The Language of Games
How Words Can Lead Us to Better Games
Critics play an important role in every medium. They can point us towards a delicious restaurant, help us find a book that suits our mood, or insure that even a minor movie gets the audience it deserves. However, even the greatest ideas must be financially viable; by steering the public towards things of quality, critics can help ensure that quality keeps getting made. This system breaks down when critics instead lead people toward repetition and empty flair. This is what is happening currently in the games industry. It’s not healthy; and the problem stems from a lack of words.
A large portion of my 9th grade English class involved learning words to use when talking about literature. With these words, however, came concepts. For example, before learning the word assonance you may enjoy the results of a well-written bit of prose. But, upon learning the concept, your understanding of why you enjoy it will deepen, and your appreciation will take on new form. For every word of literary jargon I learned in 9th grade, I am sure 100 more exist, with parallels in cinematography, sculpture, and every other established medium.
Just as using language correctly allows you to express the quality of a poem with more accuracy than simply saying “it sounds nice,” language also allows us to differentiate between different kinds of “fun” when talking about games. Fiero: elation upon achieving a momentous task. Schadenfreude: taking satisfaction at the misfortune of others. Naches: swelling pride upon watching a pupil succeed. Three words, three similar but distinct feelings. The grin that flashes across your face after clearing a song in Rock Band; that is fiero. Naches is why experienced players of Journey will play the game over and over, helping new players through the hardest parts of the game. Game critics loved to talk about the (guilty) pleasure they experienced as they hopped on the head of their so-called teammates in a game of New Super Mario Bros, and yet no mainstream review mentioned schadenfreude.
Words exist to express many aspects of video games, but they are rarely used. Consider the example of “ludonarrative dissonance.” The prefix ludo– denotes play. This term, therefore, describes narrative elements of a game (told through dialog, cutscenes, or text) at odds with what takes place during the actual game sequences. For example, if a character extols the virtues of safe driving during a game’s story sequences, but rewards the player with points for reckless driving at breakneck speeds, we could use this term. For a brief moment, this word enjoyed immense popularity among game critics. What at first was a word that allowed its user to appear erudite soon turned ostentatious; before long the word fell out of fashion in serious discussion and was relegated to ironic use. It became an industry in-joke.
However, the problem that ludonarrative dissonance describes is very real, and despite becoming a game industry faux pas, the concept remains relevant. Bioshock: Infinite is a first person shooting game that enjoys nearly universal praise. Or is it a game about free will and redemption? Here lies the heart of Bioshock’s flaw: We are supposed to feel sympathy for the game’s main character during the game’s story sequences, while pointing his gun reticule at enemies and murdering hundreds of people in cold blood.
The game’s narrative, which focuses on infinitely branching parallel universes and free will, is wrapped around a game world that forces its player down a fixed path devoid of all but contrived binary choices. Saying that Bioshock Infinite is a game about racism and misguided religion is like saying Football is a game about the gaudy music performances that take place during Superbowl halftime. When video game writers needed ludonarrative dissonance most it was already off limits; to use it would invite reticule.
This brings us to the heart of our problem. By disproportionately valuing visual or story aspects of video games, many critics fail to appreciate what lies at the heart of every game: the player – game interaction itself. Conversely, companies iterate on what is essentially the same game, with different art and story beats. A common theme in any kind of creative pursuit is the clash of artist and financial sensibilities. In this case, however, they are united.
From a creative perspective, good writing will inspire consumers who appreciate originality. We are seeing a resurgence of this in the independent game space. Games like the frantic two player dual game Nidhogg prove that a simple concept executed well can become a break-out hit. The game is nearly devoid of story and features only simple block stick figures (equipped with deadly block sabres). All the superlatives one can lavish on Nidhogg come from its game play; without words to express the joy playing it brings, creators will not continue making Nidogg and games like it.
From a financial perspective, understanding what makes a game fun will allow companies to better allocate their resources. The mobile industry is uncharted territory many game companies, large and small, are trying to navigate. People marvel when games like Angry Birds, Tiny Wings, or Flappy Bird make millions on smart phones. Are people starved for bird-related entertainment? Hardly. Players get hooked on these games’ simple play mechanics. The catharsis of seeing bricks tumble down. The eustress of the ever-approaching sunset. These games remain flukes, aberrations.
Things are getting better. An increasing number of sites have started breaking away from fixation on visuals and have started to discuss game systems and the evolution of play in game communities. The democratisation the internet brings also means that fans who feel like they have something worth saying about a game can take to their keyboards and write. There is no 9th grade class in game terminology, but as gaming matures as a medium I hope these words will make their way into our vernacular and escape their ironic usages. After all, we could all use a little more fiero in our lives.