Should We Stop Comparing Games To Each Other?
I have a question: when recommending a game to a friend, how do you do it? Do you give them a breakdown of the core gameplay loop or tell them the basic premise of the story? Do you show them a trailer or a let’s play of it? Or do you just say dude trust me and hope that will be enough? While all of these approaches can work, I’ve found the most effective way to convince someone to check out a game is by comparing it to one you know they like that is similar in some regard.
It acts as a simple way to give them an idea of what a title is about while also catering to their interests, as the implication is that because they enjoyed the one game, they’ll enjoy this one as well.
Comparison is a powerful tool, as it taps into things people already have connections to, and because of this, it has easily become one of the most common lenses we use to discuss, evaluate, and analyze games through.
If I am trying to quickly figure out what a title is like, having it put up next to something I am familiar with as a point of reference helps ground my understanding of it.
Really, this is one of the main ways we learn things—by applying existing knowledge to new concepts.
It is in our nature to always be adding to our pool of information so we have more experiences to pull from that help us make sense of the world.
In regards to video games, comparison comes in many different forms and informs the way we talk about games both consciously and unconsciously.
The most overt way it comes up in gaming discourse is through categorization.
Genres are kinda weird, and a lot of them don’t do an adequate job of actually describing what a game is like.
For instance, the action genre contains everything from Uncharted to Hades, which is a massive range.
And, yeah, I can see why both of them could be considered action games on their own, but when lumped together the distinction feels weird and it doesn’t really get to the heart of what they’re like.
Most of the major genres fall into this trap, because games are too complex to be categorized into something as broad as action or first-person shooter or roleplaying game.
To get anywhere close, you need to dive into subgenres, and even then those descriptions often feel lacking as many titles contain elements that could put them in a handful of different categories.
And I think this is partly why creating genres centered around significant games has become so common—it pinpoints what a game feels like to play in a more accurate way than other genre descriptions.
Roguelikes, soulslikes, metroidvanias, Zelda clones, GTA clones, Doom clones—all of these give consumers far more information about what a game will be like than just being told that it’s an action game.
Comparison has seeped into the language we use to talk about games and it comes up constantly, from casual conversations to reviews to trailers and other forms of marketing.
While it does seem like this approach has gotten more popular in recent years, it really has been a part of gaming discourse since the beginning, most notably with the Adventure genre, named after the text-based title Colossal Cave Adventure.
It inspired countless other text-based games and eventually evolved into titles like Grim Fandango and Monkey Island.
These titles weren’t told solely through text but they still shared a lot of the same DNA in terms of solving puzzles through specific interactions with items and the environment.
Now, the issue with the Adventure genre is that it’s almost been 50 years since the original game came out, and the term “adventure” is less associated with the game and more so with the idea of going on a journey and exploring dangerous and exciting places.
Over time it has sort of melded with the general understanding of the word Adventure, so while the genre does still include titles that closer resemble the spirit of the original game, like Life is Strange and Telltale’s The Walking Dead, it also has been co-opted by games that feature grand adventures, which frankly is most of them.
And that is one of the big issues that comes with using a single game as the basis for a genre: as time passes and the original title falls out of relevance, it gets easier to move further away from the original classification.
Now, I don’t think most game-based genres will ever become as nebulous as the Adventure genre has as most aren’t associated with a word as broad as adventure, but I do think all of them have the potential to lose their meaning as time goes on.
This can be pretty clearly seen with the Roguelike genre.
Originally titles with this classification were simply like the game Rogue—turn-based dungeon crawlers with randomized level layouts, powerups that augment the way each run goes, and permadeath that sends players back to the start.
In these kinds of games, the only thing players carry with them from one run to the next is a better understanding of the title’s various systems.
The thing is that this version of the genre is sort of dead.
There are very few modern titles that fit this criteria, but instead of the genre falling into obscurity, the name began to be applied to games that incorporated just some roguelike elements like Spelunky, Binding of Isaac and Rogue Legacy.
These games moved away from Rogue’s turn-based routes among other things, but a lot of folks started to consider them to be roguelikes as well.
This led to a backlash from longtime fans of the genre and eventually the distinction of roguelite was born, which at first was meant to be applied to games that didn’t hold true to the strict criteria of a traditional roguelike.
As time has gone on the popular understanding of both roguelike and roguelite has shifted, where now to a lot of folks the main difference between the two is that, roguelites are centered around permanent character upgrades, where roguelikes aren’t.
Obviously there are still plenty who stick to the original definition, but as there aren’t many traditional roguelikes breaking into the mainstream market, it feels like a losing battle for them.
