"Everyone probably knows what roguelikes are, right? I used to have to explain that, but now I don't, which is kinda cool." The innocuous question, posed by designer Keith Burgun during one of the talks at the 2013 PRACTICE conference, was directed to an audience of professional and student game designers, as well as people otherwise interested in the discipline. The room responded with a silence that confirmed, indeed, that this bit of knowledge was commonly held by the assembled crowd.

For the briefest of split seconds, I actually considered raising my hand and outing myself: I am an impostor in your midst. I have no idea what a roguelike is. It was high school geometry class all over again, and I still didn't know the answers.

It was about a year ago when I began to seriously contemplate exhuming a long interred dream of my youth: working, in some capacity, in the video game industry. At the time that this dream was among the living visions I had for my future life of impossibly far-away adulthood, I imagined that I would like to be a designer or perhaps a producer. But life had other plans

Finally, more than a decade on, I am returning to my first love, reacquainting myself with its broad features and learning more about the discipline and medium. In the course of this new and heretofore autodidactic enterprise, I've read a lot: digital media scholarship that is canonical and on the frontiers alike, books on incorporating ethical play and values in game design, game design primers, and personal essays on player experience.  

Yet as an aspiring designer and critic, nothing has given me the distinct pleasure engendered by page 135 of Clara Fernández-Vara's recently published Introduction to Game Analysis:

"Games such as Rogue are famous for generating most of their content procedurally—this also means that it may not be possible to complete the game, since the levels generated are not optimized or play-tested to be completed. Games that use this approach to design are called roguelike, and include the so-called dungeon crawlers such as Diablo."


This small snippet is emblematic of what makes Fernández-Vara's book such a wonderful resource: it's commitment to taking as little for granted as possible. Among its stated goals are "to make the tools of academic analysis more accessible to everyone" and "to encourage everyone with an interest in games to learn more about them and produce thoughtful reflections" in order to realize a more sophisticated discourse on the medium. This is largely, though not exclusively, framed in terms of scholarly exercise; more specifically, the tone of the book is unequivocally that of a professor addressing undergraduate students, although its lessons are undoubtedly useful to those pursuing advanced degrees or completely removed from academe. 

The meat and potatoes of the book is its survey of three different areas that may serve as sites for analytical writing in games: the context, defined as "the circumstances in which the game is produced and played, as well as other texts and communities that may relate to it;" game overview, "the content, the basic features that distinguish the game from others, and how it has been read, appropriated, and modified by different audiences;" and formal elements, "how the text is constructed, the pieces that make it up." Each of these is in turn unpacked into smaller, discrete, and interlocking elements. Indeed, the various aspects of game analysis that Introduction to Game Analysis seeks to introduce readers to is wide-ranging indeed: from orienting oneself for meaningful and conscientious play to proper theoretical grounding, from cognizance of genre history to sound research methodology to myriad other topics. 

The purpose and presumed audience of the book—a survey and guide to thinking and writing analytically about games for those with little prior experience doing so—necessarily demands that breadth takes precedence over depth in some areas, such as in its treatment of the various theoretical frameworks referenced throughout. Yet if one looks at the copious notes and suggested reading, Fernández-Vara's book is a veritable gold mine for those seeking a pathway into more intellectually rigorous and satisfying contemplation of the games we play. 

Introduction to Game Analysis is a triumph—with its lucid prose unencumbered by arcane academic jargon (save for that which the author actually takes time to explain), Fernández-Vara has made cracked the gate of sophisticated discourse on video games, from within ivory towers or without, appreciably wider. I highly recommend it.

AuthorAustin Branion