“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare once wrote. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” He was, of course, talking about the blood feud between two warring families, and the thirteen-year-old daughter of the Capulet family wishing that her crush could be called something other than Montague so she can smooch him in the open.
He probably wasn’t also referring to the somewhat common (and slightly annoying) practice in games of describing a video game by comparing it to another game, since video games weren’t even invented until a few years after his death. This practice is frowned upon by many readers, and some journalists, too, and yet we persist in calling games “Stardew-likes”, or writing about a new game by calling it a “spiritual successor” to some other game that everyone knows.
It frustrates people, because it feels lazy and stupid, and I get it. Why can’t a game stand on its own? Why does every farming-adjacent game get compared to Stardew Valley, when Stardew Valley was copying Harvest Moon in the first place? Why are there so many card-based roguelikes on the market, and why do they all get compared to Slay The Spire? And worse still, why do some games refer to themselves by another game’s name in their marketing, especially if their game is nowhere near as good?
Well, usually I’d use these Soapboxes to wax lyrical about something great or go off on a rant about something terrible, but today, I’d like to do a bit of an explainer on why game journalism, more than any other type of journalism, has this problem with describing games by referencing other games — and why we might just have to put up with it, because it’s actually good for you.
Much ado about nothing
Shakespeare may not have been talking about video games when he wrote that line in Romeo and Juliet, but I’m going to borrow his quote anyway, because he’s dead and can’t do anything about it. What is in a name, when it comes to a game? Some games have fairly descriptive titles, like Flappy Bird, and some are much harder to parse, like DOOM, even if they do give you a sense of the game’s tone. But even the descriptive ones don’t tell you much about what they’re about, or how to play them.
Dragon Age Origins? That’s about dragons, and possibly medieval stuff, and maybe history. Murder By Numbers? A murder mystery, featuring numbers, somehow. Monster Train? Well, that sounds like a Pixar film, but presumably there’s a train, and one or more monsters. But you wouldn’t know that those are an RPG, a puzzley visual novel, and a roguelike deckbuilder from the titles.
You can’t tell much from a game’s title, and nor should you
“But Kate,” you say. “Shakespeare also said, “thou must not judgest a book by its title”, did he not?” You are right, dear reader. In Shakespeare’s Henry V Goes To The Library, there is a scene in which Henners is chided by the librarian (played memorably by Dame Judi Dench in the most famous adaptation) for not wanting to read Charles Dickens because it is a “booke for babies”.
And yes, it’s true — you can’t tell much from a game’s title, and nor should you. That’s usually where genres and descriptions come in. Let’s have a look at The Witcher 3 as an example:
You are Geralt of Rivia, mercenary monster slayer. At your disposal is every tool of the trade: razor-sharp swords, lethal mixtures, stealthy crossbows, and powerful combat magic. Before you stands a war-torn, monster-infested continent you can explore at will. Your current contract? Tracking down the Child of Prophecy, a living weapon that can alter the shape of the world.
Yeah, okay! I’m Geralt. I kill monsters. I’m looking for a child who is also a weapon. Sounds rad. But AAA blockbuster games with stories, Netflix adaptations, and entire franchises built around them are easy to identify, even if you’ve never played them.
Let’s try an indie game instead, like Dicey Dungeons:
In this new fast-paced deckbuilding roguelike from Terry Cavanagh, Chipzel, and Marlowe Dobbe, you’ll fight monsters, find better loot, and level up your heroes as you work together to take down the Goddess of Fortune, Lady Luck herself. Balance your carefully planned strategies against the unknown of a dice roll.
Hmmm! A little tougher to nail down, especially with no prior knowledge of Terry Cavanagh’s work (VVVVVV, Super Hexagon). Perhaps you know what a deckbuilder is, and maybe you know what a roguelike is, too. That helps — but doesn’t tell you much. Deckbuilders range from games like Slay The Spire to games like Hearthstone, and roguelikes span the width between Pokémon Mystery Dungeon and Hades.
