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.
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.
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?
- I started writing Game Design Companion on January 20, 2011, and finished on February 7, 2013.
- I finished the first draft on May 4, 2011.
- After a short break, I added more articles to the first draft and completed the first edit. “Phase 2”, as I called it, was completed at the end of February 2012. The Topical Essays, ATTACK and DASH ATTACK analysis, and boss battle analysis came from this session.
- I finished the second edit in July 2012 and began stress-testing any lingering ideas for articles.
- I finished the third edit on October 19, 2012.
- I spent the following month working on reference material, including images and video.
- On November 22, 2012, after some deep reading of the book, I decided that I needed to give it one more edit.
- The fourth edit was completed on February 7, 2013.
- While it’s all a bit of a blur now—I didn’t even know that I edited the book four times until I checked my calendar—I’m guessing that I put in about 30 hours a week into the book on average. I definitely wrote more in the second year, where my new job allowed me to basically be a full-time author. For the final stretch of the project—rounding out the puzzle rooms, boss battles, and topical essays—I crunched at about 10-12 hours of editing a day for 10 days straight.
- Half of my time writing the book (January to December, 2011) was spent in Wuxi, China, while the other half (February 2012 to 2013) was spent in Shanghai, China. I returned home to Australia for 2 months in between.
- I did, and still prefer to do, most of my writing and editing in long, uninterrupted stretches at home, taking a short 8-minute break every hour of work and a longer break over lunch and before bed. If I had a full day to myself, I would work from about 8:00am to 10:00pm. Usually I could only maintain this intensity for a couple of days. Day 3 inevitably meant some withdrawal.
- Work and life commitments acted as a good stress relief. Although I worked heavily, I still went out with my partner and friends all the time for pool, photo clubs, KTV, and dance. I don’t think that my writing affected my social life very much. I tried to just do more with my own downtime and when I didn’t have the opportunity to write, it was probably for the better.
- In between writing the book, I also played a handful of other games and blogged in Chinese for a few months.
- After I moved to Shanghai, I started editing at work because of the copious amount of office hours and light work load I’d been given. To block out the office noise, I bought inner earphones and played a continuous loop of white noise. It works a treat, but after listening to the sound of a digital waterfall all day, it can drive you a little crazy.
- On my last round of editing, I used to edit on the subway to and from work by abusing the highlight feature on my Kindle. Anything that seemed a bit off got highlighted and was looked at once I got home.
- Make the most of mornings and before dinner: I always try to get to bed before 11pm so that I can wake up earlier and get a good start on writing. This head start keeps my confidence levels up for a successful marathon session in the afternoon. My afternoon sessions can vary considerably, though. I tend to fall into an editing rut at around 3-4 o’clock and then bounce back right before dinner time. I think this is because at around 5:30, I can feel myself getting hungry and therefore, in the mindset that I’ll have to inevitably give up soon, I try to make use of the time I have. I keep stretching that limit until I either reach a set writing goal or concede to hunger. I find that this kind of light pressure can be really motivating at times.
- Remove the time display on your computer: Time displays are the enemy of all creative pursuits. The quantification of time sets the expectations for how things should be done, not what’s best for what’s being done. If I spend 20 minutes writing the first sentence of an article, then I might look at the clock and feel that I’ve wasted time. Sometimes, though, that 20 minutes of “wasted time” is needed to create the swell of ideas that’ll see the rest of the article written in another 20. Writing is an organic process, mechanical things like time belong nowhere near it. I used to get so paranoid watching the clock, beating myself up every time I spent 30 minutes rewriting something until the idea finally hit. Also, I love guessing the length of my writing sessions. Because you get so engrossed in the process, it throws off your perception of time, which makes it all the more challenging to guess how long you’ve spent. The other thing is that removing the time display from your computer forces you to look away from the screen to check the time, which is good for your eyes.
- Full-screen mode: This is a no-brainer. If you’re gonna write, write in full-screen mode. Icons and other doo-dads can be horrible distractions. I always switch off my wireless and turn off all the power points in my room. This way, I have to make a real effort to become distracted. The difference between quickly checking your emails and quickly ducking out for a wee is that reading your emails (or social media updates, googling, or other internet activity for that matter) can break your thought process, something which is utterly invaluable. On the other hand, when you take a leak, you tend not to think about anything at all.
- Drink lots of warm water: In China, any time someone is sick, their friends and family invariably tell them to drink more warm water. If there’s a cure to cancer, it’s probably got something to do with the heated liquid. I always drink warm water just because I’m afraid of getting gallstones (aren’t we all?) and I have to boil my water over here before I drink it. For writing, though, your drink pulls you away from the computer screen, allowing you to take frequent short breaks so that you can maintain your concentration for the long haul. I’ve been drinking Chinese tea instead of water these past few months and it also works a treat. Tieguanyin is your friend.
- Don’t snack on heavy foods: This ties in well with the former two points. When writing, I always try to keep my body in a neutral state. Anything else can disrupt your chain of thought. I never drink cold water either, as it disturbs the body’s balance and can make the stomach uncomfortable. By heavy foods I mean foods with strong flavour or food products (which incidentally tend to be packed with added flavours). If I want to eat while editing, I’ll normally have sunflower seeds or other nuts. The problem I find with sunflower seeds, though, is that splitting them open with your front teeth can grow into its own fetish of distraction.
- If you have a good idea, write it down: In this game, ideas are a valuable commodity, so write everything down. This idea came to me before I finished writing about heavy foods, so I typed myself a short note and remembered to write this.
- Take note of inconsistencies in a large body of work, you can always come back later: When writing Game Design Companion, every time I noticed that I was switching between enemy names (Menhammer and Hammermen is a good example; it should be the former) or I wasn’t sure about some punctuation, I’d jot it down in a separate file. Later, when I finished an edit, I would put all the articles together into the one document and search for all the “Hammermen” and change them into “Menhammer”.
- The role of music: If you listen to music while writing, you obviously shouldn’t be writing. That is, with the exception of beautiful, unbiased white noise. After a long writing marathon, though, it’s important to let your mind be distracted by other things so that you can rest. Music is really good at this.
- Edit and edit again: When I get to the end of a first draft, I usually feel quite pleased with the article and just want to publish it there and then. Getting what it is you want to say out of your head and onto the page does this: it makes you think you’ve done a really great job, just cause you expressed yourself and expressing yourself feels great. The problem is that no matter how awesome you might think your writing is, your first draft will invariably be your worst. Each time you edit an article, you not only bring your existing knowledge of the article to the edit, but you don’t have to go through the whole process of writing out the article from scratch, allowing you to focus your attention on the finer details. To give you an example, I edited my book four times, and each time I had the freedom to focus on something different:
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.
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:
- Where possible, I tried to remove excess from the book. Unless I needed to remind the reader of an earlier point, I only said everything once. This way:
- The reader must always be active.
- I can cram in as much analysis as possible.
- If the reader doesn’t understand a particular point, they don’t have to look far to find what they missed.
- I can create a forward momentum and maintain the reader’s interest.
- I concede that the book is quite dense, perhaps even too much so. Where possible I tried to use repeating structures to make the book easier to read. For example, in the paragraph below, I repeat “needed to remove”, “snow clumps/slope combo”, and the structure of the three main sentences to create a consistent pattern that makes it easier for the player to understand the multiple layers of locks and keys:
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.
- I often allow the reader to draw the connection themselves between a bunch of related facts. For example:
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.