So what counts as good game writing? And by "good" I mean something that goes beyond a review, beyond listing the features, innovations, and all the other stuff that could easily fit on a detailed sales brochure. This is the first of a few posts where I want to point out what I think makes for thoughtful and insightful game writing.
Rather than stand on high and pronounce what good game writing should be, I think it's useful to point out pieces that I've found to be particularly effective. The one thing that all these examples have in common is that they either show me something I hadn't noticed or they articulate an experience in a way better than I had for myself. Here are the first three:
1) Centrality and distinctiveness of player experience: "Bow, nigger"
This piece by Ian Shanahan ("always black") has been cited many times as one of the first examples of what Kieron Gillen called New Games Journalism, which is a term borrowed from Tom Wolfe's "New Journalism" of the 60's. This is experience-based journalism which, in the extreme, is considered "gonzo" journalism, like Hunter S. Thompson's stuff, that doesn't focus so much on the facts but on the experience and (more often implied than stated) cultural significance of whatever is getting reported on.
"Bow, nigger" is successful because it shows a first person experience of online combat in Jedi Knights II: Jedi Outcast that emphasizes both the potential for informal, "honor"-based sportsmanship, but also the extreme crassness of anonymous competitive interaction.
The best part of the piece integrates a detailed discussion of the game's mechanics that also shows how those mechanics have been adapted in the game's "culture." But what's even better is that he does all this by narrating his own experience with an abusive opponent who wants him to "bow" before they fight. This is a long quote, but it's worth it:
First, though, there are the formalities. I crouch and duck my head, a 'bow'. Vulnerable.
But you know what? I entered in to it willingly and 'why?' is a very interesting question.
I'm a big boy now and I don't want to be a Jedi Knight when I grow up. The Star Wars films are great, but they're also just that, films, a form of entertainment to be enjoyed during breaks from my very real and financially challenging life (mortgage, two cats, a broken gutter and a car that needs some attention. Cheers.)
So I didn't bow because I wanted to 'roleplay' the Jedi of the game. It was an act of defiance.
Duelling is not new. Any multiplayer game can leave you with one opponent on either side and I've played that scenario out in many games. The difference with lightsabre duelling, Outcast-style, is that it's so very personal. These aren't detached sniping matches across the width of the map or rocket-spamming blast-fests to see who can respawn the least. JKII duel is 'winner-stays-on' and you can be floating around for anything up to half-an-hour on a busy server waiting for a game. This makes your game 'life' actually worth something and it makes it worth fighting for.
Into this potent mix you can toss in the fact that while you're a ghosting spectator you have time to chat and actually get to know the people you're playing, even on that usually most impersonal of beasts, the public server. Even during actual fights, play can swing from bouts of thrust, slash and parry to more distanced, wary sizing-up, searching for an opening that will allow you to get a sucker-hit in before your opponent can counter, time to talk and taunt.
But perhaps most personal of all is the close proximity you have to come to damage your opponent. I'm an avoidant player at the best of times, but JKII lightsabre duels just don't allow you to hit and fade from range. You have to be right in there trying to give the other guy a laser enema if you're going to avoid watching the show for another six games.
So I bowed. Not because I was naive enough to think he'd give any significance to the gesture. Not because he was commanding me to from his pillar of arrogance. I bowed /despite/ his taunts. For all his goading I did 'the right thing', to show him I wasn't going to come and meet him down on his level.
Go read the rest for a blow-by-blow account of what happened. To be honest, the rest is fun, but not as elegant as this analysis of what it's like to engage in online combat in a game that has a distinct "culture."
But what he does do well, even when he starts to sound a bit like a sportscaster, is to keep one vital idea in mind: In games, the experience of how it plays is always more important than a list of features, rules, and mechanics. And, especially in online games, the mechanics can often define the limits of how you're able to interact with other people, which, in turn, helps define the experience. This piece always filters information about the game and even that game's "culture" in terms of how it contributes to that experience. By letting experience frame the discussion, everything else about the game makes remarkably more sense.
Now I'm not convinced that "New Games Journalism" is the end-all, be-all of good games writing. In fact, I find that, even in compelling pieces, we can get so focused on one person's experience that it gets hard to pull back and look at the experience analytically. There's also the potential of being too enchanted by one person's experience that you can find it hard to develop your own. But what it gets right is the recognition that, as an interactive media, you have to say what's distinctive about this particular type of interactivity you're writing about. How is the experience of a lightsaber dueler different from a WWII shooter? What do those different experiences say about the options for conflict, for interactions within the game, etc.? Shanahan nails it on this one.