January 23rd, 2014
This essay builds off the points I made in the On The Book’s Structure heading in the How to Read This Book section of Game Design Companion: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4. You don’t need to have read that section to understand this article.
Games Writing and Levels of Abstraction
Writing is the least ideal means for talking about games. The process involves using an abstract set of symbols to make comment on an abstract system of rules. For the reader, this means burrowing through two layers of abstraction just to understand what you’re saying.
(In saying this, I still believe that the written word is the way to go when it comes to serious games analysis. Video inevitably amounts to entertainment, as the stimuli created from moving images distracts the brain from, and therefore diminishes, the meaning of a text. And with audio, the linear flow of speech doesn’t give the listener the ability to naturally pause and absorb the information being given. It’s a bit like being on a content treadmill).
There’s also the problem of length and details. Because games are complex systems that are defined by their details, a writer must give a significant amount of background on the game in question before they can arrive at any sort of critique. By this point, the reader may have lost interest. So what’s a writer to do? How can we make games writing more accessible without sacrificing integrity?
A Narrow Focus
At some point, preferably before any writing takes place, the writer must decide whether they want their article to have a broad or narrow focus. Most games writers go for the broad option, even though it’s easier to have a narrow focus. Writing just about one particular aspect of a game not only affords the writer more accuracy, but also allows them to cut down on the preamble and jump straight to the chase. On the other hand, without a generous word limit, writing about an entire game can be a troubling task. Games are monolithic structures that, more often than not, cannot be critiqued within the confines of a 800-word review, so while game reviewers no doubt have plenty of opinions, the format offers minimal space for the writer to explain how they came to their conclusions. So unless you’re prepared to put in a few thousand words, it’s best to have a narrow focus.
Cutting Down on Words
Less is more. I often use writing as a means to get to what I want to say, but once I know what that is exactly, I cut everything else and just say it. Here are some techniques that I use to say more with less:
- Heavily edit the parts of the article that give context to the analysis/criticism. There should be little to no fat here.
- Use video or images in place of words. There are plenty of game reviews and Let’s Plays on YouTube which already do a good job of introducing games. Why write about it yourself when someone else can do the hard work for you and the reader gets to see the game in context?
- Use diagrams to explain ideas too complex or fiddly for words, or to reinforce a worded explanation.
- Use metaphoric language. This is something that I’m not so good at, but many games criticism bloggers are adept in. Analogies and metaphor are a great way to convey a lot by saying very little. This technique suits certain topics better than others (like game feel, for instance).
- Find a creative way to present the content. I’m working on this with Adventures in Game Analysis.
Chunk it Out
By chunking your writing out, you give the reader more room to breathe. Here are some more techniques:
- Use dot points where possible, especially to break up long sentences. Here’s a good example.
- Break articles up into a series. When I write about a game, I usually identify several key discussion points and then, given that I can write about them at length, I’ll write the articles individually. Game Design Companion is a great example of this: it’s just a bunch of individual essays.
Write a Story Instead
We’ve been sharing stories since the dawn of time and so the brain has developed quite a fondness for narrative. Stories allow us to ground abstract ideas in relatable situations. Writing story-based criticism, though, can be quite a challenge as critique doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to storytelling and you have to do more than double the work (write a good analysis piece, a good story, and have them seamlessly connect together). Here’s an example of a games analysis story done well
- Bold key sentences. I rarely do this, but it’s a good technique.
- If you’re interested in giving this writing thing a go, then write something and send it in to me. Like everyone else, I’m pretty busy, but I’d be happy to help out too. Writing about games is hard, so us writers need all the encouragement we can get.