We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Start your week here at the NLSC with a feature that’s dedicated to opinions, commentary, and other fun stuff related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games. This week, I’m tipping things off with a discussion of my least favourite buzzword, “cartoonish”.
Fellow basketball gamers, we’ve got to talk. I know that I’ve gone on about this before, in previous articles and on the NLSC Podcast. It’s admittedly hard to broach this subject without sounding like a broken record, a fanboy stamping my feet, or a tyrant aggressively attacking freedom of speech. Hear me out though, because our credibility as a gaming community is at stake here. Alright, that might be a bit of a melodramatic exaggeration, but it is one of our worst habits, and we let ourselves down whenever we fall victim to it.
It’s been run into the ground more than jokes about blowing 3-1 leads, or the Crying Jordan image macro. It’s not making us look smart and knowledgeable about our hobby, even though we absolutely are. It’s tired, lazy, and uninspired. And so, it’s time to do something about it. It’s time to expand our vocabulary. It’s time to learn how to properly critique, instead of relying on snark and overused buzzwords. Quite frankly, it’s time to grow up. It’s time that we retire the word “cartoonish” to describe textures, animations, and other aspects of basketball video games that we don’t like.
As you may have seen, YouTubers who attended EA Play shared gameplay footage of NBA Live 18 taken at the event. Their impressions were generally positive and optimistic, and the footage has been much better received by the community than any NBA Live game in recent memory. While it’s been noted that there are still some animations that look stiff or otherwise not quite right, the general feeling seems to be that there’s been a great deal of improvement. I certainly agree with that assessment; there are some very pleasing moments in those videos, but also a few things that could definitely be better. Predictably, some have described the latter as “cartoonish”.
Hold on, hold on. I know what you’re thinking. There goes Andrew, being an NBA Live fanboy and apologist. Before you roll your eyes and tell me how I’ve lost all credibility, however, let me reiterate that while I do see improvement in the NBA Live 18 gameplay footage and feel very optimistic about what I’m hearing from those who have played it, there are problematic animations. Certain jumpshot animations don’t look quite as smooth as others, and some animations seem to have different speeds, which looks awkward. These are all valid criticisms, but here’s the thing: none of that is explicitly stated or even really implied by the word “cartoonish”.
The issue is not that NBA Live is being criticised, or NBA 2K for that matter; more on Visual Concepts’ game in a moment. It’s that “cartoonish”, at least as a criticism, is such a vague, ill-defined buzzword at this point. Alright, we know that it basically means “it looks like a cartoon”, but what does that really mean? After all, not all cartoons have the same style, tone, and aesthetic. Some cartoons have fluid, life-like movement. Some are CGI. Some are wildly animated, and frequently off-model. Some utilise very limited animation. Some are childish, some are more cerebral and aimed at adults, and some are vulgar. There’s no single type or style of cartoon.
Of course, there is a particular aesthetic that can fairly be described as “cartoonish”. NBA Jam, NBA Street, and more recently NBA Playgrounds, have all utilised stylised player faces, models, and other effects that are more cartoon-like, complementing the unrealistic, arcade style of gameplay. In this instance, “cartoonish” is a good thing, and aptly describes the stylised look and feel of arcade-style basketball games. However, it’s a style we’ve never seen utilised by any sim-oriented title. This means there’s no consistency between the meanings of the word “cartoonish” when it’s used in a complimentary or critical context.
Therefore, when we do use a word like “cartoonish” in a critical context, the only part that’s clear is that we’re not happy with what we’re seeing. We’re not describing the specific problems that we see, nor what we’d prefer to see instead. We’re not offering any kind of useful feedback, or intelligent critique. We’re relying on a disdainful buzzword that basically means whatever we want it to mean. Instead of looking knowledgeable, discerning, and mature, we come off like a stereotypical caricature of a critic, childishly tossing out snark and declaring something to be terrible without explaining why. Ironically, you could say it’s a cartoonish approach to criticism.
Speaking of “cartoonish” meaning whatever we want it to mean, let’s back up and talk about NBA 2K for a moment. NBA 2K’s aesthetics are distinctly different from NBA Live in terms of the lighting effects, body models, and animations. These aspects of NBA 2K are generally praised – at least in comparison to NBA Live – yet I’ve also seen dissatisfied gamers break out “cartoonish” to express their displeasure with them. How can two different styles, one frequently cited as being superior to the other, both be “cartoonish”? Even taking into account that there are different styles of cartoons, once again, the word by itself doesn’t make any sort of distinction.
“Cartoonish” doesn’t get to the heart of a complaint. It doesn’t immediately and explicitly identify what you don’t like about a basketball video game. It doesn’t offer any feedback that a developer could put to good use. It has no consistent attributes, at least when it’s used in a critical sense. It’s lazy, overused, and immature. It only serves the purpose of allowing gamers to make a smug, dismissive judgement about something they dislike. It’s not useful feedback, and it’s not intelligent critique. It’s not even as witty and clever a putdown as a lot of people would like to believe it is, either. If it ever was, it certainly isn’t after being well and truly run into the ground.
The bottom line here is this: what do you actually want to get out of expressing opinions about NBA Live, NBA 2K, or any other basketball video game? Do you want your opinions to be heeded and put to use in making a game better? Or do you just want to trash a game in the hopes that you’ll look witty and smart, and hopefully even upset someone who disagrees? As a community that wants to have good games to play, the former is obviously the wiser and more productive course of action. Of course, even if you do just want to provide snarky commentary about a game, you still might want to find a less played-out and clichéd term than “cartoonish”.
There are other words we tend to overuse, such as “scripted” and “lazy”, and we can also be prone to hyperbolic use of words such as “terrible”. However, “cartoonish” is the worst offender. It fails to properly convey our valid criticisms, which makes us look like we’re unable (or simply unwilling) to express ourselves in an intelligent manner. In turn, that makes it look like we don’t know what we want, or what we’re talking about. At that point, it’s difficult to take us seriously, and frankly, we do have criticisms and concerns that absolutely should be taken seriously. As such, we shouldn’t squander our opportunities to be heard.
We should avoid words like “cartoonish”, not simply because they’re mean or rude – though, that’s admittedly never a good look – but because they’ve become devoid of meaning and usefulness. We need to find better ways of expressing our criticisms and complaints, with words that convey our opinions and suggestions in specific detail. If we instead choose to express ourselves like caricatures of critics, acting like a stereotypical unpleasable fanbase that is never happy but can’t or won’t ever explain why…well, you might just say that we ourselves look a tad cartoonish. In this instance, Springfield’s resident Comic Book Guy springs immediately to mind.