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.
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.
Theoretically, it's the job of game critics to shape the language around the medium and communicate on it effectively, but even we writers could be doing lots better. Our own Stephen Totilo once devoted an entire GDC presentation to words commonly used in game criticism that don't mean anything. I'm no innocent either. I've already used "aesthetic" "vibe" and "thing" in this feature, words that don't really specify what I'm trying to talk about, and I'm hoping he doesn't edit them out, so that I can illustrate my point.
You're probably wondering why it matters how we talk about games. No matter what words we use, we "get it" when we talk among ourselves, so isn't that all that counts? Well, look at it this way: if we're the only ones who get it, we'll never be able to share it. Other, more established media may have times when they're hard to explain, when they are "about" many things at once. Can a Lost fan easily explain what that show was all about, or why it's good, to someone who's never watched it? Probably not. But in general, art, media and cultural phenomena become relevant when they're easy to share, and most kinds of video games aren't yet.
Plus, when we can't explain ourselves, it makes it easier for us to be misunderstood – yes, Mass Effect has adult scenes and aims to be "mature", but it's hardly the risqué sex sim scandal made it out to be. Grand Theft Auto is a crime simulator in its way, but that's not all it is.
Speaking of GTA, that's actually one of the games I've found is most easily comprehensible to my friends. They get it, both because of the cultural juggernaut that's always surrounded it and because it's so easy to grasp what it's about – raising hell with total freedom in the real world is a near-universal fantasy.
I may not understand why my non-gamer friends play the way they do. One friend likes to play Ballad of Gay Tony so she can get Luis drunk in the club and make him fall down the stairs repeatedly (okay, doing that is pretty funny. She also inexplicably never tires of pushing ladies in the restroom.
She's really digging Red Dead Redemption, too. After she and my other friend shot my horse, murdered a bunch of innocent people and ultimately docked 500 points from my hard-won Honor, I asked her if she liked the game. "Yeah!" She enthused. "It's like GTA>, except with horses."
That sums it up. So why is it so much easier to "get" a game like GTA or by extension, Red Dead Redemption, than other titles, even those with far fewer elements going on? It's because GTA is universal: everyone's wished they could just act out against their environment without real-world consequences, just for fun, from time to time. Not all games are built on such accessible ideas – nor should they be. We could explain to our friends why we relate to them anyway, if only we had the right words.
When it comes to the more complex ideas and experiences unique to games, we as gamers and as an industry haven't yet gotten our lexicon to a point where it's sophisticated enough to convey them. Hey, it's not like we've had any practice; we've only in the past talked about what makes games special with each other, with people from "our world." That we're starting to notice our vocabulary is failing us is a good sign – it means that "other people" are ready to listen.
[ Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]