Gaming’s Tower of Babel

A few weeks ago I discovered Rogue Legacy, a brilliant indie game that instantly became a time sink for me over vacation. I even reviewed it at NerdCaliber. No, I haven’t finished it – yet – but it is a fascinating study in getting a game “right” in a way where people “get” it. Also I want to finish it but I started a new job . . . and Cubeworld.

Rogue Legacy is a fusion of several elements:

  • Roguelike randomness (deriving from the early random-dungeon game Rogue).
  • Sidescrolling castle exploration of the “Metroidvania” type (reminiscent of some Metroid games and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night)
  • Brutal difficulty common to both of those games and popularized in the hardcore games Demons’ Souls and Dark Souls.
  • An aesthetic reminiscent of other hardcore games, Ghosts and Goblins and Ghouls and Ghosts.

Basically you go into a randomly generated castle, explore, die, and then a randomly generated set of ancestors are available for you to take on the journey again to get far enough to win – usually after a lot of descendants.

Now if you’re a gamer like me, you’re already responding to rods like “Roguelike” and “Metroidvania” and “Hardcore.” My choice of words – and Rogue Legacy’s ancestry – speak to powerful and popular concepts in gaming. In short, Rogue Legacy’s designers speak the language of people like me, and a language with years of history. They know what some of us want and how to do it and communicate it.

Of course if I pointed the average puzzle gamer/casual gamer at Rogue Legacy they won’t have the same visceral reaction. Then again I may not get what they do.

Or your average stereotypical “Brogamer” who does Call of Duty isn’t going to get it as he started gaming when Halo came out. I don’t play the endless Band Of Shooter games.

Or MMO players, whose terminology has slowly leaked into other games (Tankers, DPS). They may or may not get my love of Rogue Legacy, but then again I seem to be unable to maintain interest in an MMO for more than a month or two.

In fact, I may have a hard time even explaining the game to them. Someone who jumped on WoW because their friends played it won’t get Rogue Legacy. Someone who came into gaming at Halo won’t appreciate it. They may not even be able to conceive of the game existing.

We’re not speaking the same language as to what a game is. That’s OK as long as people developing games have a broad enough language set and sense of history to make, develop, diversify, and learn from games.

As you may guess, I’m kinda concerned we don’t.

Game companies, especially the bigger ones, seem to be speaking a very limited language to a very limited audience. The endlessly sequelized Triple AAA titles are repeating the same old same old. The same new shooter comes out every year with a new name. Repeatable MMOs get cloned. The XBox One barely even acknowledged gaming, speaking a language even gamers didn’t understand – probably as they were barely mentioned.

At times I think some game companies – and yes, designers – are so stuck in their own little world of what a game is, what features it should have, they are literally not speaking the same language as others. It’s almost like “Newspeak” in 1984 where the words used to talk are diminishing in numbers. Without the words you can’t think thoughts outside the box, and in some cases that box is going to sit under your TV and vastly disappoint people.

Now admittedly I’m not that interested in AAA titles, but my concern for gaming as art and as a place of employment for people like us is that this limited mindset is going to get pathologically constraining – if it hasn’t already. When I see small studios whip out amazing games that truly “speak” to people I’m pleased, but then I watch the Blockbuster-like AAA titles crank the same thing out and wonder where that money could have gone.

When I talk to people who work in gaming, oftentimes there’s concerns that there’s such limited knowledge of what a game could people, some people, especially newcomers, lack the cognitive and language tools to even express broader ideas. People can’t conceive of certain game concepts or repeat the same idea over and over again.

Ultimately, I think if you work in gaming and want to really stretch your wings you need two things: a knowledge of the terms and concepts that’s broad, and a knowledge of history. History is the foundation language rests on, and language is how we discuss meaning and history. This is how you’re able to know why you do what you do – and why you break the rules when you have to.

I don’t expect this to come from the top down. I expect it to come bottom-up as people that really know the language, not the striped-down big studio ideas, are able to conceive of new and interesting stuff. It’ll just get interesting if the top starts to melt down . . .

– Steven