For the past few months I have been attempting to write critical and mostly formal essays about games, hopefully to some success. I have been treating games as any other medium and I have tried to analyze them as I would any other work. However, the more essays I write and the more I attempt to use standard writing practices, the more I have bumped into a number of problems that I feel must be addressed before writing about games can become more widespread. In each issue of this blog I will address a problem area I have found and try to find some solutions to the problems I foresee.
Writing about Mechanics
Writing about gameplay mechanics and the critical meanings they may carry is hardly anything new or original (edit: when I say a game mechanic has meaning I mean that the mechanic has possible commentary to offer about the way the word works or the human experience. The game's mechanics show the player a new way to look at the world outside of the game.). I have done it a few times myself, and I have read essays and examinations that delve deeply into gameplay mechanics and their possible implications. However, writing critically about mechanics introduces some specific problems into the process of analytical writing that I feel need to be addressed.
First, there is the problem of description versus analysis. In strong analytical writing, description of the subject text is kept to an absolute minimum in order to foreground the analysis and insights of the essay writer. Some context must often be given to quotes and some scenes may be paraphrased, but by and large parroting what is happening in a text without analyzing it is a waste of words in an analytical essay, unless your account of what happened is novel or beyond the literal. Thus, when writing about mechanics that cannot necessarily be quickly summed up or described, I have found it difficult to delve into systems without having to delve into all of the implications and functions of that system. For example, in an essay I wrote on Persona 4’s social link system and its implications, it was quite difficult to know how much description of the system is necessary to keep the reader oriented and how much is extraneous. It is difficult to know how much about a system is general knowledge that can be omitted and how much is higher level information that must be explained. I think that this problem will be addressed on a game by game basis and ultimately the call will have to be made by the writer as to what is too much information.
Another issue with writing critically about gameplay mechanics is that the writer him/herself has a fair amount of control over the text they are studying. Depending on how the writer in question manipulates the gameplay mechanics, the meanings that come out of the game may be completely different. This is an aspect of subjectivity in games that is introduced not just by the unique reading or perspective of the essay writer, but by their actual actions in the game. The writer is shaping their text as much as they are interpreting it. This can make writing about gameplay mechanics incredibly interesting, as no two playthroughs are the same. However, this can introduce an air of subjectivity into the essay. For example, during my playthroughs of Final Fantasy VIII I utilize the junction system as much as possible and constantly refine items. Every item in that game becomes a disposable resource when I play. My play-style brought me to this interpretation of the junction system; yet, if someone played the game differently they could come to a radically different conclusion of how that game’s systems work. Therefore, the interpretive meaning derived from a game’s mechanics is not just altered by a player’s interpretation, but also by their actual play (this problem is exacerbated by nonlinear games, which have subjective plots and mechanics). How much authorial influence should an ostensibly objective analyst be able to exert over a work they are analyzing? This problem needs to be solved before serious analytical essays about game mechanics can become the norm. I think that the right answer is to admit that games and game mechanics are inherently subjective and allow the author to delve into their own subjective experience with the game, and the specific implications they found. So long as the essay focuses on the game and its implications, rather than the writers own personal strategies, I see no problem with admitting that a subjective medium is subjective and embracing that subjectivity.