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.

The Wario Land Series and Progression Models

January 1st, 2014

[The following is a scrapped bit of content from my book Game Design Companion: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4. I don't know why I didn't just add this to the Loose Ends article. In any case...]

Each Wario Land game has its own take on freer linear progression. Wario Land‘s world map plots a straightforward course through each world, but is punctuated by a substantial number of optional routes. These paths can be accessed through secret exits. Wario Land 2‘s branching routes connect back to the main route or lead to their own endings. After completing the game, the levels are presented in a tree, so it’s easier for the player to retrace their steps and seek out the secret exits they missed. Wario Land 3 employs a multi-screen world map with a day/night system where treasures found open up access to new levels or parts of levels. Wario Land 4 presents four passages which the player can tackle in any order they please. The unique progression systems help give each game their own distinct identity.