So at this point, having checked the developers’ descriptions and the Wikipedia page, you turn to reviews, or write-ups from journalists and/or content creators, to see what they think of the game and get a better idea of what it is. But they keep using other games to describe it. You might come away from this research feeling like journalists and content creators have only played four games — Minecraft, Stardew Valley, Dark Souls, and Slay The Spire — and every other game to them is just a different-flavoured version of one of those four.
We need to rely on your prior knowledge of games
But games are this incredibly hard-to-nail down medium, thanks to their interactivity. You can’t know anything about a game until you play it. You can watch the trailer, or even watch someone else playing it, and have no idea what it’s like for you to play it, especially because streamers are quite self-selecting. For example, I’m rubbish at Dark Souls, but people who stream Dark Souls tend to be quite good at it and enjoy it a lot, so that doesn’t give me a good idea of how I might find it.
So, if titles don’t help, descriptions can only do so much, genres are stupid, and people whose job it is to show off games can’t show you what it’s like to actually play a game, we’re left with only one option:
We need to rely on your prior knowledge of games.
This is all your fault, actually
You probably know what it’s like to play Minecraft, or Stardew Valley, or Dark Souls, or Slay The Spire — those are some of the most popular games out there, so they’re easy reference points, just like how everyone’s seen Chicago, so you can use that to gauge if someone will enjoy other musicals. Did you enjoy Stardew Valley? Ah, well, you’ll probably enjoy this game, which is like Stardew, but with alchemy. You liked Minecraft? Check out this sandbox builder, which is like Minecraft, but with a story/cats/sentient office supplies.
If you’ve ever used terms like “Orwellian”, “Kafka-esque”, and “Lovecraftian”, you’re doing exactly the same thing
And speaking from experience, it’s flippin’ HARD to describe a game in enough detail to get people interested as it is. It’s even harder to do that in the title of an article, which usually has to be a certain length, and that length is around 15 words or less. Honestly, are you more likely to click on an article that describes something as “an open-world role-playing action-adventure game”, or one that says “this game is like Breath of the Wild”? You’d probably click on the second one, because it hooks you in with something you can immediately associate with a positive experience. The other one is just hyphenated word salad.
(Oh, and by the way — it’s not like it’s only games that do this. If you’ve ever used terms like “Orwellian”, “Kafka-esque”, and “Lovecraftian”, you’re doing exactly the same thing. It just sounds cooler.)
Listen, us journalists don’t love doing it. I feel a little icky every time I describe something as a Zelda-meets-Stardew, and that comparison comes up surprisingly often. It makes me feel as though I am being reductive about the game I’m talking about, while at the same time making it look like I have only played a handful of games, and I am an idiot (I promise I’m not). But at the end of the day, I want people to read about these games — not because it lines my pockets (I get paid the same whether you read it or not), but because I care about indie games quite a lot. And the best way to get people’s attention and interest is… to appeal to things they already like.
Some day we will all become Stardew-likes
At this point, describing games with other games is a sign of how broken the industry can be, like that one pothole outside your house that just keeps getting worse. We all see it happening, we all accept that it’s part of how game marketing and writing work, but it shouldn’t be — and unlike the pothole, it’s no one’s problem to fix, really. It’s such a weird thing that’s specific to games, and it can cause problems, from minor issues like a game riding on the coattails of another, to larger ones, like copyright violations, and that’s on top of making readers think that all game journalists are stupid.
But with an industry this young, this new, and this hard to describe, what else can you do? Maybe the eventual singularity will turn us all into Stardew-likes, and then we’ll finally have to come up with a new name for it. Or maybe we just need a game journalist incarnation of Shakespeare, so they can make up some new words for us. Did you know he invented the word “unreal”? We wouldn’t have Unreal Engine without ol’ Shakey. He’d fit right in.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this silly, annoying, necessary foible of game journalism, even if you disagree — so tell me in the comments!