The best films are consistent systems. Masterpieces of filmmaking are consistent on and between many levels: plot structure, character motivations, thematic structure, in addition to the social or political structures the characters are immersed in. These films seem to give and give; the more you consume them, the more you get out of them.

For example, the Godfather trilogy tells the story of an Italian-American family immersed in a system of organized crime. The system of honor and betrayal in the film is remarkable in its own right, but it is also couched within an exquisite character drama, and is framed by tight production themes like color signifiers. These internal consistencies allow viewers to remain immersed in a work and perhaps look for more in subsequent viewings.

Internal consistency is something that video games have inherently. Video games are after all, systems of rules with goals. If you create a playable video game, it will be a consistent system.

Interestingly, it is in big budget games that system-breaking inconsistencies can creep in. For these games, two production factors make this not only possible but likely. Those factors are time constraints and an insistence on sanitized user experience.

When a system-level bug is found, the cheapest, fastest way to keep a user from encountering it is to introduce an exception to the global rule set. Round out the corners so the camera doesn’t get stuck. Jitter that leg so it doesn’t fall through the ground. Looking through the lens of software engineering, this may well be the right choice, but something is going to be lost. Players will find that exception and perhaps a bit of disbelief can no longer be suspended.

Does that mean that we should favor simpler games? I’m not sure about that. Physics systems are full of compromises for practical reasons, but can be part of a consistent gaming experience. On the flipside, this notion does make me want to look even closer at the more expressive games coming out of the zine game movement. Who knows, maybe this is where the Citizen Kane of videogames will come from (not that anyone’s looking for it anymore.)