A Few New Terms for the Critical Gaming Glossary

February 9th, 2014


In order to talk about games as I do, I need a specialised vocabulary of words to help me along. For several years now, I’ve been using Richard Terrell’s Critical Gaming Blog and the Critical Glossary to anchor my writing. Sometimes, though, I need to come up with my own words. Such as when I talked about player roles in Heavy Rain a few years ago. Below I’ve documented the twenty or so words I came up with to get me through my Wario Land 4 book, Game Design Companion.

Arrangement – A group of game elements arranged together, ie. a unit of level design.

Pre-fold – The first half of folded level design, where the player makes their way to the fold.

Post-fold – The second half of folded level design, where the player makes their way from the fold to the starting point.

Interaction set in context – A way of saying “an interaction and all the context that defines it”. Context being the feel of inputting the mechanic, the meanings and associations with the function, the background for the interaction, the visual and aural representation of the game elements and execution of the interaction, etc. An interaction set in context is the smallest unit of meaning in a video game.

Premise – The premise establishes the game world, its characters, and the personality and role of the avatar. By defining the avatar, the premise gives the player the information they need to inhabit the playable character and make interactions under their persona. Since the player/avatar interacts with the game world, the premise gives all individual interactions a collective purpose.

Restricted-to-Freer Practice – A model of variation whereby a level initially restricts the player’s freedom in order to ensure that they understand what is being taught, before opening up to slowly allow the player to take ownership of the content.

Bounding Box – The outer edges of level for a game set in the side-scrolling perspective. Bounding boxes often dictate the behaviour of the camera.

Form Accentuates Function – A type of form fits function where the form exaggerates the function so as to make the function more apparent to the player. (I’m thinking that this term is probably moot, but it served its purpose in the book).

Form is Familiar – Where a game element looks like something from real life so as to immediately give the player an idea about its function.

Test Teach Test – A form of education where the teacher proposes a problem to the students and has them try to solve it, observing as they fail miserably. Afterwards, the teacher introduces the lesson’s content before allowing the students to return to the original problem, now with the know-how to successfully solve it.

Fixed Linear Progression Model – A form of game progression where the player must complete the game in a linear order and has no control over progression.

Freer Linear Progression Model – A form of game progression where the player has some minor control over the way they progress through the game. For example, choosing which level to play first, where both levels must be completed.

Pure Fold – A form of folded level design where the pre-fold is the same area as the post-fold.

Reroute – A form of folded level design where the post-fold redirects the player to a different route from the pre-fold.

Skirting Along the Fold – A form of folded level design where the post-fold reroutes the player through a separated channel that is part of the pre-fold.

Environmental Upheaval – A form of folded level design where the post-fold is radically different from the pre-fold, but still uses the same base level design.

Dog Ear – A form of folded level design where the post-fold is very short.

Phases – Solid and permanent sections of a boss fight or key challenge. Once a phased is reached, the challenge cannot go backwards to an earlier phase.

Forms – Fluid and temporary sections of a boss fight or key challenge. Similar to phases, but the challenge can go backwards to an earlier form.

Linear Phase Structure – A structure used for bosses and key challenges where the boss/challenge has several phases and the player progresses through these phases linearly.

Looping Form Structure – A structure used for bosses and key challenges where the boss/challenge has multiple forms and can revert to an earlier form.

Without these words, I wouldn’t have been able to talk about Wario Land 4 much at all.

Tips for Writing Accessible Games Analysis

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:

Chunk it Out

By chunking your writing out, you give the reader more room to breathe. Here are some more techniques:

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

Other Tips

Thoughts on Writing

January 6th, 2014

[NB: I've held onto this post for about a year so that I could publish it around the same time as Game Design Companion: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4. It's not particularly enlightening, and a bit self-indulgent, but I think it captures most of the feelings I had towards writing at the time.]

After more than 2 years of work, last month I finally finished my first book, Game Design Companion. Given the sheer scope of the project, the time and energy I invested into it, and how I did it all in relative isolation (that is to say, I rarely discussed the book with friends and family besides the usual, “Yeah, still not finished”), I’ve formed a bunch of ideas regarding the writing and editing process that, for my own sake, I need to get off my chest. I guess this is what blogs are for, right?

Timeline

Work Situation

Techniques

First Edit – Re-analysed the game, added in new commentary, added more articles.
Second Edit – Checked analysis for errors, trimmed fat, and general edit.
Third Edit – Thorough sweep for grammar and punctuation errors.
Fourth Edit – Deep read of the book, checked for commas, hyphenated words, and naming errors.

Through the process of constant iteration, you come to understand your ideas better and thereby build a more complete article.