As for the more modern understanding of the two genres, the distinction between the two is important because the way they handle progression make them play very differently and often draw in separate audiences.
Personally, I really struggle with games that don’t have some sort of persistent progression, so I’ve never really gotten into stuff like Slay The Spire or Spelunky, whereas I have dropped over a hundred hours in Hades because I felt like each run, no matter how horribly I failed, was building to something.
Making these distinctions may seem pedantic, but there are a lot of people who really like one but not the other, so being able to know what they’re getting into is important.
When too many games are put into a single category, it expands the definition of that category, and without proper classifiers, where a genre starts and ends can become unclear.
And I think that is why older fans of roguelikes get so frustrated by the current ways we use the classifications as they don’t really resemble the title the originally fell in love with.
Clearly sing a single game as the basis of a genre doesn’t make it immune to the issues more general classifications have, but as long as the game being referenced is still a popular touchstone, it is more effective than other quick definitions.
However, the mere fact that the games that get used as a comparison point the most often are some of the most beloved titles of all time presents its own problems, mainly with how they can mess with a person’s expectations.
It can be hard for a lot of games to live up to the titles they are compared to regardless of how good they are.
Saying a game is like Shadow of the Colossus carries a lot of weight, and even when that is an accurate description it sets the bar arguably a bit too high because part of what makes Shadow of the Colossus so special was how unique it was, so any game that is said to be like it won’t have the same genre defining magic that it did.
Players setting unrealistic expectations for what a game will be like is further compounded by how these kinds of comparisons, by their nature, are reductive.
Typically, they are centered around both titles sharing a select few traits, and just having a few things in common doesn’t always lead to games feeling the same, which can be met with a fair bit of disappointment.
The reductive nature of these comparisons have other consequences as well.
Especially, when looking at the titles that have turned into genres, what often becomes designated as the core essence of a title is a very narrow slice of what it actually is.
And a lot of these understands have already become how we look at these games.
So when a title is said to be like Dark Souls, the assumption most will make is that it’s hard; if it’s like Zelda, they’ll guess there will be puzzles and dungeons; if it’s like Super Metroid, they’ll expect a large interconnected map that requires getting upgrades in order to progress.
Of course, each of these titles is far more than that; those single elements are not the only or even most important thing about them, but it is what they often get boiled down to when used in gaming discourse.
Even though I do think that simplifying what a game is about in this way causes a handful of issues, I get why it is so difficult to shake.
Like, just describing a game as being hard doesn’t evoke nearly as much emotion as directly comparing it to Dark Souls.
Calling a game is tough doesn’t make me feel much, but saying it is like Dark Souls brings me right back to my 20th attempt against Orenstein and Smough.
Regardless of being understood as meaning the same thing, one is tied to a specific experience while the other is abstract, so it makes sense that people would lean into using the approach that will most likely grab someone’s attention.
Even though it is an effective way to pique someone’s interest, the fact that it strips away other important aspects of a game shouldn’t be ignored as it risks players approaching them with the wrong mindset and causes comparisons to be less robust than they could be.
At the end of the day, all of us are individual beings with our own base of knowledge and experiences that color the way we look at things.
Despite there being some common understandings of what certain comparisons may mean, nothing is definitive, and really it isn’t enough to just look at the two things being compared; it’s also important to look at the person making the comparison.
Knowing what they value and how they look at things is a vital piece of information.
Games are massive endeavors that can be similar to each other in a multitude of ways, and the aspects that any given player will connect to most can vary immensely from person to person, which undoubtedly impacts what they view the core of a game to be.
For instance, consider Elden Ring.
It is a title with a massive scope that combines a ton of familiar ideas together to create an experience that is really unlike any game before it.
In order to liken it to other titles, you pretty much need to hone in on 1 of its major aspects instead of the game as a whole, and when doing so, people are most likely going to view things through the lens of what was most important to them.
So for those who love the combat and bosses, they would obviously say it is like other FromSoft games as well stuff like Jedi: Fallen Order and Nioh which all have a heavy focus on difficult combat.
For those who feel most attached to the open-world, they may say it’s similar to The Witcher 3, Red Dead Redemption 2, or Ghost of Tsushima as all of them have sizable maps to explore and get lost in.
For those who dig its approach to storytelling, they may say to check out Hollow Knight or even Journey due to how they tell their stories through their environments and cryptic messages hidden around the world.
