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Why Game Writers Need To Be Specific

For this article, I wanted to clearly illustrate why game writers need to be specific. I'll use two articles I found as examples not with intention of correction, but illumination.

The first article is by Tae K. Kim titled "Why games need to be shorter." Here's my response to the article in order by paragraphs. 


  • The 2 theses/arguments are stated up front. Great start.

Paragraph 1

  • Kim debunks the idea that gamers who want shorter games are typically older gamers with less time to enjoy their hobby. Kim States that he loves spending lots of time on a great game, which sets us up for the development of his supporting arguments. Good.

Paragraph 2

"Games go on for way too long these days, and for all the wrong reasons, the biggest being gamers have arbitrarily decided there is a minimum number of gameplay hours they will accept—eight seems to be the magic number—and the longer the better."  

  • This point is a bit strained.  First of all, Kim has not established himself as an authority concerning "games these days." I doubt there's anyone who has played every game or even most games from this generation. It would be far more effective if Kim qualified his statement by saying something like "games that I play" or "from my perspective." Second, this statement makes a jump in logic failing to outline or hint to the trickle down relationship between consumer desires and developer design trends. Even if games are longer just because gamers have a twisted value system, this doesn't inherently make a game worse. We can also ask what does Kim mean by "better" games. 

Paragraph 3

  • "but making purchasing decisions based on quantity rather than quality has a trickle-down effect to the development level." This is the point that should have been worked into the previous paragraph. This isn't a big deal though. At least it's included. But just afterwards we get this: "This is why almost every title has a collectible widget or a multiplayer mode or a bevy of achievements, regardless of how well it all fits in with the overall fiction of the title. It’s also why certain titles drag on endlessly, with levels that feel like the end but lead to yet another environment and another one after that." 
  • "almost every title" is a very specific kind of statement/argument that covers 51-99% of games. Once again Kim weakens his credibility here. This argument would be more effective with several examples of each type (out of place collectibles/ multiplayer modes/ achievements). Not only would examples help us grasp the point better, but it would give us a better idea of what kinds of games Kim is more familiar with. The more we understand about Kim's view point on the issue, the better we can relate to his opinion piece. After all, opinions, like any other kind of statement/argument can be supported, challenged, and corrected. 
  • Kim supports the previous point with this: "It happens even with great games like Uncharted 2, a game I reviewed and loved, but thought could have ended sooner than it did." Does Uncharted 2 represent bad collectibles, tacked on multplayer, or poorly designed achievements? I think it's none of these things. I think Kim wanted to communicate that Uncharted 2's variation of gameplay challenges drops off toward the end of the game creating repetitive experiences. But this still doesn't support the 3 types he introduced. 

Paragraph 4

  • At this point the article has lost focus on the theses. This paragraph doesn't strongly support the whole either. "Length isn’t a consideration with every title, of course." Does it matter that length isn't as much of an issue for some games? Does this point need any more than a passing mention? The examples and descriptions that follow are vague and work against Kim's thesis. What does "nature of their gameplay," "long periods of time" and "satisfy your brain and your wallet" mean exactly? This paragraph basically says length isn't an issue for some puzzle, multiplayer, or single player games. Another way of saying the same thing is game length should be considered on a game by game basis. The more general your claims, the less effective they'll be. 

Paragraph 5

  • "I’m arguing for shorter, more tightly paced games that come in, say what they need to say, and then have the grace to know when to walk off the stage." I'm sure well all get what Kim is trying to say here, but this statement is as generic as it comes. As long as a specific game isn't brought into the discussion, it's hard to being wrapping our heads around what might qualify as being "tightly paced." Is this an issue of narrative pacing, gameplay variation, ludonarrative dissonance, or all of these things?
  • "This is especially critical because narrative urgency is missing in a lot of story based games these days, and many gamers spend more time wandering around doing meaningless activities than actually advancing the story. Often, the fate of the world is hanging in the balance, and we’re all wasting time opening every desk and scouring every corner looking for hidden objects." Again, the worlds in bold are either subjective or generalizations that say nothing specific. Still, this unwanted side effect of ludonarrative dissonance isn't related to bloated game length. 

Paragraph 6 

  • Kim presents a very clear thought. Basically, if developers aim to design shorter (presumably with less art/audio assets to create), they can focus (time/money) on crafting the game with less ludonarrative dissonance. Sure the developers could make a better game if they diverted resources from one effort into another. But that conclusion doesn't necessarily follow. Kim's statement about Half-Life would be more effective if he describes his own experiences with the game instead of using the generic "you." After all, everything I did in Half-Life did not bring me closer to achieving th goal.  

Paragraph 7

  • More generic statements. Somehow, writers trick themselves into thinking statements like "ld rather play a three hour game with a focused pace than a meandering ten hour game that takes forever to get me to the end" are unique and effective ways to close out an argument.


