When I was doing creative writing coursework at university, one of the first and most important lessons that was drummed into us was the phrase “show, don’t tell.” That, indeed, is a mantra that students in high school English classes, and even earlier, will also hear far too often, but once you hit university you’re engaging with it at greater nuance, and come to understand just why bringing abstract thinking and thematic layering into a text enrichens it. It goes beyond “don’t say climate change is bad, show the impacts of climate change and understand the audience is going to be intelligent enough to understand that this is a bad thing,” for example. That’s the crux of how you do it, but the why you do that is more interesting. The why is fundamental to why the arts play such a critical role in preparing society to think independently and tackle the big challenges that the world faces. We’re taught to “show, not tell” in our writing because that allows the educational and intellectual development role of literature to prepare audiences to challenge and properly analyse what they see and hear around them.
Things may well have moved on from the time that I was studying the theories of writing and the broader arts. I am on the older end of the millennial generation now and I haven’t stepped foot into a university for years now. If this philosophy towards good writing has been taken away from the curriculum, it would explain why video game writers seem to be so completely unaware of it. But I somehow doubt it. I’m sure they know this basic rule and principle. They just don’t do it. The video game industry is beholden to the will of capitalism quite unlike any creative industry before it, and capitalism does not benefit from people thinking beyond the most superficial level. I don’t believe that video game writers are deliberately out there adopting terrible writing practices that act to dull down the population, but I do believe that video game writers care about their jobs, and the only jobs available to them have them doing what the CEOs, boards, and shareholders of these organisations want.
But let’s back up a bit here, and quickly talk about newspeak. Most reasonably well-read people will know of the concept. It was coined by George Orwell for his novel 1984, and newspeak is perhaps the most creepy and sociopathic thing that is depicted within the dystopic, deeply sociopathic society featured in Orwell’s book. Newspeak is so nasty because it’s so subtle. It’s not the guy holding a gun to your head, but it’s a culture-wide exercise in mind control. The idea behind it is that newspeak – which simplifies grammar and restricts vocabulary to an extreme degree – also restricts an individual’s ability to think and articulate complex ideas. Or, to put this simply (and I realise the irony there): if you can’t find the right words to articulate a complex idea, you’re either not going to have the complex idea, or you’re not going to be able to communicate it with others.
Now, we joke about how dense philosophy is to read. I studied Derrida and Heidegger and in hindsight my philosophy classmates and I were incredibly boring people because that joke was material that was used way too often for its own good. Younger students similarly groan about having to read Shakespeare because, among the dense language and rhyming structures, they spend way too long picking out the “obscure” themes from within the words. What do you mean that Hamlet’s a thesis on identity and reality… isn’t it just some dude that goes a bit nuts and holds up a skull?!?
The reality is, though, that once you cut through those jokes you realise that the language that these thinkers and works use is complex and dense by necessity. Certainly, you can summarise Heidegger’s ideas in a few paragraphs, and there are entire cheat guides dedicated to making Hamlet really simple, but truly understanding and engaging with these concepts, from the source, without a guide doing the explaining for you, relies heavily on your ability to engage with complex language and – and this is where we come back to the “show, don’t tell” – draw and interpret the most abstract ideas that sit behind the words. Hamlet works on about fifteen different levels. The crazy guy jumping into the grave is only the surface, and it’s not where the meaning, nor insight, exists in Hamlet.
Video game storytelling, however, for the most part, actively aims to bring everything that you need to understand it in its entirety to a single, surface level. As a consequence, most video games are shallow and superficial in what they have to say. If the developer wants to deal with the topic of climate change, for example, they will write into dialogue to explicitly say “the world is dying because of climate change.” There’s no showing you the impact of climate change and leaving you to figure out cause and effect for yourself. No. They’ll just spoon-feed it to you.
At other times, a writer will try and trick you into thinking it’s subversive or layered without it being anything of the sort. Cyberpunk 2077 and The Outer Worlds both seem to think they’re brilliantly provocative because their way of showing you that pseudo-fascist corporations are evil is to make a joke about how “pseudo-fascist corporations are, like, so evil.” These games still aren’t actually saying anything that requires interpretation. Compare Blade Runner 2049 (or the original) to Cyberpunk 2077. They’re from the exact same genre, but where Blade Runner canvases a complex web of themes ranging from manufactured realities, the complex interaction between synthetic and biological life, is analogous to racism and sexism, muses on the nature of love, both within a hyper-capitalist society and whether it’s a biological impulse, and draws heavy aesthetic inspiration from a range of art movements, Cyberpunk 2077 is… nothing. It’s a “tee hee capitalism is bad” game, created by people working in a major corporation no less (and so presents very little understanding on why capitalism is bad), and it turns synthetics (thematically central to cyberpunk, the genre) into throwaway gameplay elements. Finally, it has a setting that is aesthetic as “GTA, but the future.”
I’m being (mildly) hyperbolic here, but the reality is that Cyberpunk 2077 is a deeply compromised work, made to be as shallow and simple as possible so no one could “miss” the few musings it has, and rather than really challenge the player to think, it instead aims to distil an entire cyberpunk literary genre to a checklist of content topics that it runs through in between the shooty action bits. You know, to keep you playing.