Personally, the aspect of Elden Ring that I resonate with most is the sense of freedom that comes from how it’s main quest and world are structured, so I would compare it to stuff like A Short Hike, Outer Wilds, and Breath of the Wild, as despite the majority of those titles barely resembling Elden Ring in terms of gameplay or aesthetic, they gave me the same feeling while playing—one where I was rewarded for curiosity and driven by the joy of discovery.
Depending on what matters to a person, Elden Ring can be like a lot of games.
The comparisons I make may be entirely different than the ones someone else does, and without the full context of why I view it the way I do, the games I see as being similar could make absolutely no sense to others.
When these kinds of comparisons are used in a setting that has space to go into detail, like a conversation between friends or a longfrom video, it is easy enough for an individual to elaborate on what a comparison is trying to accomplish, making it easier to get the full point across.
However, that isn’t how we encounter most comparisons of this nature; a lot of the time, they are presented and also consumed with little to no context.
Online, we are constantly bombadared by tweets and headlines that don’t have the space to examine nuances or intricacies, and many on-lookers never take the time to actually look into the deeper context by starting a conversation or reading an article, instead just reacting to the tiny bit of information they did see.
Even in formats like reviews and video essays that do have the space to explain things further, many creators seem to assume that the comparisons they make will be understood by everyone, too often leaving complex ideas unexplored and unexplained, putting it on the audience to try to guess what was meant, leaving the door open for comparisons to be misunderstood.
Comparisons of this nature aren’t an exact science, and the reality is we are all too caught up in our own experiences to ever agree on an objective definition of what makes up a genre Especially ones that are hastily put together like soulslikes.
When it comes to gaming discourse, especially in the online space, people mostly operate on vibes, so comparisons will always be rooted in their experience.
The trend of describing a title as being “like x” has become so popular because it’s easy.
It can get across a solid amount of information in a somewhat concise way—and even though it leaves a lot of room for misunderstanding, it takes far less effort than trying to fully explain what a game is like.
The fancy term to describe why this happens is heuristics which essentially are the mental shortcuts we use to make decisions and come to conclusions without having to use an abundance of brainpower.
There are various forms of heuristics but all of them in some way are about simplifying information.
We strive to find the familiar in a thing, and reach for things to compare it to regardless of whether or not that comparison makes all that much sense.
And really this goes beyond just classifying games; it also impacts our perception of stuff we play, oftentimes on a subconscious level.
For instance, one of the most common forms of heuristics is the availability heuristic, which is when we use easy to recall information to inform our thought process.
One of the ways this takes form is by comparing experiences that happen in close proximity to each other, even if the comparison doesn’t make all that much sense.
For instance, I played Ghost of Tsushima right after finishing The Last of Part II, and during the first major battle I remember feeling that the way Ghost portrayed violence almost seemed comical.
Through playing The Last of Us Part II, I had grown used to every combat encounter being a display of brutality—so much weight is given to every fight, and the most reliable way of taking out enemies is by getting up close and personal, which is when that weight is felt the most.
There is an almost claustrophobic sense to how violence is utilized in The Last of Us Part II, so going from that to Ghost of Tsushima where the camera is pulled out a bit more and Jin is able to cut through enemies with ease felt jarring.
It took me a while before I could take the game seriously because of that disconnect.
The ironic thing is that Ghost of Tsushima is incredibly gruesome in its own right, and its depiction of violence plays a major and powerful role in the story, but when subconsciously comparing it to my experience with The Last of Us Part II, it didn’t feel nearly as consequential.
An even odder example of this happened to me when I was learning how to do a 16-star speedrun of Super Mario 64 around the same time I was replaying Breath of the WIld.
Spending pretty much any moment just running during a 16-star run is a waste of time, so for the most part players will always be chaining together long jumps and dives to move around the world as quickly as possible.
Through that constant repetition of playing the same levels over and over, trying to chain moves together, I got used to the feeling of always propelling my character forward, so whenever I would switch over to Breath of the Wild, I found myself getting frustrated by the lack of movement options.
I wanted to long jump with Link so badly, despite it not being a mechanic that has ever been a part of a 3D Zelda game.
Not intentionally at least.
Comparing the movement of a Mario game to a Zelda game is a silly thing to do as the two are trying to achieve wildly different things, but it is a comparison my brain couldn’t help but make because of how much time I was spending trying to learn how to play Mario 64 efficiently.
These sorts of comparisons happen for me all the time—in fact, years ago I made a whole video about what the Mass Effect series could learn from Darkest Dungeon, which stemmed from me being frustrated that Mass Effect’s combat didn’t provide long term consequences in the way Darkest Dungeon’s did, and I never would have thought to make it if I hadn’t been playing the two at the same time.