We (everyone who talks or writes about video games) need to learn how to form debatable-substantive-arguments. It's simple, really. Instead of trying to convey a large concept, just pick a game you have experience with, say something about a specific aspect of the game, and find a few examples to back yourself up. You want the example to do all the "debating" for you. If you can link to a video or a playable example, even better.

I'll close with a review that actually provides a video example to support a bold claim. From the second page of this gamesradar review of Donkey Kong Country Returns:

"These cart levels in DKCR approach Battletoads speed tunnel levels of annoyance, as they repeatedly fail to give you any clues as to what the correct action should be. Jump? Duck? Dodge that or land on it? The only way you’ll know for sure is to try, and probably die in the process."

This statement is completely clear and completely wrong. Remember an article I wrote years ago about how game reviewers need skills or at least they need to know how their lack of skill may affect their perception of gameplay challenges? Since I was a kid playing Donkey Kong Country, I've known that bananas are the universal clues. Like Mario coins, if you see a banana, you know that you can obtain it without dying. In addition, bananas are used to outline paths of travel when the fast action or screen scrolling might obscure the path otherwise.  

In the video evidence, it's clear that bananas are used as they always have been. See for yourself in the video. And in the Battletoads speed tunnel example, there's only 1-2 obstacle sequences that have questionable warning cues; the "!" jumps at 2:40 and the fast up and down obstacles just afterwards. Otherwise, that challenge is legitimately fair.

The beauty of being specific is that it encourages responses/rebuttals to be just as specific or more so helping the whole debate move forward. Unless we take these steps seriously, we'll never get around to talking about video games. 


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Reader Comments (9)

Yup, you pretty much destroyed (I mean, illuminated) that article. Thanks for that; the only way videogame writing will get better is if we take the time to to take each other seriously, and that's exactly what you did (while still remaining respectful, of course).

Aside from the stuff we talked about on twitter, the thing that most disturbed me about this article is that he takes for granted the idea that "gamers" are primarily to blame for shorter games. Not only is this statement unclear (I mean, who isn't a gamer nowadays???), it is also a perverse misreading of history.

Most gamers may or may not prefer long adventures with tons of "replay value," but even if that's the case, it is only because reviewers have introduced them to concepts such as "replay value" to begin with. Also, how many reviewers ever complain about a game being "too long" or having "too many features?" Very few. But sometimes games ARE too long; sometimes multiplayer is an unnecessary distraction that dilutes and trivializes the narrative urgency of a single player game. When this happens, reviewers should simply be upfront about it instead of encouraging developer excesses by qualifying their criticism with phrases such as 'the side missions are ridiculous and unnecessary fetch quests, but since they're optional, they won't detract from your game unless you want to collect all the achievements.'

And that's part of the problem: when a game has too much stuff, reviewers often tell us to just ignore the excesses and enjoy the good parts; conversely, there is very little upside to the criticism that a game is 'too short.' This, in turn, encourages developer excess because it implies that it is better to create a bad side quest/multiplayer than to risk leaving the game 'too short.'

Simply put, our expectations for a videogame is deeply rooted in the language we use to speak about it. Hence, it is weird that the people who created the language of 'features' and 'replay value' to blame the audience for heeding their advice. If you thought Red Dead was too long, then say so and explain your reasons clearly in your review. If you think the game is great INSPITE of these failures, then fine--but for god's sake don't tell me to overlook them!

Sorry, I know that was not in keeping with the specificity you advocate in the post (does the rule also apply to entries in the comments section? ;).

November 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJose

@ Jose

Lol. Great followup.

I was thinking about whether or not our comments should be as specific as possible as well. Sure, it never hurts to be specific, but I think it mainly applies when writing something to be "published" like a review, blog post, etc. Otherwise, everyone should be specific if they want to carry on a conversation.

To add, in general I think we believe that developers stretch their talent thin when they produce too much content. while this seems logical, it's also possible for developers to do worse when producing less content. It all depends on a number of factors that typically aren't revealed to us (developer synergy/process/etc).

We need to focus less on how games are made, and more on if they're good/bad for whatever reason. I really don't care of a developer "accidentally" stumbles on greatness making a game of a perfect length. I just want games to be perfect or as close as possible.

I do think you were sharp to trace our expectations/understanding/self education on gaming to the language we picked from from reviews and the like.

Stay sharp.

November 20, 2010 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

The name Tae K. Kim sounded familiar and then the link reminded me of the New Super Mario Bros. Wii review which he wrote for GamePro (the one with the panned out Heavy Rain feature). In regards to generalisations, his review was much worse than this editorial. Rarely did he discuss New Super Mario Bros at all (not even the PR "here's what's in the game + adjectives" spiel), rather he used his preconception that NSMB Wii was "selling out to the casuals" as a basis to criticise the game. Nothing he said was the credible or based on evidence. The fact that this was a featured review is disgusting.

You're totally right. Using an example not only evidences the argument and gives something tangible for the ready to understand, it also makes the writer's job much easier as they just have a single cross-section of game to analyse, as opposed to the whole beast.

