashioned oppositional games are still around, but they're not what video gamers normally talk about. Most games have a beginning, middle, and end; and when you reach the closing credits, it's just like coming to the last page of a novel or seeing the end of a movie--it's done. You might someday repeat the experience, but it will be basically the same experience every time.


There's a lot of cultural variation here, especially once you get to the last sentence. While it is true that most games unfold in the context of a story and have a definitive conclusion, there are some sharp differences in attitudes about replayability, and not only among the players but also at the developer/publisher level.

Much of it is psychological. You'll hear gamers all the time say that they don't replay games because they've decided life's too short and they're on the hunt for new experiences. Or they've undergone a dramatic change in free-time now that they're working adults (possibly married, possibly with kids), and ruling out replay is essentially part of coping.

But then, as in most hobbies, you have people who come to feel that, if you don't have your favorites, you don't have anything. For some, it can almost begin to seem that trying out new games is just what you do in between playing the best, and only because you know some of them will join the ranks of the best.

Games themselves can influence replayability, but I suspect not as much as people think. Your supposition that most narrative games will be "basically the same experience every time" is probably true of a small minority, but otherwise doesn't really hold up. But it gets complicated. Some players may only replay when enough time has gone by that memories have faded, because they want to repeat that old experience. But if that's the case, the player is pre-determining how things will go. Other players like to explore a game's "range," in a way that their peers have never even thought about.

You can have a game like Dark Souls, which for some players will seem obviously, deeply replayable - playing it several times in a row and it's a different experience each time. But you can have other players who go through it once, love it, see it in that one way, and only come back to it years later to re-see it in that one way, again.

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JohnRayJr wrote:
your main issues with Okami


Yes, it was unnecessarily long and all the mini games. And Issun. Any game with Issun is going to draw my ire.
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The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - semi-open world, great pacing, typical Zelda two worlds design

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask - fascinating use of time

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker - refreshing open world

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - amazing exploration and combat mechanics

Mass Effect 2 - great modular narrative structure a la Seven Samurai

Portal - puzzles integrated into story with narration

Metroid Prime - amazing 3D metroidvania design

Prince of Persia Sands of Time - integration of platforming into intriguing narrative

Tomb Raider 2013 - successful new style of 3rd person action game

Need for Speed Most Wanted 2012 - integration of racing into open world, allows better pacing and free roam

Mirror's Edge - linear design works perfectly with always-move-forward mechanics

Ico - layers of puzzle on environment with great pacing and atmosphere

Shadow of the Colossus - atmospheric open world with epic encounters

Xenoblade Chronicles - perfect mix of open/linear JRPG
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JohnRayJr wrote:
Patrick Carroll wrote:
One very general aspect of game design (and it's probably a moot point to most people around here): replay value.

There's a lot of cultural variation here ... some sharp differences in attitudes about replayability, and not only among the players but also at the developer/publisher level.

Much of it is psychological. ...

Games themselves can influence replayability, but I suspect not as much as people think. ...

You can have a game like Dark Souls, which for some players will seem obviously, deeply replayable - playing it several times in a row and it's a different experience each time. But you can have other players who go through it once, love it, see it in that one way, and only come back to it years later to re-see it in that one way, again.

Excellent points.

I'll just say that if I play a game, and upon winning or losing it, I don't think, "That was great, and I think I'm catching on; I want to play again right now," it's going to be very difficult for me to say it stands out as a great game design.

I might say it has a great story, superb artwork, fantastic music and voice acting, well-constructed puzzles, and so on, but for me something crucial is lacking if the game doesn't leave me wanting to replay it.

Partly, of course, it's just a matter of taste. But sometimes it's a matter of structure: e.g., a very long game just doesn't lend itself to replay the way a short game can. Or if the game focuses on solving puzzles or mysteries, you'd have to forget the solutions before you could enjoy replaying the game. And if there's a strong emphasis on the story, to the point where game play is only incidental, the desire to replay will be just about the same as the desire to reread a novel you just finished.

Take Planescape: Torment, for instance. I played it all the way through, and by the end I knew a lot more about what I was doing than I did at the beginning. I could replay it and probably do better next time around. But since it took me over a year to do it the first time, how often could I play it? And with those long feedback loops, how could I tell if I'm improving? If I ever do replay the game, it'll be for exactly the same reason I might reread Moby Dick--to experience the story again and see what I get out of it this time. To me, that has nothing to do with game playing per se; it has to do with immersion in a story.

Excellent replay value isn't sufficient to make a game design good, but to me it's essential. I can judge some arcade games to be magnificent designs, for instance, even though I can't stand to play them. I don't like tests of hand-eye coordination. But more power to those who do.

But if a game lacks replay value due to its structure or design elements (e.g., it takes years to finish it, it's all about solving a set of puzzles, or it's all story and no game play to amount to), to my mind it barely qualifies as a game at all.

I'm not saying that no long games, puzzle games, or story-based games are replayable. Some no doubt are, for some people. But if they're too long, puzzly, or story-heavy for me to consider replaying--replaying in order to improve at--they won't be on my list of great games. In extreme cases, I might not think of them as games at all.

That's just me. But that's what the QotD asks about. As I said right off the bat, I don't know anything about game design, but I know what I like.
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