When a gaming publication gives a game their highest rating, people sometimes respond by pointing out a flaw in the game, then asking “how can you give the game the highest possible rating?” Part of the answer is practical. A perfect game hasn’t come yet, and it seems unlikely that one ever will. So why not use the full length of the rating scale in the meantime? The other part of the answer is that a perfect game is actually impossible, so the highest rating shouldn’t be reserved for one.
For a game to be perfect, it would have to meet two requirements. First, it would have to lack any negative qualities. Second, its positive qualities would have to be maximally great. It’s not enough for a game to lack flaws, but each part must be as good as possible. I take this to be an obvious, definitional fact. If a game has a flaw or could be better in any respect, then it isn’t perfect by definition.
It’s easy enough to imagine a flawless game. Just name a game and eliminate its list of faults. For example, consider Dark Souls, a game with obvious flaws. If a new patch came out and the patch notes said something like this…
- Replaced the Bed of Chaos
- Replaced the Bounding Demons in Lost Izalith with interesting enemies
- Reduced the volume of the sound effect of walking on lava
- Fixed twink invasions done via Bottomless Box glitch
- Fixed all netcode issues
- Changed the section of Duke’s Archives that required a death to false Seath
- Reduced homing on enemy arrows
- Increased the drop rate of the Balder Side Sword and Channeler’s Trident
- Increased the difficulty of Pinwheel
- Made all covenants useful
- Expanded Anor Londo
- Fixed how overpowered and boring sorcery is in PvE
- Lightning Demons can now actually fly
…then it might be fair to say the game is flawless. The only difficult part of imagining a flawless games is deciding what is and isn’t a flaw. It’s likely that you either think I left out a flaw in that list or think one of the items I listed isn’t actually a flaw. These differences can be settled with conversation. Listing all the flaws of a game is not inconceivable or even extremely difficult—consider that simply listing flaws is often derided as “nitpicking” because of, in part, how easy it is. What is much more difficult, if not impossible, is imagining a game each of whose positive aspects are as good as possible.
Even if all the flaws were eliminated, how could we be sure that Dark Souls was maximally good, and therefore met the requirements for perfection? It’s easy to play Dark Souls and point out flaws, but it’s a lot harder to say for sure that it’s perfect. In order to say that even small part of the game is perfect, you have to imagine all possible configurations of that part and say for sure that the current one is the best.
Consider one of the boss fights often called the best in Dark Souls, the Artorias fight. There are an infinite number of meaningfully different configurations of this fight. For instance, are there any shapes of boss arena that could possibly be even a little better? Are there any unique attacks or combos that Artorias could employ that would improve the fight? There are an infinite number of ways to significantly change the fight, only a limited number of which we can reasonably imagine. Saying with certainty that a game is perfect is impossible because it’s simply impossible to imagine all meaningfully different configurations of a game.
This question may then arise: “It may be impossible to say with certainty that a game is perfect, but can we, for all intents and purposes, say one is?” I am open to this possibility. I think it’s acceptable to call a game perfect with the understanding that we can never know for sure if the game is truly and absolutely perfect, as long as the game is flawless and all of its positive aspects are very good. For instance, I don’t have a problem with calling certain versions of Tetris perfect. It’s not absolutely impossible that some genius down the road thinks of an improvement that blows all the current versions of out the water, but I’m not betting on that happening any time soon. So I think we can say for all intents and purposes that certain versions of Tetris with features like hard drops, the ghost piece, and the next queue are more-or-less perfect.
None of this is to say that gaming publications don’t give away their highest scores too often, or that some games can’t be reasonably called basically perfect while acknowledging that true perfection is impossible to certainly identify. However, it is impossible to certainly say that a game is truly perfect, so there’s no reason to reserve the highest score on a scale for one. We can easily imagine a flawless game by just referring to a list of problems that can be fixed. However, it’s impossible to conceive a maximally great game because we cannot consider every possible meaningfully different configuration in our imagination and say for sure that the current configuration is better than all of them.