Comparisons like this aren’t necessarily good or bad; they’re just something that happens.
Looking back at that video, I think it discusses some interesting ideas, and while at the end of the day it is a video of me pitching an impossible to make game, it was a fun thought experiment; I mostly just wish I had recognized why I was comparing them at the time.
I try to be conscious about how my recent experiences may affect each other, but it can be surprisingly easy to miss.
Frankly, I think knowing the title a reviewer played before the one they are actually reviewing has a surprising amount of value to it.
It helps give a little more context about the lens they used to look at a game.
Now with everything I’ve talked about so far, the focus has been on the ways comparison influences our experiences with and understandings of games, but there is another way that comparison is frequently used in gaming discourse that barely has anything to do either of those things; and that of course is comparing games to determine which one is the best.
It’s a pretty natural urge to want the games that you like to be considered good by other people.
When you feel connected to a title, there is a strange sense of ownership that comes with it, and for a lot of people, this ends up taking the form of arguing with others about whose favorite games are better, regardless of if comparing them actually makes any sense.
It is a part of gaming culture.
From Game of the Year awards to tierlists to fights deep within twitter threads, we constantly put games up against each other, and it is a way of talking about games that people can’t seem to get enough of.
Like,its been 4 years, and I still see people pitting God of War 2018 up against Red Dead Redemption 2 just because they came out around the same time, but aside from both having some cinematic qualities, they really have nothing in common, so arguing about which is better feels weird because they are trying to do different things.
These kinds of discussions don’t really add value to the greater gaming landscape but people like to have them because they’re kinda fun.
Going to bat for games you like can feel good especially when other people join in and validate your position.
Unfortunately it does lead to a ridiculous amount of fanboy toxicity, which, ya know, isn’t great.
While I get people being passionate about the games they like,, there is a way to express that without putting other games or people down.
The amount of times I’ve seen people come out with takes like “Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is better than Persona 5” or “Sonic is better than Mario” is staggering, and I always walk away being like “okay, but why?” Why measure how much you like a thing by comparing it to something else that really isn’t even that similar? For the most part, I think it stems from the idea of people wanting their favorite things to be widely considered as the best, and when they see something else get more praise, they take it personally and frame their feelings about the game they adore in relation to the one they don’t.
Because of the strong connection with the game they love, many feel like anything perceived as an attack on it is personal.
I also just think some people really like to shit talk, and enjoy ruffling feathers.
Overall, this isn’t meant to be a condemnation of these kinds of comparisons.
Obviously, you shouldn’t be toxic about it, but just having the urge to make them is understandable.
To be clear, I’m guilty of doing it, both in videos and private conversations.
Just recently I played Symphony of the Night for the first time, and when I finished it, I actively had to stop myself from tweeting that Super Metroid was better.
In fairness, I think this sort of comparison makes a bit more sense than others as the two share a lot of the same DNA.
There is a good conversation to be had about why certain aspects worked in Super Metroid and didn’t in Symphony of the Night.
A comparison like this could also be useful for someone who hasn’t played either and wants to know which is worth spending their time and money on, but if I’m being honest, my impulse to make that tweet wasn’t so I could have a bigger conversation about it or help inform potential buyers; it was to make a pithy remark about how a classic I’ve liked for awhile is superior to a different classic that I thought was just okay.
To be honest, it’s an ugly instinct, and adds confrontation to a space that really doesn’t need any more than it already has.
Now, I don’t expect comparisons like this to stop; they often come from an emotional place that is difficult to filter.
Also, ya know, the internet is a constant in our lives now and there will always be a wealth of people looking to get a rise out of someone else.
However, I do think it’s important to recognize that these kinds of comparisons aren’t all that effective of a way to have a better understanding of games; they mostly are just a way to find validation from either like minded people and spend some time arguing with those whose opinion differs.
Ultimately, comparison is pretty much unavoidable.
We’re hardwired to do it, and trying to avoid comparing things really only makes life more difficult.
By no means am I trying to advocate for people to stop comparing games to each other.
I’m gonna keep doing it; however, I think it’s important to be aware of how comparison affects us—how it influences the ways we think and talk about games.
It is a tool that can be extremely useful but also without proper consideration can get in the way of good communication.
There are a lot of reasons why that matters, but one of the biggest is that the language around games is still so young, and we are coming up with new terms and classifications relatively rapidly.
The way we talk about games now will have an impact on how people talk about them in the future, so the more thoughtful we are, the better games and discussions around them can be in the longrun.
But also, ya know, I’m not your dad; compare Dark Souls to Kirby for all I care—I can’t stop you.
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