Video games conjure entire worlds from polygons and code that we spend days exploring, so it’s no surprise we talk about them constantly – like sailors peeling off our stiff, salty clothes to tell tales of adventure around a table. Our stories usually begin in a similar way. Your friend might ask, “have you heard of [Game Name]? It’s a 2D puzzle platformer.” Or think of the podcast host who describes a game they played recently as “a team-based multiplayer first-person-shooter.”
But what do they actually mean? The podcast host was describing Counter-Strike, but “team-based multiplayer first-person-shooter” could equally apply to Apex Legends or Team Fortress 2. The “2D puzzle platformer” label outlined Little Nightmares (a game about guiding a tiny, yellow-coated child to escape a hide-and-seek horror gauntlet) but could just as easily have described Celeste (a meditative platformer about a woman climbing a mountain that’s a metaphor for her anxiety).The games industry has a labelling problem that boils down to this: We describe video games by what they do, mechanically. This made sense in the ‘80s and ‘90s because we were still learning what video games were and how to play them. There were limited mechanics in those early years – particularly when Nintendo dominated the public consciousness of what a video game was – which made labels easy identifiers. To understand a game, you had to know whether you shot things in it or jumped from platform to platform. Call of Duty is a first-person shooter, Final Fantasy is an RPG, Mario is a platformer. The games industry has a labelling problem that boils down to this: We describe video games by what they do, mechanically.
“But the games we play these days are more nuanced and varied than they’ve ever been before, and as a result, they’re more difficult to reduce to singular mechanics. You see the problem when you consider that both Hitman and Untitled Goose Game are labeled “stealth” games. Their tone, gameplay, and controls are so different from one another, talking about what they do can’t possibly describe what they actually are: A cinematic assassination simulation, and a comedic prank game. Their labels don’t fit. To fix this, the games industry clumsily cantilevers unnecessary nouns like “strategy” “2D” “puzzle” “third-person” and “simulation” into longer and longer sentences that require the lung capacity of a blue whale to complete but at a pinch describe what happens when you press “Start.”The tricky thing is that these days, games aren’t just products, they’re also ideas. They’re developed by developers that have a point of view, a variety of experiences, and – whether intentionally or not – have something to say. Film and books are categorized with an emotional vocabulary: Comedy, horror, romance, thriller, and so on. Why not games? Video games came of age in a time when they were heavily marketed as toys, and we still feel the echoes of that today.
“Video games came of age in a time when they were heavily marketed as toys, and we still feel the echoes of that today. Many modern reviews focus on the smoothness of frame rates, the crispness of graphics, and the nuts and bolts of gameplay – but rarely do they engage with abstract ideas like how a game reflects wider culture. Now that’s not to say those “nuts and bolts” aren’t important, they very much are. “Game” is both a noun and a verb – something that can represent big ideas but that we also operate using electronic machinery – so reviewing how well a game is designed and put together is vital. Ian Bogost touches on this in his book “How To Talk About Video Games” when he says games are “part toaster” and “part art.” We need to understand how well a developer has assembled the springs and cogs, but what those parts add up to is worthy of discussion too.So it’s important that we talk about games and value them using language that addresses both sides of the coin. Shinji Mikami unwittingly provided an example of this by coining the term “survival horror” when he created Resident Evil. The name nods to what you do in the game (struggle to stay alive when the odds are stacked against you with limited resources and powerful enemies) but also how it makes you feel (bloody terrified). You hear “survival horror” and immediately get a clear picture of what that game will entail.
The reason this kind of emotive description works so well is that it requires very little mental work to imagine the whole experience. The approach taps into a basic cornerstone of communication: Many successful TED speakers have said that the reason their talks landed was because they led with stories over statistics. Humans remember things better when emotion is involved because it provides a point of connection. You still need the bedrock of facts, but delivering information through shared experience is a sugared pill.
In this case, “survival horror” is easier for a broad audience to understand than “3D third-person shooter puzzler adventure.” Sure, the latter builds a picture of what you do, ), but it’s a mouthful and doesn’t make clear the sweaty-palm terror of how Resident Evil actually feels to play when you’ve run out of bullets and Mr. X has burst through the door. But a stripped-back name made up of a verb and an emotion paints a clearer picture of what you’ll do and the actual experience.
This Verb + Emotion approach could be rolled out widely. As games that eschew even the most lengthy of descriptions like Media Molecule’s Dreams and Kojima’s Death Strandingsee dealDeath Stranding – PlayStation 4$59.99on Amazon enter the market, mechanics-first naming conventions aren’t cutting it. The labels are too narrow, too small, and they don’t recognize the cultural depth of modern game design. As we stand on the cusp of 2020, the nature of what games are and how we play them has evolved – how we talk about them should too.
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