It's hard to explain your favorite games to people who don't play them, isn't it? Well, if you think that's tough, wait ‘til you hear about the time I played Fallout 3 with my parents.
Around the time the game launched, they came down to visit me in Brooklyn from Massachusetts. As my dad had a lot of interest in games and tech back in the day – in fact, he's a former journalist and I followed in his footsteps in many ways – I figured I'd give my parents a tour of what was new and hot in our world.
I chose Fallout 3 because I thought it was an example of how evolved games had become. It's a nuanced, story-driven world, a fascinating post-apocalyptic take on our familiar country, has plenty of character development and all that.
Unlike a lot of people, my parents do actually play video games – kind of. My father bought a wheel controller for his PC and plays hi-spec racing sims; my mother is the kind to which companies like PopCap owe their existence. Sometimes she plays so much Snood she forgets to eat. I figured they had just enough lexicon to understand why Fallout 3 was special, so I gave them a quick summary of what it was all about and put it on.
"What is this?" Mom said. "Where are you supposed to be?" (I'm in my 101 jumpsuit, not far from the Vault.)
"It's post-apocalyptic Washington," I told her. "It's really cool."
She scrunched her nose a little. "It doesn't look like Washington," she said. "It just looks like… I don't know what." She was unimpressed, and I was frustrated she was unimpressed. I was even more frustrated because, when I looked around at the wasteland, it didn't really look like Washington to me, either. I told her it's really just the beginning of the game and she'd get it in a minute, but inwardly I knew it'd be much more than "a minute" from that point until I'd reach a spot with recognizable landmarks. And when she asked me who I'm supposed to be, I don't really have a good answer besides "a guy."
"So this is a first-person shooter, huh?" Said Dad.
"No," I insisted. "It's pretty much an RPG, where –"
"Well then, what's that?" Dad demanded, pointing in the corner of the first-person view at the barrel of my gun. He was just trying to be difficult -– he was enjoying my consternation -– but he kind of had a point.
I started trying to explain about the RPG elements, about environmental storytelling and character progression and people stuck in vaults, and suddenly it all sounded kind of silly coming out of my mouth. To my parents, Fallout 3 is a game about some guy with a gun trundling through a wasteland, and that's really it.
And it's not just a generation gap issue: Try it with any non-gamer. Can you explain, say, BioShock in just a few sentences to someone in a way that actually conveys why it was interesting or important? "It's a game about the failure of Randian Objectivism" not only fails, but it sounds pretentious. "You're an amnesiac splicing yourself with gene tonics in an underwater city gone mad" conveys the gist, but misses the poignancy (or not, your pick) of the Little Sister choice, the flexibility of the mechanics, or essentially anything that makes it good.
A Castlevania Conundrum
Even a simpler game is hard to articulate. I play Castlevania: Symphony of the Night whenever my roommate and I are hanging out listening to records, because it's engaging to me yet simple enough I can zone out to music or talk with him. Lately, after noticing me playing it enough times, my roommate (who is respectful of video games but not especially personally interested in them) asked me about it. When I told him it was pretty much my favorite all-time game, and when I told him it was widely considered one of history's better titles, he asked why.
I started to explain the "Metroidvania" aesthetic, the uniqueness of SotN's gothic vibe, the luminous little details in the game's environment, the whole upside-down castle thing – and he started to tease me, riffing on my explanation in his best "nerd voice." It was actually pretty funny. And his extrapolation was startlingly apt for someone I assumed wasn't going to appreciate what I was trying to tell him. But basically, he was right: I couldn't talk about it without using jargon, without sounding like a weirdo.
When you think about it, gamers aren't even all that good about talking about games with one another. That's why we have to use vague and ultimately meaningless words like "gameplay" (yes… "play" is what one does with a "game," and…), and why we're still bound to describing games by their genre years and years after the medium has diversified enough to make those descriptors inadequate and overly simplistic.