The pretentious academics worship the almighty MLA formatting, and I am no exception. It’s a useful system that dictates how one should format papers and arguments, and it’s something I still follow despite having waved goodbye to college English classes two years ago.
But as a worshipper of the almighty, secular MLA formatting, I often wonder how it applies to the video game medium, which is both new and extremely expansive.
Let us turn to books first, for they offer easy examples.
Novels, novellas, anthologies, magazines, newspapers, plays, epic poetry, and anything deemed “a book” are italicized in proper MLA formatting. This spans the entirety of fiction to encyclopedias, to dictionaries, and to those giant, hard-cover textbooks that contain an excerpt from everything ever written that English classes require you own.
Smaller pieces of work are put in “Quotation Marks.” This includes chapter titles to books, poems, short stories, article titles in newspapers and magazines, named play sections, and song names.
The point of this formatting isn’t to determine quality; it exists merely to quickly and efficiently show the type and length of something. It displays an academic hierarchy that can be easily grasped so confusion does not exist when an argument is being…well, argued!
We can apply this to other forms of media as easily. For example, the name of a record is in Italics while song titles are in “Quotation Marks.”
And because I wouldn’t want to forget the almighty cinema/television industry: names of shows are in Italics while individual episodes are in “Quotation Marks;” meanwhile, films and documentaries are in Italics but short films are in “Quotation Marks.”
So, how does this work for video games?
The point of this MLA formatting is to easily distinguish length and subcategories, yet video games don’t easily apply to such rigid formations. When one tries to force them into behaving like proper, scholarly gentlemen, they refuse.
The Last of Us is a lengthy, narrative game with a big budget made by a prolific studio. But what about Journey? Here is a much smaller game with a much smaller budget and made by a studio that lacks the house-hold name Naughty Dog possesses. My gut reaction is to put “Journey” in quotation marks because of its length and scope, but that doesn’t quite feel right.
If Journey needs to be in quotation marks for length, then what of Vanquish which is an equally short game yet made with a rather large budget and all the flash one expects from the big-game side of the industry?
A director and his small team of actors are not going to spend millions of dollars on a ten-minute short film, yet a video game studio will easily spend millions of dollars on a six hour video game. Given that, it is difficult to compare the two.
Sometimes big-budget games are short because that’s all that’s required of them. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when setting up a comparison ratio, Skyrim: Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes doesn’t seem to equate with Django Unchained: “Keep Calm and Flutter On.” Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is reportedly a two-hour game, but that’s still much bigger—in every sense of the word—than an episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
(Though Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is already an odd example given that it’s a prologue to Metal Gear Solid: Phantom Pain and perhaps should be in quotation marks for being a smaller part of the whole.)
If we are going by video game length only, that still leaves us in a quandary. Where does something like Super Hexigon fit in? Super Hexigon is by all accounts, a short game, and yet the longer you survive, the longer the game gets. There’s the potential for infinity to it. This line of thinking encompasses all arcade style games, from Galaga to Flappy Bird.
And what of Angry Birds which is a small, mobile game yet filled to the brim with levels and even downloadable-content packs? Angry Birds is small, yet it is quite large all the same.
How does this apply to older games like Sonic 2 or Super Mario Brothers which are really only a few hours long due to hardware constraints? Both are as long as they can realistically be, and at the time of release, both were considered big games.
If we were to find an arbitrary cutoff point for length, many of the old classics would fall into the same category as short stories, chapter titles, and episode titles, yet they do not feel that way. Even after all these years, Super Mario Brothers feels like a big game despite its short runtime.
Up until now, I’ve only considered the single player aspect to video games in my line of thinking, but of course many video games possess more than their singular single player campaign. How do we factor in multiplayer?
Battlefield 4 isn’t a long game, yet its multiplayer components are huge and will keep players occupied for hundreds of hours. The same can be said for any of the Super Smash Brothers games, all of which have nothing more than tutorial-styled single player campaigns and then shine brightly in the multiplayer department. I’ve clocked over 500 hours into Super Smash Brothers: Melee.
Games like Team Fortress 2, Counterstrike, and Titanfall muddy the waters even more by only having online play, yet I wouldn’t consider any of them small enough for quotation marks.
I could continue to grasp for examples of large games with small runtimes, small games with large runtimes, and everything in between. I haven’t even touched on replayability, which needs to be factored in as replaying a video game is much different than rewatching a movie or rereading a book.
The entire medium is a categorical mess!
If you’ve made it this far and are wondering why I’ve spent so many words on a stupid thought experiment, then consider this: The variety of video games is so completely great and insane that normal defining conventions don’t apply to it. Genre types are shared throughout every artistic medium, but the delivery method of video games is so different that old ways of looking at them simply don’t work.
I’ve always considered the potential possibilities for movies and novels and plays to be limitless, for the imagination is a powerful tool of creation, and then I look at video games and wonder how far limitless really is.
Because the difference between Audiosurf and Gears of War seems so much bigger than the difference between “Fire and Ice” and The Stand, and those examples barely scratch the surface of what the video game medium has to offer.