Posted by thatpinguino (712 posts) -

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.

Here is Part 1 and Part 2.

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.

How do you talk about a system as complex as social links without over explaining?

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.

Some people see gibberish on this menu. I see a web of resources.

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.

#1 Edited by thatpinguino (712 posts) -

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.

Here is Part 1 and Part 2.

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.

How do you talk about a system as complex as social links without over explaining?

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.

Some people see gibberish on this menu. I see a web of resources.

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.

#2 Posted by thatpinguino (712 posts) -

Edited to add a little clarity to my intro

#3 Posted by Flacracker (1597 posts) -

"The shooting is bad" This is a quote that always gets me. I understand it. But I cant explain it. You just move the stick and press RT. How could a studio mess that up? Jeff was saying this during the Inversion quick look but didn't say why. Were the guns just not seem powerful enough with sounds and enemy reactions? Or was the acceleration way off on the sticks? No sticky aim to compensate?

#4 Posted by thatpinguino (712 posts) -

@Flacracker: Some times it is sluggish reticule movement, sometimes it is little impact, sometimes it is inaccurate aiming. Unfortunately, saying that the shooting is bad usually means a variety of small problems with the shooting.

#5 Posted by C2C (855 posts) -

I don't know if I am overlooking something here, but the first problem seems easily solvable by just knowing your audience. The amount of detail you need to go about the systems depends on how much the audience already knows. Running with the Persona social link example, you can probably drop any explanation of the mechanics of s. links and just dive right into the implications if the audience is familiar with the game. The less your target audience knows about Persona 4, the more you probably have to preface with the actual mechanics. The exception to what I just said however would be a casual audience unfamiliar with game mechanics in the first place; at that point I'd imagine that you would have to simplify in order to not lose them.

I think you basically have the second issue covered by saying that, in the end, how individual people feel about mechanics is subjective and should be acknowledged as such.

#6 Posted by JJWeatherman (14557 posts) -

You know, it just occurred to me that sending these questions in for Jeff to take a stab at during his jar videos would be interesting. Having written about games for so long, he could have insightful opinions on these issues.

#7 Posted by thatpinguino (712 posts) -

@C2C: The first problem is definitely related to how much the writer knows his or her audience. However, I felt it was worth mentioning since I really have no idea if other people even look at games in the same ways I do or notice the things I do about them. I have taken classes on how to analyze a book or a movie, and by and large those practices are fairly standard. But in games it is harder for me to know how a reader is approaching the game and the mechanics therein. That has given me some trouble with other essays I have written. I don't know if the problem of how much to explain a mechanic is going to be a huge one in the future, but it will be a consideration that every writer must make.

@JJWeatherman: That's a good idea, I should send some of these questions to him too.

#8 Posted by Ravenlight (8040 posts) -

Aw man, Junctioning. Now you're taking my language.

To have your mind blown, check out the Junction-less guides for FF8 on GameFAQs.

#9 Posted by thatpinguino (712 posts) -

@Ravenlight: I actually wrote an essay on the junction system that I posted here. It is a wall of text, but it is hard to come up with interesting images for a system that largely takes place in menus.

How the heck do you make it through FFVIII without junctioning? I would rather play FFVIII only fighting the forced battles and leveling up as little as possible.

#10 Posted by Ravenlight (8040 posts) -

@thatpinguino:

Yeah, I remember reading that when you posted it :)

How am I not following you yet?

#11 Posted by mosespippy (4032 posts) -

I ran into the problem of explaining mechanics when I wrote a review of Where Is My Heart?. I do get some practice at describing mechanics since I don't mention other games in my reviews. I feel like a lot of the time a lazier reviewer than me would say, "It's like Game X but with elements of Game Y and Z," and leave it at that. I might do that in addition to my regular style if I needed to pad out my article length but I keep my writing to between 450 and 600 words because I know the average internet reader isn't going to have an attention span much longer than that. The problem of describing mechanics for me seems to be solved by the very fact that I heavily edit my work. I do four or five major edits & rewrites and then three or four copy edits. Every line gets scrutinized to the point that if it isn't absolutely necessary then it is gone.

Ultimately, the writer can only write about their own experiences. Luckily, games are directed well enough that most players will experience a lot of the same things. The variations between individual play throughs tend to be small enough to be insignificant to the big picture but large enough to make unique experiences. The mechanics are always the same; it's how players use them that changes it. It's like if I took a corvette for a test drive. I might drive it like a normal car while someone else might drive it really carefully so that they don't damage it and someone else might drive it crazy and try to drift every corner. The mechanics of the car are the same but how drivers use them change the experience. So when describing pure mechanics you have to describe the systems that make the game function, not the style in which the systems are manipulated.

For Persona 4's social link system I would write:

The player must balance their limited time between leveling their characters & personae in battle and leveling their relationships via social links. Social links have the benefit of increasing the stats of newly created personae and sometimes can also provide recovery abilities in battle. Social links consist of a side plot and a dialogue tree system to advance the side plot. The further into each side plot the player gets determines their social link level and the rate that it advances determines on their dialogue choices.

That's only 85 words and could probably use some editing.

#12 Posted by thatpinguino (712 posts) -

@mosespippy: That description of social links certainly works for a review, but the problem I had was that, in writing an analytical essay about social links, it was difficult to go in-depth about the potential social commentary the social link system contains. I had difficulty exploring aspects of the system without having to talk about things like xp amounts or new personae unlocks. It seemed like I was spending as much time talking about how the mechanics worked as I did writing about their social commentary. When I re-write that paper I will try to cut down on such description where I can.

#13 Posted by jakkblades (397 posts) -

This is a very hard question. The critical vocabulary is not built up for video game discussion. You may be thinking--five, ten years, and we'll have it, but I have my doubts. Keep in mind that it took a good 1000 years after the first major written literary works before a critical vocab. and methodology was developed. You might respond that the critical vocabulary for film is already developed--but frankly it is somewhat stilted compared to art or literature criticism. Film criticism still makes use of terms which refer to the creation, not the appreciation of their art. Think about it like this, if a literary critical article referred to "reader engagement" it would be laughed off the page. Literary criticism has developed so thoroughly that it could exist if every example of literature dropped out of outer space, without an author in sight. The criticism is advanced enough to not require reference to the industry of writers or their techniques. It exists in its own space, with its own history, methodology, and lines of discovery.

#14 Posted by thatpinguino (712 posts) -

@jakkblades: That may well be true, but I sure hope that five or ten years is all it takes for games to get there.

#15 Posted by Bloodgraiv3 (2712 posts) -

@JJWeatherman: I couldn't agree more, I always love those video segments.

#16 Posted by believer258 (11632 posts) -

@Flacracker said:

"The shooting is bad" This is a quote that always gets me. I understand it. But I cant explain it. You just move the stick and press RT. How could a studio mess that up? Jeff was saying this during the Inversion quick look but didn't say why. Were the guns just not seem powerful enough with sounds and enemy reactions? Or was the acceleration way off on the sticks? No sticky aim to compensate?

He didn't elaborate, that's all. The shooting in a game can be bad if the guns don't have any punch to them, the aiming swings wildly or not enough, the reticule doesn't stick at all or sticks too much, etc. Or, in a PC game, if mouse acceleration is ever enabled.