Tired buzzwords and talking points strip the soul out of our conversations about games
Dear game developers,
On a good day, interviewing you can be the single most rewarding part of my job. Few people have the opportunity to connect with a creative mind at the top of his or her field, and somehow I’ve lucked into getting paid to do that dozens of times a year. My best conversations with you provide me with insights that help me become a keener critic than I’d ever be otherwise.
But, good god, when I get a bad interview, it’s an absolutely mind-numbing experience. Few things are less fun than listening to someone rattle off the same buzzwords, platitudes, and carefully rehearsed PR-mandated talking points with the bare minimum of enthusiasm. Time and again, I’ll make an effort to open up an interesting line of discussion, only to be herded back onto script with a painfully awkward segue. Sometimes, no joke, you don’t even bother with the segue, and I just get a prepared response to a question I didn’t even ask.
Let me say, though, that I sympathize completely. I don’t imagine any of you got into this line of work to be spokespeople, and I imagine these bad interviews aren’t any more fun on your end than they are on mine.
I also recognize that the folks on my side of the audio recorder probably aren’t going to be around much longer. Your companies have started to catch on to this little thing called the Internet that lets you speak directly to fans without the need for a pesky middleman. You’re running blogs, making flashy behind-the-scenes videos. Heck, Ubisoft is seriously just letting their employees interview other employees now. I don’t figure you get a lot of hard-hitting questions or electric rapport in that setup, but good for them.
And that’s kind of my point. Eventually, you’re just going to complete the ouroboros, and there won’t be any concerned third party to filter out the nonsense and try to shape a human narrative from the space between bullet points. Soon, it’s just going to be you, your PR and marketing departments, and your audience. And then, more than ever, the words you pick are going to matter.
So, please, take my advice, and stop using these ones:
unique: “Unique” does not mean different or uncommon or new. It means that something is literally one of a kind. Only one ever, as of this moment in history. Unless you’re traveling back in time to make Katamari Damacy, Seaman, or Custer’s Revenge, your game is not unique. It’s highly unlikely there’s even a single feature or mechanic in it that qualifies as unique.
visceral: The Nickelback of words. It probably had something meaningful to say 15 years ago, but suddenly it began popping up everywhere, and we all collectively decided to start hating it. Still, every so often, someone manages to trot it out like it matters. Don’t be that guy. Don’t put your Nickelback Pandora station on at a party.
immersive: You don’t get to decide that your game is immersive. Immersion is a goal, a subjective and personal relationship between the player and what they’re experiencing. And there are so many distinct types of immersion—seriously, check the Wikipedia page—that you’re not really saying anything specific at all, just encouraging a vague conflation of someone getting into the story, mechanics, or world-building of your game with the whole Tron, Johnny Mnemonic pipe dream.
industry/franchise/brand/product: If you’re sick of NeoGAF and its ilk painting you as soulless, money-grubbing content factories, well, image starts at home. If you go around spitting out business jargon like a 19th-century captain of industry, people are going to assume you’re only there to drink their milkshake. Or something.
free-to-play: Increasingly the closest thing gaming has to Orwellian Newspeak. (We have always been at war with EA-sia.) I’m not saying you can’t make free-to-play games, should your heart or accountants so desire, but we’d all be better off if we moved away from the phrase. It’s almost always disingenuous on some level, and given the growing stain sleazy developers have left on the term, you’re not doing yourself any favors by employing it. And on a related note…
We’re not pay-to-win: Every single person who has felt the need to utter this sentence in my presence has been lying. If you’re only selling cosmetic items, lose the stock phrase and say that you’re only selling cosmetics. If you’re selling something that affects gameplay in any way, you just can’t guarantee it won’t have an impact on balance either at launch or down the line, no matter how hard you try or how defensively you explain it.
player agency: Congratulations. You’ve officially convinced me you’re a robot that’s been sent back in time to identify and eliminate fun.
It’s all about the fans: Listen, even if you have the worst fanbase on earth, even if they’re spoiled and disrespectful, even if they send your family death threats over insignificant balance changes, we both know you’re going to trot out these five little words year after year. A lion tamer doesn’t call the lion an asshole when he’s got his head in its mouth.
This is the best game we’ve ever made: I will give 500 of my own dollars to the first major developer that tells me their latest game is a C+, B- effort at best.
I’m sure I’ve missed dozens of other equally infuriating ones, too. Fact is, as liberating it might be to lay them all out on the page like that, these words and phrases are only symptoms. The underlying problem is that somewhere along the way, someone decided that the best way to sell games to the people who want to play them was to force-feed everyone the exact same pre-planned narrative about Focus-Tested Features X, Y, and Z, livened up occasionally with Marketing-Approved Anecdotes 1, 2, and 3. Game critics, myself included, are guilty of facilitating that, I know. That, however, is a discussion for a different day.
I don’t go in much for the games-as-art debate anymore, but it’s clear that we’ve at least given up on talking about games as though they are art. In far too many instances, you’re like film directors who spend the whole press junket talking about what lenses they used and what the coolest camera angles in the big action scenes are. You’re painters who tell everyone in the gallery where to stand and what details to notice. You’re sucking the life out of what you create and conditioning our expectations such that we can never be surprised, only satisfied or disappointed.
Gaming has become a cynical place, but each and every time you sit down for an interview, you’ve got a chance to fix that, regardless of how good or bad any particular interviewer might be. Instead of contorting a stock answer to weasel out of an unconventional question, why not flip it? Take the most dull, uninspired questions you get, and twist them into an opportunity to offer genuine, honest insights into your inspirations, your passion towards the project, your creative process—whatever you bring to your work as the Real Human Being who will continue to exist when the microphone is shut off.
If you can’t do that, if you can’t tell me something that doesn’t boil down to a tarted-up version of “My game is good,” if you can’t make me care as much as you surely must? Or, worse, if the machine won’t allow it? Then maybe that cynicism is rightly earned after all.