Once again, I’m dredging up an old story from SoreThumbsBlog.com — a blog site Dan “Shoe” Hsu and I used to share. And let me preface this repeat piece by saying I once wrote this preview intro for a game about tag in space: “In space, no one can hear you scream, ‘Tag, you’re it!'” Where do I get off griping about lousy writing? The nerve of me!
Shoe and I get asked all the time for advice on breaking into the games media. (Short answer: Get your goods on a blog or smaller site where you can build a portfolio of reviews/articles, then pimp your stuff to progressively bigger sites until — boom! — you’re writing a trade-show preview of Cars: Mater-National in a hotel room at 3 a.m. Congratulations — you have arrived!)
But while so many of you ask how to get into the biz of writing about games, few seek advice on a more fundamental matter: that whole, you know, writing thing. Maybe y’all just think we’re lousy writers. Fair enough. I’ve certainly dropped some stinker prose in my 16 years as a professional writer. But I’m more inclined to believe that many people who get into games media think they’re good writers to begin with.
And they’re wrong.
Back when I worked at EGM, my coworkers and I used to entertain ourselves by reading the competitors’ magazines and sites and picking out all the awful clichés, redundancies, awkward sentences, dangling modifiers, passive voice, incredibly lame subheds and captions, myriad variations of “get your X on,” etc., that someone somewhere wrote down and thought, “Adequate job!”
Do these nitpick parties make us EGMers sound petty and pretentious? No doubt. And I’m sure a few of you will mutter something about glass houses and stones.
Look, I’m not saying EGM’s stories were Pulitzer material (well, except for that Cars: Mater-National preview), but the editors did spend a lot of time bouncing ideas off each other, agonizing over captions, etc. We gave a crap, all right? And in the spirit of those bygone days of reading and weeping, I’m going to highlight three of my games-journalism pet peeves.
I’ll do it using real examples I’ve culled from here and there. Now, I’m not saying the folks who wrote this stuff are bad writers; I’ve read plenty of good stories from them (and one of the examples below might even come from my own writing). I’m just saying they wrote some bad stuff. Big thanks to them for illustrating my completely unsolicited pet peeves….
PEEVE 1: Tales from the “unassuming office building”
Every writer in this biz gets one free pass on the above overused phrase. After all, office buildings look boring from the outside, but the game-development offices within them are often as flashy as the games themselves. “You mean those zany guys who made that crazy game in the boring Prudential building have a foosball table, Slurpee machine, and a cubicle painted like a Q-bert pyramid? What a juxtaposition! Who woulda thought a guy with so many Jack Bauer figurines worked in such an unassuming building? What a great story lead this will make!”
There. Done. You’ve used up your one “zany things happening in an unassuming office building reference.” From now on, build your story around the game or the developers or something interesting they said. And in the meantime, quit chronicling every minute of your day in said unassuming office building, like this guy did when he visited Bungie….
“Lunch was quick and efficient, though the lobby wasn’t without its charms. A massive table of food was available to ease our anxious plights through the 10-12 hour game….”
Who are you writing this for? Are you trying to reassure your grandma that they feed you at your video-computergame job? At least write in a way she can appreciate: “Oh, they had such a wonderful spread. I had such a nice piece of fish, and the prices…so reasonable!” Good thing lunch was “quick and efficient.” Imagine if Bungie had treated this writer to Benihana; his account of the onion volcano alone would rival The Canterbury Tales.
Bonus unnecessary extra redundant words alert: “Anxious plight?” Wouldn’t a plight, by definition, be anxious? You get paid by the adjective, dude?
PEEVE 2: Dreaded poet’s society
When highbrow games hit their review window, journalists across the industry whip out their thesauri in wince-worthy attempts to mirror the games’ artistry with their words. Check this shit out….
“Deep beneath the surface of the ocean, at a depth where not even the faintest trace of the sun’s mighty light can be seen, the cold, obdurate blackness holds the future of mankind. It’s here that the underwater metropolis known as Rapture was built with the dream of the top brass of science congregating to build a better tomorrow. As the experiments and theories began to take shape, science defeated common sense, and something went wrong. Something went terribly wrong. As your bathysphere descends toward this revered paradise, you are hit with the sinking fear that mankind may have gone too far. It’s not until you step foot in the ruins of this city that you realize just how real this fear is….”
Let’s break this it-came-from-Creative-Writing-class monster down sentence by passive sentence and see just what the writer hath wrought: Deep under the ocean where there’s no light, it’s dark. Someone or something built an underwater metropolis (thanks for reminding us that things beneath the ocean are underwater) with…OK, here’s where I get confused. They built it with the dream that science’s top brass would congregate to then build a better tomorrow? (A lot of building going on in that sentence.) Or did the scientists build it? Or did the dream build it?
Bah, this stuff’s giving me a headache. On to the next pet peeve, but not before….
Bonus unnecessary extra redundant words alert: “Revered paradise?” Can you name me one paradise that isn’t revered? Also, what does “step foot” mean? Sounds painful.
PEEVE 3: Checkered pasts
“BioShock is Irrational’s finest offering to date, as well as the swan song for the Irrational brand in a way, since they recently relinquished their longstanding and well-established studio name for the more corporate, faceless tag of 2K Boston and 2K Australia….”
Zzzzz. Zzzzzz. Zzzzz. Oh, huh? Sorry. That above sentence is how the writer chose to lead his story. I guess he thought nothing grabs the reader like a rip-roarin’ tale of corporate rebranding. And this sort of history-lesson lead pops up all the time. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read some variation of “[Insert genre here] games have had a checkered past….”
Readers nowadays have more distractions than ever. You go starting your story like that and I guarantee half your audience will click on the gyrating low-interest-rate ladies in the banner ad before they reach paragraph two.
Bonus unnecessary extra redundant words alert: “Longstanding and well-established?” My friend and former coworker Shawn Elliott — now actually an employee of 2K Boston — coined a term for this kind of time-wasting wordcraft: Utterances.
You didn’t ask for any writing advice, and I really didn’t give any. I just pointed out stuff that bugs me. My worry is that you folks breaking into the media today grew up reading so much bad stuff that you think, “Well, I guess this is how you’re supposed to write in the games biz.” Thus, lousy writing begets lousy writing until someone starts their Final Fantasy LXIX review with “Final Fantasy games have had a checkered past.”
Now that I’m out of the games media and get my features/previews/reviews from the web and magazines just like everyone else, I fear a nightmare future of the same ol’, same ol’ utterances. It’s up to you newbies to break the vicious cycle. Take a few writing classes. Read books and web sites outside your usual bookmarks. Find writers you like in the games media (plenty of good ones out there) and study their style.
If I can get philosophical for a second, writing is the closest thing to telepathy you’ll find outside of Art Bell. It’s your brain transmitting words to someone else’s brain. Don’t clutter the conversation with a bunch of useless crap. Write economically. Kill the clichés. Be more creative with your leads. With a little work and some practice, you can help make lousy writing a thing of the checkered past.