Hey, kids, want to see a magic trick? Shazam! I've just read your (yes, your!) mind, and now know that at no less but possibly more than one point, you (yes, you!) have had no less but possibly more than one friend, relative, dog, teddy bear, or imaginary companion who does not regularly play video games. Crazy, right? Now how about this: I'll even bet you've tried to talk to one of them about the subject.
Don't pass out yet, folks; I'm just getting started.
It didn't go so well, did it? "What's that word mean?" "Oh, I've never heard of that." "Is that the one with the guns?" "So it's just like Super Mary Brothers?" It's been the same with me, even when the disadvantaged party carries the best of intentions, like when my dad gave up on Mass Effect
because he couldn't find the jump button. It's like speaking to somebody in an alien language where the vocabulary changes ten times a year and everything sounds like third-rate mid-80's album titles.
It's not just that non-gamers (and several non-non-gamers) have to reach for a Wiktionary every time an RTS or an RPG or an R-Type or an R4 is mentioned, scratching their heads as they try to organize their 360s and their 1080s and their 8.8s and 599s -- a different sort of "language," one that's a little harder to discretely define, can be found at the source of their hapless confusion, lying in the ambiguous shroud between convention and invention, with an arm stuck in a multi-millennial time-warp and a leg furiously kicking away repeated attempts to translate it into neat and professional-sounding words.
I say "Super Metroid
," and you… wait for it… Alakazam! I know that you (probably) are thinking of a big open world, dozens of missile expansions, spin-jumping across pits of lava, squirming in terror before cheering triumphantly in the space of 1.5 minutes, and such. Since this article's being written for a community blog on a gaming website, there'd likely be no confusion and maybe even some agreement were I to throw the terms "level design," "progression mechanic," "platforming gameplay," and "presentation" at those four qualities, but to my dad or your imaginary friend, I might as well be speaking Alpha Centaurian.
What I'd be trying to categorize is the language of video games; their Matrix code; incomprehensible gibberish to an outsider, confusing and contradictory to the insider, vast and ever-changing even to those experienced enough to decipher it. The existence of such a thing is not unique to the medium, of course -- languages and patterns of craft are found in everything from movies and cars to buildings and toilets, but the (relative) youth of gaming means that we've yet to come up with the right "translations" for even a fraction of all those thousands of compositional bits; for the few that exist, we tend to steal what we can (the "camera"), stretch existing definitions to ligament-tearing breadth ("levels"), and coin ugly portmanteaus for the rest ("Metroidvania").
But as difficult as it may be to sit and toss flowery terminology around in high-minded circlejerks, these patterns and hidden consistencies still exist, and only become more visible the more one plays. Hand the average gamer a copy of Left 4 Dead
and Revelations 2012
) and, even if they may not be able to articulate exactly what the problem is, one of those games is much more likely to find itself tearing up some wild animal's intestines than the other.
Where things get interesting is when this "code" does become visible. Contrary to what most internet forums would tell you, the quality of a game is subjective, relying heavily on frame of reference -- the kid who grows up with the appropriate doses of Doom
, with some sides of System Shock
, No One Lives Forever
, and Halo
, is going to approach, say, Soldier of Fortune: Payback
(a very very bad game you should not play, for the curious) with a much different mindset than the kid whose entire gaming repertoire consists of McKids
and Super Noah's Ark 3D
. Not only has Subject A experienced a great number of what would widely be considered "better" games, that range has provided him/her with a bunch of visible patterns -- inventory menus; weapon functions; puzzle types; not necessarily conventions, but enough similarities that he/she can see how the budget Call of Duty
clone compares and -- more accurately -- doesn't compare.
This is why so many SRS GAEM CRITCS cream their pants over things like Grand Theft Auto IV
; either those dozens of patterns and (for lack of a better word) devices that pop up in so many different forms are presented or approached with a huge level of depth and variety (Procedural animation! Ultra-detailed worldbuilding!), or they're simply not there
, the conspicuously empty space filled by something that can't be easily traced back across a genre clothesline. It's not even necessarily "innovation," to use an overexposed and oft-misapplied word, that draws out the double-digit numbers and angry comments; looking back across an element's history and seeing that every prior example doesn't quite measure up is usually enough -- there aren't many things the first Modern Warfare
did that hadn't been done before, but that didn't stop so many of its qualities from shining so brightly.
So, in a really roundabout way, "new things and well-polished things are good and there should be more," then, but I've got to think that all the difficulties I've had defining exactly what I've been trying to write about for the past few paragraphs (count how many times you see "pattern") is the best possible state for the medium to be in. As soon as something becomes categorized and established, it by necessity becomes exclusive and limiting -- defining what something is
tends to also define what it is not
; and while understanding this Matrix code undoubtedly helps us analyze and appreciate the most well-crafted of video games on a far deeper level than we otherwise could, spend too much time examining it, and you end up tarnishing what makes it so fascinating, turning all the once-likable characters into faux-losophy spewing androids and making people suffer through the most awkward and protracted sex scene since The Room
; and at least in that one, you knew whose bare ass you were staring at.