Thoughts on Wario Land 4

In Game Design Companion, I made a point of rarely revealing my opinion of Wario Land 4 or the Wario Land series. So prepare to be shocked as I announce something you probably weren’t expecting: I like Wario Land 4. It’s not my favourite game, but it’s certainly the best designed and most focused game in the series. Aside from Wario Land 3 and Wario Land Shake Dimension, I’m fond of all the games in the main series. Wario Land and Wario Land 2 were my favourite GameBoy games when I was a kid, so it’s nice to be able to pay respect to the series by writing a book about it.

Thoughts on The Book

I feel pretty neutral about the book. I wanted to write a book analysing one game in its entirety so as to make a point about the state of games writing, and I did that. It worked out, on my first go nonetheless. Everything could have ended up being a disaster, like most first books, but it didn’t and so I’m grateful for that. There are parts of the book that are more or less interesting than others, but, as I came to realise, this is the nature of such a project. Some parts of the game just aren’t as interesting to talk about as others, yet despite this, I still had to write about them. These less interesting parts are probably the book’s main “weakness”, but I’m not too worried. Each edit, I hacked away at these sections until I got to the essence, then I polished the essence until I was happy with it. I’m confident that there’s not much of a disparity between the hills and valleys.

What I Learnt

Aside from improving my writing and analysis skills, writing this book has taught me a few important values:

Good things take time, but it’s always worth it: My original plan was to write a 120-paged book on Wario Land 4 as a lead-in to a larger book on Metroid Prime. The larger the book became, the further back I pushed the deadline I’d set for the original 120 pages of copy. Even though the book ballooned to more than four times its purposed size, I still wrote it in the mindset of the original time frame. So everyday, when I woke up, the first thing I’d think is “It’s not done”. Although the time frame became a stick that I’d use to beat myself with, I never compromised on the polish. When I decided to write this book, I committed to ensuring that I wouldn’t waver on quality, and even though it took me 2 years to get it done, I stayed true to that ideal. Through this, I understood the importance of taking the time to do something properly.

On a related note, my writing of this book has made me sceptical of the internet and social media, which are trying to speed us up and stop us from thinking. I wrote more on this topic here.

The effects of writing on the brain: Ever since I got deep into editing, I’ve started noticing how the thought processes behind my writing find their ways into other parts of my life. After a long day of editing, I used to wake up in the middle of the night in unbearable mental discomfort as I’d been “sleep editing” to myself for several hours and couldn’t switch my brain off. I also frame responses to things I disagree with in a more considered, argumentative way and really hate it when people mask poor arguments behind flashing intellectual complexity and jargon. Writing consumes you, I suppose.

I’m still not good at writing or editing: Just that really. Writing a book sure is empowering, but it also shows you that you always have so, so far to go.

Editing Style

My approach to writing and editing Game Design Companion was one of functionality. Because of the nature of the book, I needed to impart a lot of information before getting into the core of each article, the analysis. Therefore, it was my goal to convey as much as possible as quickly as possible while still maintaining readability. Here are some of the techniques I used:

  1. The reader must always be active.
  2. I can cram in as much analysis as possible.
  3. If the reader doesn’t understand a particular point, they don’t have to look far to find what they missed.
  4. I can create a forward momentum and maintain the reader’s interest.

Room 2 is a prime example of maximising limited space. The snow blocks on the left prevent Wario from returning to the vortex. The snow clumps/slope combo needed to remove the snow blocks is locked behind frog blocks. The frog switch needed to remove the frog blocks is locked behind a snow block in Room 4. The snow clumps/slope combo needed to remove Room 4′s snow block is several rooms away. That’s three interconnected lock and key arrangements. Add in the silver chest and the room goes another two layers deep to a total of five arrangements.

I repeat the same writing structure throughout the room-by-room analysis too. First, I draw the reader’s attention to the various points of interest, then I make comment.

The Yukiotoko sits in a shallow trench where its ice breath projectiles hit the sides and dissipate into puffs of cold air. The platforms shield the enemy from overhead attacks. Wario needs to get up close to either attack or jump over the Yukiotoko*. By making it easy for Wario to touch the puffs of cold air, the arrangement demonstrates that they still freeze him. The icy wall prevents Frozen Wario from sliding all the way back to Room 2.

At point *, I don’t say “Because of the positioning of the Yukiotoko, platforms, and Wario’s goal, beyond the Yukiotoko, it is easy for Wario to touch the puffs of cold air”. The reader can figure that out by connecting the dots, and so I just start the next sentence with the implicit conclusion.

Back to the Present: Thoughts on Life Post-Wario Land 4

Game Design Companion anchored 2 years of my life. To suddenly be set adrift makes me feel lost of any direction. 2013 was a turbulent year for me. I’ve moved house three times, gotten married in two different countries, and settled back in Australia. Adventures in Game Analysis has been exactly what I hoped it to be, an outlet for me to cover specific topics in depth, as I please. However, I’m ready to move onto my second big project. If it ends up being what I have in mind, it’ll be something completely different. That’s all I’m going to say on that matter, though. I’ve indulged far too much already. It’s time to get back to work.