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AwesomeExMachina avatar 2:56 PM on 07.14.2010  (server time)
When video game marketing kills a word: Organic

The word ‘organic’ has a completely different meaning outside the video game realm. That is to say, in normal society it is still being used as originally intended. Like the word ‘blender’ or ‘mud’ or ‘transcendentalist.’ These words have not changed all that much over the years.

But this word has morphed into something new thanks to the overzealous machinations of the nebulous matrix that is video game marketing teams. They’ve turned this word, and a slew of his comrades, into shapeless, worn-out words to which no one pays attention anymore. They’ve becomes jammed in-between other senselessly used adjectives until they have the linguistic relevance of sprinkles on a donut. Sure, they’re very flashy and appealing, but they don’t make the tiniest bit of difference once you’ve taken a bite.

As it stands now, organic has been thoroughly banished to the realm of ‘hype-words.’ Marketing departments toss it into press releases and fervent game previews and interviews to provide the illusion of unity to all their game’s various elements. Its new place is to suggest the authenticity of a game’s mechanics and attempt to tell the reader/listener that everything has been so blissfully designed that extraordinary acts like casting spells and disarming thermonuclear weapons become as simple and natural as brushing your teeth. Gamers won’t even notice that they’ve adapted. It will simply all make sense to their tiny brains.

This is, of course, complete and utter nonsense. I’ve heard more than a few times, for example, about how organic various game’s cover systems happen to be. As in, the player might stumble across a low-wall on the opposite side of a room filled with snarling, bestial creatures readying their weapons and, as if possessed, set the controller down, stand up from the couch, and shout with unbridled confidence ‘It all makes sense now!’ But this is not an organic discovery.

Don’t mistake my snarkiness as put-down to brilliant games like Gears of War. I’m politely obsessed with Cliff Blezinski and his gorgeous gory, steroid-ridden ode to violence. I also just adore cover systems as a concept . The extra mind function of aligning out proper tactical movement, followed by the frantic dodge from point to point, is something I relish whenever I get the opportunity. But the cover system in such a game is not organic, it’s simply inescapable.

The game explains the importance of staying out of the direct path of those nasty bullets early and drives the point home in each level by giving the player more waist-high obstacles than a high school track meet. This is all quite intentional. It may seem quite natural and organic, as amongst the chaos you never entertain the thought “How about I just hop this wall into sixteen enemies and see what my pistol can do?” But this is because the game provides no other option. The cover system is the route that is to be taken. This is OK. Blezinski and his team have a story to tell and we follow willingly. But there is nothing natural about their cover system. Run to wall, shoot, advance to another wall, shoot. It’s all about as organic as a Twinkie.

This isn't resigned solely to the Gears series either. Cover systems are generally a beloved accessory to linear, rail shooters and they naturally follow the same course. And that's fine. They have a string of constant surprises and cutscenes and massive, adrenaline-filled presents all along this rail. So I'll follow quite willingly and ignore the fact that i'm doing so. But it's not natural or organic that I do. The game is in the hands of the designer.

Where this term does work is in situations where the game hasn’t demanded your loyalty to a game mechanic, but when you willingly accept it because it is the most efficient route to success. For instance, one of my favorite recent shooters, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 drives the players to dive wildly behind stone barricades and chewed-up piles of concrete without second thought. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve sat pinned behind a small broken wall with a team-mate, leaning out to take worthless potshots at small intervals. But the real point here is that the game hasn’t asked me to do this, but I did.

There are no tutorials that guided me to this decision. The game doesn’t guide me at all on this because, if I felt so inclined, I could kick down doors and gun down scores of enemies without even a marginal sense of self-preservation. The choice to take cover is not asked of me and my decisions are as natural as anyone would react to imminent death whizzing over your head. When the player goes for the safety of low walls, when other options exist, because they like all the bits of their skull right where they are, we've witnessed an organic reaction to a game environment.

It’s not just about simple game mechanics either. Game previews for horror titles are always trying to tell me how organically the player will experience fear and terror, but again, we’re facing a falsehood in so many cases. The infamous Doom 3 came out in 2004 and many were telling me about how scary it’s corrugated steel walls were and video game magazines informed me how organic the fear was integrated into the experience. I hadn’t been this grossly misinformed since I was a boy in Sunday school.

Sure, there was something that could roughly be referred to as scary in Doom 3. In so much that I did indeed jump and, on occasion, yelp aloud despite myself. But these were cheap, sudden scare tactics to unnerve me for only a moment and then fade away until I’d forgotten the encounter completely. These moments couldn’t be more artificial and one-sided. The components of Doom 3’s fear concept were nothing more than a simple equation:

Crummy flashlight + demon + sudden noise = OH DAMN!

But, again, there really is a capacity for organic fear and terror in games. But it can’t be built in a single, fleeting moment of jarring fright. It’s a slow, pacing dread that progressively fills the corners of your brain. And you’ll know it’s working, functioning with an organic design, when you find yourself jumping with fear at propped-up brooms in a dark corner and pausing at corners to compose yourself even though the game has no enemies waiting for you. You just need a moment to regain your wits because the game has so thoroughly torn them from you with each rattling air vent, vicious enemy, and wasted shotgun round.

So, video game PR games that inevitably find themselves (not) reading this, there is a way to use this word and have it mean something. It’s not a casual linguistic dash of flavor to falsify an organic aesthetic into your linear game experience. It doesn’t add authenticity to whichever game element you’re hyping. But when you say it with sincerity and it gets past our suits of bitter, grizzled marketing armor from years of false promises and misleading advertisements, it’ll mean we actually will encounter a sensation that will be quite organic. Not just a series of overly scripted trigger events that leave us with no more control than sitting in the front row of a roller coaster.

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