Remember when “clone” wasn’t a term of scorn when discussing a video game?
When people first started saying thing like “Saints Row is a clone of Grand Theft Auto III,” it was actually conveying useful information. Considering the sheer number of games available and the tendency for a new game to closely emulate previous games with a few changes, “X-clone” can often be more descriptive than a simple genre listing. Sure, both New Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog 4 are side-scrolling platformers, but saying that a game is a clone of New Super Mario Bros. provides far more relevant information about how the game plays.
Not that it matters any more, because if you call something a clone of another game, the implication is that it’s a bad game. Because calling things clones has fallen victim to an odd part of discussing games, where we as a culture somehow manage to create and then destroy the terminology we would use to discuss this stuff. It happens everywhere given time, but when it comes to game our new terminology seems to have a half-life of ten minutes before it becomes totally useless.
Clone is hardly the only casualty here, of course. There’s the ubiquitous “pay-to-win” in online gaming, complete with people coming up with endless contortions about what the term means and completely avoiding the discussion that it was meant to generate regarding games selling raw power. “Nerf” at one point meant something other than simply “my pet character’s power level was diminished.” Heck, there was a time when you could talk about turtling as a valid strategy for play in certain games, whereas now it’s basically seen as an insult to hurl at someone who’s playing defensively at all.
All of these are useful concepts. But over-application dulls the meaning until it becomes more or less personal.
A nerf, in its earliest use, described a drop in power that effectively neutered a given class, weapon, character, or whatever. The comparison was drawn to the popular brand of toy weaponry, obviously; imagine if your guns in a shooter were replaced with Nerf guns while your opponents still had normal guns. Sometimes, in an effort to make a previously overpowered character more balanced, the developers could go overboard and completely kill that character’s ability to accomplish anything.
The problem is that most players talking about changes are not, in fact, good at judging the overall balance of the environment. Any reduction in power is called a nerf now, even if the reduction does nothing to remove overall viability. Hell, at this point improving another weapon or character is somehow called a nerf, simply because the breakout power level of the original isn’t nearly as noteworthy. The term gets thrown about so often that the situation that it was originally meant to describe now requires people to qualify their statements to hell and back or use a different term.
Despite the fact that, you know, the whole reason the original term was created was to describe a specific situation which is still being discussed.
This isn’t about terms which have changed meaning over time. People will sometimes bemoan that in the early days of MMOs, the holy trinity didn’t refer to tank, healer, and DPS, but that is what it refers to now, and the core meaning of that term – a set of three main archetypes with clearly defined roles – hasn’t shifted at all. What this is about is when a term becomes so overused and so bandied about that not only does the original meaning get lost, but there’s no longer any meaning to it. If I hear someone talk about a nerf, I have to then go do the research to see whether it’s an actual nerf, a slight power decrease, or really just a solid balancing job.
One of the marvelous parts about being involved with video games at this point is that it’s still a young field. The terminology isn’t set in stone yet, and there are lots of opportunities for making up new terms and seeing them be accepted in widespread use. That kind of erodes, though, when the terms in question quickly get shut away just because the definition gets watered down to uselessness. If I have to spend time defining what I mean by “pay-to-win,” I am officially wasting the time of my audience, because I could be spending that time discussing why that term belongs (or doesn’t) anywhere near the game in question.
To some extent, this is inevitable. Everything subjective from a far enough vantage point, and no matter how clear you might think it is that a game’s business model does or doesn’t allow for free players to actually advance, there’s always someone willing to argue it as a corner case. You can’t exactly blame people for using new terminology “wrong,” either; words shift over time, we all know that, and these are new terms coined for various reasons anyway.
But at the same time, it creates this oddly reductive effect where we have to keep working around negative connotations of words to mean something that the original usage already meant. Instead of making it easier to understand what we’re talking about, it’s harder. I can’t say that a game is a Grand Theft Auto clone, but have to fall back on wider genre terms that don’t necessarily say much about the game itself. Sure, there are games that are nothing more than a transparent pastiche of the source material, but there are an awful lot of games that technically read as cones but are functionally very different experiences.
Can we do anything about it? Not really. As long as we keep talking about these things, they’re going to be battered into submission. The best we can individually do is try to think a little bit before we batter words into having no meaning beyond what we choose to personally assign them. Sure, it might be satisfying to say that your favorite character got nerfed, but choosing another term has the advantage of not making people roll your eyes and ignore you when you’re trying to bring attention to an actual balance issue.