I had a conversation the other day that reminded me of how easy it is to forget how much of the way we talk about games is jargon. In fact, when we talk about or review games, we rarely say anything close to what we mean. We bury meaning behind years of experience. It almost says that if you don’t know what we’re talking about you shouldn’t be here and that’s wrong.
All of this came to a head when I was asked to describe Headlander (pun intended).
So what is Headlander?
Well, it’s a Metroidvania.
So what is a Metroidvania? Well it’s a game with elements common to both Metroid and Castlevania.
But even that isn’t true, a Metroidvania really is a subgenre of adventure games with a sprawling map that generally gates players progress by using doors or paths that can only be accessed after obtaining abilities which act as keys. That’s a mouthful but unless you’ve played Metroid and Castlevania it’s meaningless.
Back to Headlander, a game about ripping various robot heads off (and replacing them with your own) in order to escape an AI that wants to kill you. Of course Headlander does have Metroidvania elements, but it’s also its own game with its own humor, references and feel. How useful is it to stick it in the same category as Strider, Shadow Complex and Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate?
It’s important to have terms of art, but those terms should be applied in a way that’s useful, accurate and meaningful.
The issue isn’t that many people haven’t played Metroid or Castlevania, it’s that we can do better and should. Calling a game a “roguelike” means it has similarities to the 1980 game Rogue, but does it? Of course not, that’s why we have roguelike-likes silly!
I’m not heralding the end of Western civilization or the death of the Queen’s English. What I am warning of is a language hole where words are so divorced from their origins and meanings as to have none, particularly to outsiders.
Terms like “First Person Shooter” and “Role Playing Game” are at least somewhat self-explanatory. The first is a game where people shoot in first person and the latter is a game where players take on a specific role in a game. Neither is perfect but both at least convey meaning without external reference. We don’t call first person shooters “Doomlikes” and there’s no such things as “Dungeons&CallOfQuesters”. And for good reason! They’re silly and useless monikers.
So what’s to be done? Well we can start by stop calling games by their most surface elements. Headlander is a silly side scrolling adventure game that revels in how base its humor is without ever being crass. Sorry, I know that’s not as simple as “Metroidvania”, but it doesn’t boil the game down to its least interesting facet. While we’re at it, let’s stop obsessing over genre. A game can be a game on its own. Even with homages it doesn’t need to fit nicely in a lineage of other games. Sometimes that’s useful, often it’s noise. Third, let’s start calling all RPGs Dungeons&CallOfQuesters, I really like that one.