I wrote an editorial just like this a while ago on point and click adventure games, then after reading over it I realised that nothing I said had proof, even I couldn't take it seriously. So I spent 3 hours combing over evidence and rewriting the piece. That ended up being my Beneath a Steel Sky article. I did the same with the two Castlevania write-ups and everything that I'm writing on Fallout is simple case studies.

Jose - It's funny that the devices which reviewers use to defend flawed games is another device for criticism. That is, fundamental flaws are sometimes ignored because the game has just so much content which somehow lessens its relative value (even if it is a core mechanic). Then later, games will be criticised entirely because they have too much content.

November 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Primed

Two good comments--thanks.

So anyway....check this out. While reading the eurogamer review of Mass Effect 2: Overlord, I encountered an example that mirrors the one I made up earlier. I laughed at the coincidence, and figured it was worth sharing here:

"Dotted around the [central hub], there are six Cerberus data packs to find, usually protected by gun turrets that can turn the Hammerhead to scrap in a few seconds. This side-side-quest is really only essential if you're hungry for Gamerscore though, since finding them all triggers one of the two new Achievements (the other is for finishing the story).

"It would have been nice to tie these collectables in to the plot, or at least use them to offer some kind of sub-narrative, but they're really a meta-game, there to populate the world a little and justify the Hammerhead's inclusion."

This should have raised several quesrtions. First, why should a world be populated with a meaningless activity? Second, if you needed to populate the map with meaningless things, then why have one in the first place? Third, how do meaningless collectibles "justify" the inclusion of the Hammerhead vehicle?

Lastly, why exactly does the Hammerhead need to be justified? Is it really that much fun to control? Here's what he says in the next couple of paragraphs:

"Unfortunately, combat is where the Hammerhead is at its weakest. Literally. With just one mode of attack and flimsy armour, you still end up playing in much the same way as you did in the Mako - strafing wildly, and bunny-hopping to dodge incoming fire.

"It looks a bit daft, and never feels like you're really at the helm of a futuristic military vehicle.....These bits are fake and videogamey, and it's hard to connect them to the more robust and immersive action on foot.

"Thankfully, these distractions are too brief to detract from the overall experience."

Okay, so let's summarize the argument step by step:

-Overlord has an empty world map;

-With insipid collectibles scattered about to disguise the map's emptiness;

-Which is 'okay' because they are also meant to justify the existence of a vehicle;

-Which unfortunately looks daft and never feels quite right;

-Which is OK because "thankfully" the vehicle sequences are pretty short.

Unless you want to get the collectibles.... I dunno, maybe I'm exaggerating, but this sort of thing really frustrates me. Why does the reviewer go so far out of his way to minimize the he's trying to raise?

The worst part is that Eurogamer really isn't that bad compared to most mainstream gaming publications....argh.

November 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJose

@ Jose

I hear what you're saying.

The quality of our conversations and our articles/reviews needs to go way up. If there's one thing the internet is great at, it's complaining. Raise your voices.

Nice quotes on that Eurogamer article. Gotta love specifics. Gotta love quotes. I agree, Eurogamer articles are usually pretty good. I haven't read the article you referred to. On a side note, one of the first articles I wrote for this blog was a "re-review" of a game informer review of Mass Effect.

I can't believe some of these writers actually get paid to sit around, play games, and mess up so badly on the final step (writing). I know many out there iare crunched for time on many of their assignments, but seriously, writing better/faster is a skill one can learn.

I'm taking no excuses, and I'm giving little wiggle room.

One thing that I've noticed is that people in general are really bad at processing more than 7+/- bits of info. So ask someone to tell you about a whole game, and unless they're skilled, they'll probably fall for all the pit falls spitting out some formulaic response.

So what's the next step?

November 22, 2010 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

Eurogamer is a great publication. Some of their reviews are fantastic, really memorable. Sometimes they aren't so great. Jose, you're reference is a good example of the latter. Generally speaking though, they are a head above most outlets.

What I like about Eurogamer is how the readers will grill the writers (especially news writers) for making mistakes, and then they'll boost these comments to the top of the comments area. This is especially true of Fred Dutton and Whesley Yoo-douse (can't remember spelling). Eurogamer is one of the only websites where I read the comments section.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Primed

Ah this is a great post and great comments! Shame I didn't find this sooner, but I've added it to a reference link on my article regarding reviews here:
and I shall probably re-write that page to incorporate a link to here into the main body later :)

Also, I know I've pointed you in Insomnia's direction before... but I link on that page to one of his best pieces (IMO) that is sadly all too accurate about how bad the mainstream 'gaming' press really is:

January 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRik Newman (Remy77077)

@ Rik Newman

Thanks for the comments and links. Always interesting.

February 1, 2011 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

Whoa, this thread is still sort of alive?! Thanks for the link, Rik....I'll be sure to check it out.

I haven't read your re-review of Mass Effect but will make sure to do so asap.

I agree! Eurogamer is one of the better sites out there! Otherwise I wouldn't even bother to criticize it (or read it, for that matter).

February 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJose

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