So this article isn’t exactly new, but it was being kicked around on Twitter earlier this week and I felt like talking about it. As someone whose prose usually ends up spoken instead of on paper I’m not sure how much this applies to me, but since I often find myself writing multi-page essays on games I find I have Opinons™ on the suggestions presented in it.
Really, most of the piece is generally pretty agreeable. Some of it is style guide style suggestions that I wholeheartedly endorse (i.e., don’t assume the reader’s gender!). And there are a lot of words that tend to get overplayed in games writing, and a number of them are on that list. It’s also true that games writing draws too much from advertising and PR documents. Phrases like “IP” and “next-gen” are not really concepts that have a place in most critical discourse. And to its credit the article doesn’t take itself particularly seriously, emphasizing the arbitrary nature of its own rules and the desire and even need to break them should the circumstances arise.
That said, I’m not convinced that avoiding these clichés is the biggest hurdle to writing about games, especially because so many of them basic concepts that warrant discussion. Gameplay and the concepts of depth and possibility spaces are now clichés? Discussion of a game’s hideous monetization policy is bad because the term has its origins in marketing departments? Limiting discussions on these topics hardly seems like a meaningful approach to criticism. A more interesting angle may instead be: why are so many of these phrases became clichés to begin with?
I think a lot of the phrases that appear on this list are learned on heavily in games writing because they’ve become shorthand for ideas that might be tougher to talk about at length. “Visceral,” for example, is too often used to convey a good, physical, “meaty” game feel. Instead of just saying “It has visceral gameplay” to describe that satisfying physicality, why not describe how it’s satisfying? Is it the way the camera shakes and bobs that gives you the illusion of a body in a simulated space? Is it the sound design of an engine that feels bassy and powerful? The way the attack animations drag on just a few frames longer than you might expect to give your blows a sense of momentum? A good critic probes for the answer as to why a game feels good, and is able to describe just what it is about the timing, animation, or sound effects that make them feel that way.
But game feel is one of those frustrating to describe intangibles that we don’t really have a vocabulary for except for “visceral” (and its equally vague pseudo-antonym, “floaty”). It lets you convey those three paragraphs of serious thought on how it a game feels good in eight characters. So it persists, and all of those interesting concepts get glossed over.
That use of a single word we’ve all agreed on as shorthand for ideas begging for exploration seems to be what ties a lot of these concepts together. “Visceral,” “gameplay,” “deep,” “intuitive,” “experience,” “immersive,” etc., are all words we’ve arrived at with a sort of a vague implied folk definition in the context of games criticism. They convey a rough idea that we can all kind of grasp in a vague, notional sense, but they lack substance. They lack insight. And that is the problem with using them – not that they’re cliche, but that they’re opaque. “This game has good gameplay.” Okay, what’s that mean? “The controls are really intuitive.” Cool, what design or interface decisions make it so? “This game is really deep.” Great! What about its systems makes it deep?
The point is, the issue isn’t that we use words like visceral, gameplay, or intuitive. The problem is that we use them in place of deeper discussions we should be having; we leave them as signposts to convey a loose sense of what we mean instead of digging deeper. And that is a real hurdle to writing about games successfully.