To The Tune of: Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through The Grapevine
Pretending to have read Wittgenstein, I often bang on about how words symbolise ideas, whether coherent or incoherent, and how this association comes about. Following my Red Faction preview on Eurogamer, where I referred to its multiplayer as ‘Horde Mode’, Phill Cameron asked me:
“Just out of curiosity than anger or pedantry or anything, but do you know why ‘horde mode’ has become the vernacular, instead of whatever the many other games that did the game type before it called it?”
“I guess because a) it’s pithy b) it got a lot of play time c) it worked really well d) it’s from a huge franchise. Neologisms work best when everyone understands the reference.”
To explain that in more depth; videogames are excellent non-verbal communicators, alongside paintings, movies and sculpture. Words need to be coined for new ideas drawn from important common stimuli drawn from these objects of perception. Like art, the descriptions the creator puts on something aren’t always the ones that stick; we’re well aware that the cover system most associated with Gears of War (2006) – which has taken the non-game specific title “cover system” – was drawn initially from Kill Switch (2003). This was an awful Namco third-person shooter and the developer called the system “OCS”, standing for offensive cover system, the last bit of which has stuck. However, this wasn’t the first time this system had appeared; it appeared in the arcade shooter Time Crisis (1995) before that, and in Konami’s Devastators (1988).
None of the games before Kill Switch named this system (or if they did, they didn’t communicate with the press or the public); so Kill Switch’s title stuck. However, because the phrase was clunky to deploy, it got edited; I remember it appearing as OCS then offensive cover system in our review for PC Format, then by the time it appeared in Special Forces: Fire for Effect it had already become “cover system”. Now, I imagine many people think Gears of War invented it.
Horde mode is the same; co-op survival modes have been in hundreds of games – Smash TV in the arcades was little else. Arena / static co-op survival has also appeared in a handful of games – Unreal Tournament 2003’s Invasion mode for example, or elements of Left4Dead – but Gears of War 2’s version was so much fun and so popular that it became the standard reference. There was a reference needed because “static co-op survival” might express exactly what the game is, but it’s only needed to communicate that once; after that, we all know what Horde mode is, and we’d rather use the standard, shorter phrase. Many people who’ve played the mode won’t have even thought about it as a genre – horde mode is just a sufficient signifier for them of something they recognise but have never analysed. People know what a Hoover is without knowing that it uses a vacuum to clean.
Given ten years, there will be a generation who’ve never played Gears of War 2 (which will be dated in terms of graphics and gameplay by then), but still recognise the Horde genre, from word of mouth. Mass distribution of a stimulus with an associated name creates neologisms.