There’s a way of talking about games that’s begun to bother me – most games, when we describe and discuss them, particularly in comparison to one another, tend to get boiled down to one or two focal points, a gimmick or two, that become the only things they are known for. Whatever the game’s most distinctive trait is comes to stand in for the totality of the work, obscuring all other aspects of the experience it offers.
This may, perhaps, be a reflection of the medium of discourse: Twitter especially tends to lend itself to this memetic distillation of art. However, regardless of its source, this understanding of what a game is extends outwards. And, to be fair, this isn’t always a problem: Even great works of art tend to be discussed in terms of the novelty they brought to the medium, and it is always necessary to make a case for what a work has to offer before it can help to ever earn an audience. There’s something wrong, though, when the elevator pitch remains the dominant mode of discourse long after we’ve gotten off of the elevator – that is to say, when we still boil games down to gimmicks long after we’ve played them and gained the opportunity to understand them in more detail. Dark Souls becomes that really hard game, even though the difficulty is one of the least interesting aspects of it. UNDERTALE becomes that cute pacifist game, even though only half the content is pacifistic and much of it is decidedly un-cute. Braid becomes that game where you can go back in time, even though it was not the first game you could do that in and the actual puzzles involve much more sophisticated manipulation of time than just reversal.
Of course, if you look at these examples, you’ll note that this issue is in no way an impediment to success: Each of these games were, in their own right, huge hits, and having some handy descriptor of what they brought to the table was probably part of that success. And yet, if that becomes the way people understand the games even after they have found success, it’s that much harder to actually discuss these games in comparison to others – and harder for other games to riff on their ideas without being dismissed as copycats.
While this happens to some degree with all forms of art, games seem to be especially susceptible. There are a couple of reasons I think this happens: First, with more strictly narrative forms, there’s usually an effort to keep from exhaustively discussing the narrative before someone has had a chance to experience it for themselves – so, since any novelty these forms bring to bear is usually rooted in the narrative, they are protected by the specter of the spoiler warning. Games are not afforded the same protection, however, because the mechanical aspects of the game are conceptually separate to the narrative – and, even if a game pulls narrative tricks, we often tend to regard these as still being somewhat in the domain of ‘game mechanics’, of smoke and mirrors. Second, because of the way we tend to describe games, we’re used to evaluating them as a consumer product first and an art form second, assigning numerical scores based on how well they perform – so, for games, any element is regarded as a feature for the front of the box just as much as it is regarded as a technique used in the creation of art.
A lot goes into every game that is created: Not only the broad strokes of groundbreaking ideas, but the narrow strokes of detail, the music and character design and animation, traditional bits of craft and smaller elements of game design that make a game function and make it speak to people. Without these, the gimmicks mean nothing, and it does a disservice to the game to only describe it using its most obvious elements. What really makes the game work or not work isn’t the big ideas or the small details, it’s how well the small details are fitted to the big ideas. UNDERTALE’s pacifistic ideals wouldn’t mean anything without a lovable cast of characters and systems and assets that express those characters, Dark Souls’ difficulty would seem merely cruel outside of its sad and stately world, Braid’s time reversal would be just a toy without the intricate puzzle-craft that provides the meat of the experience.
How much a game suffers from this tendency depends on how much it breaks from the established norms. In an industry that focused for so long on empowering players at all costs, the mere unforgivingness and weight of Dark Souls was exceptional. In an industry so focused on violence, merely making a game where violence was a choice instead of mandatory was exceptional. In an industry where powerups were rare and limited, giving players the ability to instantly reverse any mistake was exceptional. These ideas were sticky! And, similarly, in an industry where every game had to be fair, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds gave players a 1 vs 99 fight, and they loved it.
But: PUBG isn’t the 1 vs 99 game any more. It was for about 6 months, and then other games with the same premise started coming out. All of a sudden, it was a genre: The Battle Royale. Now people talk about PUBG differently. Well, most of them talk about it as “Fortnite, but worse” I guess, but it’s still distinguished from its competition by the details, the movement and gun behavior and vehicles. Probably worse for the game, but probably better for the discourse.
Maybe every time a game gets boiled down to this one narrow idea of what it is, what we are witnessing are the birth pangs of a new potential genre. I suppose in many cases, rather than becoming genres these ideas just filter out bit by bit into other games, slowly becoming unexceptional. Either way, I suppose eventually, case by case, the problem goes away on its own.