One of my favorite experiences in any game is experiencing the staccato rhythm of Pikachu’s crouch-walk in any Super Smash Bros.
When I started writing about games at a professional capacity, I wanted to focus on narrative and ludonarrative aspects. I leaned heavily on the fiction and narrative side of game design because that was adjacent to the writing craft I had actually fallen in love with: fiction. I only started exploring nonfiction work because I liked games, far more than I enjoyed the craft of criticism or feeling like I had things worth saying. I still think some of my best work is outside of technical craft or industry commentary, and far more on the experience of play.
However, the only time I really allowed myself to indulge the sensory side—how games feel —was in exploring art design or soundtrack. I felt games writing wasn’t about commenting on the little details that caught my focus, but on the bigger picture. I still don’t know if my criticism is valuable, but there’s something to the sensory elements in games and fiction that stay with me.
Villagers in the Animal Crossing series make a pleasant, weighted plaps on the ground when they tread across the grass and cobblestone.
I’m unsure why I’ve never really chosen to indulge sensory aspects. The stigma of the vocabulary, maybe. “Atmosphere” and “experience” are often left to describing hipster coffee shops or performance art pieces. When people want to read about games it’s usually to find out if a game’s story is worth the 20+ hours of grind, or if the latest HD release’s textures are up to snuff. I can’t imagine people are chomping at the bit to explore an armchair commentary on the architectural design of an in-game cathedral or city layout. I don’t think I’ve ever had a good mind for the same levels of technical detail my print media peers have. I don’t really know how most game hardware works in respect to its output or power draw, or whether or not that’s even relevant to modern gaming discourse. When a console does have really strong graphics processing, I mostly think it looks dark.
Some of my favorite aesthetics in games have been low resolution, with lower quality sound files, and attached to games that were dated even when they were made. When people want to know how a game looks, the things I search for rarely match things others seem to search for. I still don’t like the look of Dishonored, for example, and it was nominated for Best Visual Design by the D.I.C.E. Interactive Achievement Awards, Visual Effects Society, and Golden Joystick Awards, and won the Inside Gaming Award for Best Environmental Design. So I find myself wanting to stay away from the things where I consistently fail to match the critical consensus.
The faint sound of swishing, almost like the sound of straw dragging across hardwood, accompanies the sweeping strides of the janitorial heroes of Dustforce.
I also resist the idea of those kinds of indulgences because it feels off-base for what I think an audience may want. For as much as there are a wealth of ASMR videos adorning YouTube channels across the vast and vague tubes of the internet, I can’t imagine there’s a grand overlap between ASMR listeners and readers consuming game criticism. Yet I find myself most enjoying the ASMR-like experiences in games and wanting to share that in my articles.
When I think of how much games do for my senses, I try to tie it to things I feel are more universal. Lately I’ve been allowing myself more articles that talk on mental health; although not everyone faces depression, everyone can at times feel a little depressed. Not everyone had the same childhood I did, but most everyone has had a childhood, thereby creating a well of experiences one can draw from when discussing things that feel childlike in games.
Simply enjoying the sight of steam curl up from the vents of a manhole cover hardly seems like what one should write about when the steam is surrounded by the bullets and blasts of an action-heavy third person shooter. At least it feels like the action is what people care about.
There’s a sharpness to The Division’s menus—the camera tightens, the world fades behind a curtain of blue and gray, and all but the most present sounds and sensations disappear behind a sudden, player-controlled quiet among the gentle snow.
I will argue until I’m blue in the face that the things that are meant to be meaningful aren’t the only things that actually are, yet I still let that belief guide how I write. “Meaningful” isn’t a socially guided construct, but there is a level of our understanding that probably is. I’ve been in enough Twitter and Reddit discussions, as foolish as such online discussions are, to know that anything that breaks too far from the mold will earn a bit of ribbing, ridicule, or actual heated scorn. There are parts of me that want to avoid the bullying by simply going with what I think people want to read. I don’t always let myself think about alternatives, even if I would prefer to write those.
I don’t believe I’m exactly the most well-read person to speak on this subject, but games culture and criticism could benefit from exploring ideas like enjoying games exclusively as fidget toys or stimulation exercises. Games could benefit from also being thought of as an aesthetic experience first, and then a long string of narratively-strung mechanics second. It’s at least worth thinking over, even if I don’t have precisely the right words to explain why.
The weighty, thick, and voluminous rain in the first Harvest Moon is a delight to listen to from inside the player’s house—although it represents a nuisance for the farmer, it’s still delightful to experience as it pelts the wooden planks of the farmhouse.
Some experiences are wasted on words alone.
Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer and editor, and Features Editor at Haywire Magazine. He enjoys writing, reading, experiences in and out of games, and making new friends through Twitter.