The Cult of Playability: What Makes Cult Games So Great

The term “Cult Classic” is well-known within the realm of film, as well as other forms of art and entertainment. Video games, of course, also have their fair share of cult classics. Games like Earthbound and Mirror’s Edge have relatively small but incredibly passionate fan bases. These are fans who will fill their lives with the culture found in games like these: fan art, merch, music, writing… and more. For them, it really is like being in a cult.

And I think that’s a fantastic thing.

But what is it about these games that makes them ‘cult’ hits? What do they offer that gamers find so enriching?

I asked myself that question, and came up with an answer after reflecting on two games for which I am absolutely, undoubtedly, most definitely a member of their “cult:” Jet Set Radio Future and Hotline Miami.

Jet Set Radio Future (or How I learned to Stop Caring and Understand the Concept of Love)

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Jet Set Radio Future was an eye-opening experience for me. It was a game rich with new concepts and experiences: fast-paced rail-sliding action, vivid colors and level design, a wacky world and storyline that sometimes felt like a fever dream, and an energetic soundtrack that is still blowing people’s minds, even today. Once I picked up the controller, I couldn’t set it down. For hours.

As I played it, the game naturally introduced me to new and interesting things in the form of different game elements. The breakbeat music (composed by the legendary Hideki Naganuma) pumped me up as I slid down rails and did flips over bus stations, the graffiti I sprayed added color and vibrancy to the world I was in, the uniqueness of the characters drove me to unlock them all and try out their different styles.

I had no interest in breakbeat music, or graffiti, or roller blading prior to playing Jet Set Radio Future. But after playing it, and seeing how well they all worked together to create something great, I became fascinated. Roller blading didn’t really stick, but I grew to love breakbeat and DJ-style music, and I still listen to it today. I even learned how to draw graffiti-style art (never got good at it, though…). All because this game tied them together in such a way that made me want to experience it more.

The key point here is that Jet Set Radio Future introduced me to other forms of art: electronic music, graffiti, extreme sports (I know that last one sounds kinda silly, but it’s true). And in pursuing these other artistic elements, I felt more enriched as a person, not just as a gamer. But because all of these elements were core parts of Jet Set Radio Future’s identity, my passion for them significantly increased my passion for the game. These elements gave the game a “soul,” which meant playing it felt so incredibly fulfilling.

Getting a Grip with Hotline Miami

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Hotline Miami was a game that was similar to Jet Set Radio Future, in that it drew a relatively small but incredibly passionate group of fans. However, Hotline Miami wasn’t so much a “cult classic” as it was a “cult hit;” the fandom started almost instantaneously. Once gamers had enough time to play through the game, a cult started to form. I would only say you could call this one a “cult” game because it drove many gamers away by doing the same thing that pulled so many gamers in: combining different game elements in a way that gave the game a unique personality.

Hotline Miami did the same thing Jet Set Radio Future did: it introduced its fanbase to a wide array of different perspectives and interests via the game’s elements. This included:

    • Hardcore, 80’s-style synth music
    • Twitch-fast gameplay
    • Extreme violence and gore
    • Abstract storytelling with unreliable narration

On their own, all of these elements are nice, but when they are brought together, they form something bigger and better. Hotline Miami does a fantastic job of placing the player in the mind and body of a character who has become unhinged, and evokes the feelings of anger, panic, and mania by tying the gameplay with the intense soundtrack. Without these elements working together, I’m not sure it would have been anywhere near as interesting (or successful).

So, what makes a cult game good? Why does it matter?

All games try their best to combine a set of technical and artistic elements in order to create a great, unique experience, but only so many games nail it. These core elements are what give a game a personality, and a soul. When a game weaves these elements together in such a way that it creates a powerfully unique personality for that game; that’s what gamers will build a cult around.

So, in short, cult games are good because they introduce their fans to new ideas and concepts that inspire and enrich them — and ultimately, gives them something to identify with.

While normally “cult” carries a negative connotation, in respect to these games it often refers to people who so strongly admire or identify with something that they can’t help but be devoted to it. It doesn’t hurt anyone (necessarily), all it does it allow us to enrich our lives and our passion, and isn’t that pretty great?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Let us know what your favorite cult game is in the comments or on Twitter!

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2 thoughts on “The Cult of Playability: What Makes Cult Games So Great

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