Distilling things down to a level so basic that people are discouraged from thinking about them, and then ensuring that there’s nothing to latch on to even were they inclined to think about it more, is a hallmark feature of newspeak. But the parallels between Orwell’s warning and video games runs deeper still. In addition to narrowing the vocabulary as much as possible to limit the communicator’s ability to weave complex thoughts, newspeak also has a love of abbreviations and contractions. Ingsoc (English Socialism), Minitrue (Ministry of Truth), Miniplenty (Ministry of Plenty) are all terms in Orwell’s newspeak. This is a critical feature of newspeak, because Orwell observed it in action in the real world, having seen the way that the Germans and Soviets would do it as part of their propaganda language. Think about terms like Nazi (Nationalsozialist), Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei), politburo (Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), Comintern (Communist International), kolkhoz (collective farm), and Komsomol (Young Communists’ League). This is integral to the success of newspeak because, in Orwell’s view nice-sounding and easily pronounceable, these terms act to mask all ideological content from the speaker.
Similar things happen in the video game industry, where we love our acronyms, abbreviations and contractions. JRPG (Japanese Role-Playing Game), Tactics game (Tactical Strategy game), L2. R2 (Left/Right Second Shoulder Button), PvP (Player Vs. Player). DLC (Downloadable Content). Here’s a pretty comprehensive list. They’re not always ideologically-driven, of course, but they do encourage people to think less about the words they use. Case-in-point: I am regularly amazed at people’s obsession with FPS (Frames Per Second). In a fast-paced online shooter, FPS matters. However, we’re conditioned to think about games in simple binaries (good/bad) and numbers (30/60), and “FPS” condenses those things into a nice, simple term that gives us the ability to form an opinion on something without actually thinking about it. I now see people regularly criticising turn-based strategy games, or even visual novels, for not running at 60 FPS. Games that are static and where input speed is utterly irrelevant. But beause 60 FPS is a checklisted feature, a game better have that to be “worth the money.”
Beyond that, there are times when there is blatant ideology at play. Take the current effort to sell the world on NFTs. Gaming is considered to be a major outlet to drive interest in NFTs, but absolutely no one is going to be interested in handing over their money for “Non-Fungible Tokens”. Not only does it have one of the sleaziest words right there in the term (“fungible” makes my skin crawl), but if people said those words out in full they may start to wonder what they actually mean. These things never benefit from scrutiny. People realise they’re a scam pretty quickly. But “NFT”? That sounds like a cute collectible! Gimme those stupid monkeys in my games!
Another, similar, example is “spoilers”. While that’s a fully-formed word, the way that it is used in gaming is applied in a very simplistic way by the powers that be. A spoiler is, in theory, meant to mean someone taking a surprise that is core to the narrative and thematic integrity of an entire work, and dropping it on an unsuspecting audience, to the point that knowing the surprise ahead of time undermines the work. In video games, spoilers are broadened to the point of extreme simplicity so that mild plot points, screenshots, and even trailers and box art can now be spoilers. There’s no longer any thought that goes into the word, nor consideration for what is and isn’t a spoiler. A “spoiler” is such a broad, empty word that it can apply to anything that the person with control in a situation wants, and they can use that to limit and undermine the ability to talk about a game in any depth. It’s yet more newspeak in our industry.
To summarise all of the above: the drive to make video games as commercially successful as possible leads game developers – particularly the creatives – to vastly limit the depth at which the game operates. On top of that, the way that we talk about video games lends itself to further simplifying the art form. Combined, discourse is silenced and complex ideas aren’t mooted, which results in a passivity by the audience.
In 1984 Orwell argued that newspeak acted to pacify society and enforce compliance to the authoritarian dystopia. In video games, it pacifies us to consume content. Endless streams of content. Without question, and without meaningful criticism. In fact, because the games are so limited, shallow, and empty, there’s nothing there to criticise even if we wanted to. We’re conditioned to feel games and relate to games. What we don’t do is apply critical thinking to games. The entire industry has scraped away us to the point that we now have simple, primitive responses to games. Happy/sad. Joy/anger. Fun/boring. It’s digital newspeak, and we should all be concerned that, as the dominant art form through much of the west, games are shaping people’s understanding on what art is in the first place. People are reading fewer books than ever. There is a decline in museum and gallery attendance (and this is before COVID-19). Theatre attendance is diving. If video games really are going to define our culture, then we’re going to have to push back, and hard, on the newspeak that the medium has become.
As a final note – because experience tells me that I’ve got to have the disclaimers when you write anything midly challenging about games – not all video games are like this. In fact, outside of the big blockbusters, there are plenty of examples of games that actively resist the digital newspeak I mention above. The problem is that the big end of town is taking an increasingly disproportional percentage of the market and it, not the tiny little indies almost no one plays, is responsible for shaping the culture around video games.
The blessed difference between video games and Orwell’s nightmare is that there isn’t any government-wide threat to being subversive. No one’s legally censoring those that transgress the digital and artistic newspeak. And yet the community and industry’s efforts to silence these works is extreme. The hatred of indies from some corners stems from people’s unwillingness to play those subversive experiences comes from a broad cross-section of players indeed, and we’re seeing the entire industry consolidate behind business models, driven by the mega-corporations, that are deliberately designed to exclude indies.
If you ever find yourself sitting there wondering why the games industry seems to be ever-more narrow in scope, that games are becoming increasingly similar to one another, and that the writing and commentary around games seems to be getting increasingly limited, read Orwell’s 1984 again. Have a think about how closely that book’s theories of oppression apply to the way that this industry organises itself and behaves.