‘Giving the Context’

February 5th, 2010


When writing any sort of game evaluation (preview, review, analysis piece, critique, etc.), the writer begins by explaining how the game works or what happens in the game. This is what I’ll call ‘giving the context’. As much as ‘giving the context’ is an essential component for this type of writing, it’s often the least interesting part of the article for both reader and writer. Sadly, the majority of evaluative articles consist almost entirely of context and share little insight with the reader. This is why we often moan so loudly over reviews; the reviewers rarely justify their comments with explanation and the readers therefore become suspicious. (Alternatively, the readers don’t read and become suspicious anyways).

The reason why context is boring to read falls in line with similar comments made by Jim Gee in his book Good Games and Good Learning. Players don’t learn how to play a game by reading the instruction manual—no one ever looks at the manual if they can help it, they just jump straight in. People learn the rules of a game not by reading about it, but by playing. Reading an instruction manual or game review in the pursuit of understanding the operation of a game is counterproductive, because it’s difficult to learn anything through static text alone.

I’m sure that you’ve probably met this frustration before, most likely through school, but more to the point, after reading a review and yet still not understanding the fundamental rules of a game, let alone why it’s good or bad or is worthy of your green paper. (Perhaps this is why video reviews are now so popular; they inherently provide continuous context throughout the review). I’ve certainly felt this way many times, just recently after reading several reviews on Bioware’s two most recent games: Dragon Age Origins and Mass Effect 2, I still have no grasp on the core gameplay, particularly in Dragon Age. I think it’s about time I ought to just play the games for myself.

Personally, I believe that as writers it’s our job to make this mandatory part of the job as quick and effective as possible, so that we can get down to the business of giving meaning to the game through our critique, analysis and observations.

Anyone can—and does—write the synopsis of a plot or explain what happens in a game, provided that you’re a sound writer, giving context is pretty easy, analysis, however, is the most difficult part of the job which is why analysis it’s often the part which is most lacking. Therefore, the great majority of games writing serves very little purpose beyond condensing manuals or expanding PR bullet points into sentences, because that’s what naturally comes easiest.

On an side, I think this also explains why it’s difficult to have an engaging conversation with other people about games. Good games discussion requires one of two things, preferably both: 1) shared knowledge of context and evaluation (hopefully at a rather deep level) 2) the mutual patience required to listen to someone explain a complicated rule system to you through spoken language and then evaluate the rule system. It’s really tricky, as I’m sure you all know which is why most discussion amounts to “wasn’t it cool when…”.

One of my goals this year is to trim down the amount of context in my ‘Game Discussion’ articles. Of course, I want it to remain sufficient, just in fewer words, if possible. So as a footnote to this article, I’ve written a list of measures which I hope to adopt in my future writing, this may also be useful for you too as either a critical reader or a writer. If you have any further suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them, so please leave a comment in the box below:

  1. Use as few words as possible to convey as much information as possible.
  2. KISS ? Keep it simple stupid, people have to make sense of what you’re saying, try to stay away from esoteric or abstract language.
  3. Use language (particularly verbs) which stylise mechanics and other integral parts of the game which can easily be stylised. These improve readability and understanding, and also make the writing more palatable.
  4. Or if you can’t do the above, make up your own verb to describe an action rather than continuously using 3-4 words to describe a single action or event. This avoids repetition.
  5. If there is a similar game or gameplay style which is adapted into your game then refer to it. eg. Gears of War style shooters, Geometry Wars clone.
  6. Be specific and accurate. Saying ‘an arena shooter’ saves on having to explain that it’s a shoot ’em up in a box.
  7. Use images and video of the gameplay itself. This is the easiest method for setting context. If you’re going to jump straight into analysis, assuming that the audience is already immersed in the game, then maybe a video review from Youtube or Gametrailers would prove useful.
  8. Dot points or diagrams are also a great idea  Critical Gaming is a wonderful example of this technique, and in fact is the ideal example of a context-minimal, analysis-rich blog.