The Unofficial Prima Strategy Guide to Submitting to ZEAL
How to Avoid Writings Things We Have Absolutely Read Before And Instead Write Things We Would Like To Read In the Future
ZEAL has been going for over three years and it continues to be as weird and messy as we always dreamed it would be. We get a lot of submissions, and sometimes we get things too close to what we’ve already published or not fully developed enough for us to publish and keep ZEAL weird. We want you to keep trying though, so we put together this submission guidelines as a quick guide to what we’re looking for (and what we’re not looking for).
These aren’t hardset rules by any means, but are the product of many editorial sessions where we noticed the same issues arising, and a helpful way to hopefully inspire and encourage people to develop strong pitches.
1. Trans Headcanons Make for Great Tweets
But they don’t really make for great essays!
This is our first guideline because, simply, we see this topic a lot! We published an excellent piece back in the day from Eva Problems on the subject of Dark Sun Gwyndolin’s contested readings within the fandom, and we recently ran an excellent post-mortem of Silent Hill: Homecoming from Vrai Kasier which included trans readings as part of a larger discussion of fan narratives created to salvage the critically-panned franchise installment.
However, as an overall discussion, trans headcanons have become a trope of queer writing about (oftentimes corporate produced) games, narratives, and texts, one that finds audiences everywhere and platforms anywhere. Which goes against the ZEAL spirit of giving host to writing and ideas and criticism that is harder to come by through other outlets!
Consequently, we’re less enthusiastic about seeing the topic repeated, and specifically disinterested in debates around canon, because canon is all made up (sometimes by people who don’t know what trans people are). Death of the author, remember? This isn’t to say there aren’t ways to broach the topic that are far less specific than “this character is XYZ”; Colin Spacetwinks wrote about customizing bodies in Armored Core and it touches on the same themes without overreaching, as did Iris Jay in their comic on power fantasy and bodily destruction in SUPERHOT. Give us some new angles, look at what in the text gives itself to these headcanons, and extrapolate from there about larger themes that are introspective, relevant, unique, unintentional, or just plain interesting!
2. “Strong Marginalized Characters” Should Be More Than Free Advertising
If you want to write an essay about a character you think is important or relate to, we have to know why you do, but also why that matters. “Strong marginalized characters” are often written very shallowly, very broadly, and usually by people from outside those communities giving a rough approximation of what “they” are like. There isn’t anything wrong with identifying with them, or with being excited to see any type of mirroring of yourself in a game, but ZEAL is about digging deeper into criticism of the way we are depicted, and what we can get out of the images we do find.
A checklist of strong or independent character traits doesn’t make a fictional character interesting, relatable, or worth talking about. This is especially important given ZEAL’s long-standing disdain for “representation” as a means whereby low-risk and low-effort “representations” are valued above difficult, personal, sometimes controversial characters written by marginalized people.
“She’s a girl who kicks ass!” isn’t interesting. “She’s as disgusting and irredeemable as a male action hero and that makes me feel like as a woman I don’t have to be flawless” is way more interesting because you’re taking that statement of fact and going somewhere with it, but that’s still just a start! Lillian Everette wrote for us about the complicated ways Gravity Rush did and didn’t offer a message of female empowerment; in a more abstract way, this comic from Rory Frances discussed gay relationships through his identification with Star Fox’s protagonists.
3. Sex Isn’t Real
Submissions can be about sex! Sex is cool. We know, or assume, you’ve had it. To make a good submission about it, though, we need to know why you’re telling us about it, and why the readers need to know. This isn’t just an issue of being TMI; discussing your sex life, especially if you’re marginalized writer, can be empowering, but our audience is largely familiar with these kinds of works and writers can oftentimes feel like they must divulge or include details about how they “do it”— and it’s pretty easy to feel like you’re just humblebragging under that kind of framework.
You can, for example, talk about processing your sexuality through sublimation, as Nero O’Reilly did for us recently. or about the pressures of performing an appropriately “feminine” sexuality, as Gaby Lax did in her write-up of otome games. Sex can be wrapped up in trauma and trust issues, as Rory Frances explores in Boys Are Slapstick, or it can be intertwined in what you need to survive, as Remy Boydell & Michelle Perez recount in The Pervert. This kind of framing drastically changes the discussion of sex from “yeah, I do it,” to a more interesting exploration of what “doing it” actually means to us (and you!) socially.
As a side note, you don’t have to be any more confessional of your own experiences than you want — there’s a tendency to push queer writers to justify themselves by exposing their selves, so think about if it’s good for the essay or good for yourself before doing it.
4. The Dark Souls Rule (And The Five Year Rule)
If it’s a major release from, say, the past five years (barring games that absolutely fucking dropped off the face of the Earth) or a cult classic, it’s probably been talked about to death. These games either have been mined heavily for hot takes, criticisms, close readings, and post-mortems, or are still fresh enough in the public consciousness that there’s still constantly new angles being written about them.
We call this our “Dark Souls Rule” because of how often we’ve received pitches about the Dark Souls series of games — not that this is always bad, as we occasionally also get good perspectives (Kate R. wrote on hacking Dark Souls 2 specifically for her piece defending cheating in games). One of ZEAL’s biggest drives is looking at weird games, forgotten games, obscure games, and novel games. Don’t tell us why this major franchise title is important, or how the title that ends up on every “Forgotten Gems” listicle is a forgotten gem — you set yourself to be lost in a sea of similar pitches, rant videos, and thinkpieces.
This is a pretty hard no from us unless you’re talking about the weirdest and most ignored part of the game (if you can convince me the soundtrack in and of itself is gay, or tell us an important story about its developers or community for instance). Some good examples of this would be Zolani Stewart’s exhaustive academic breakdown of (at the time) funny meme Sonic ’06, or Ruben Ferdinand’s love letter to the (at the time) lesser-examined works of Nier:Automata figurehead Yoko Taro.
5. The Bayonetta Rule
If it’s already been the subject of major discourse, or Feminist Debate, you have to have a REALLY strong or interesting point to make for us to be interested. Bayonetta was a hugely contested topic on “Feminism or nah?”, and while that’s an exciting discussion to see, it’s also one that we saw everywhere. Generally, this is another hard pass for us as it compounds the issues of #2 and #4; if, however, someone wanted to examine Bayonetta through the lens of, say, Susan Sontag’s Notes on “Camp”, that is the kind of perspective that we like people to bring to the table.
Overall, however, simply examining whether a text is or isn’t feminist is too reductive of a focus for ZEAL — though we absolutely encourage feminist critique (or discussions of, oftentimes unintended, feminist messaging) to be part of an examination of a text.
6. ABS: Always Be Screenshotting
Save us some work! If you can’t take screenshots, source them from a video walkthrough, and be sure to include a link within the piece. You are the best resource for what scenes, moments, pictures are the most illustrative of what you’re looking at — even if you send us a folder of screenshots you’ve taken, that still gives us a better resource to start with for editorial oversight.
You can also always request illustrations for games or essays where screenshots would be less engaging — such as this collaboration between artist Lurian and writer Teresa Navarro on fond Neopets memories. In fact, if you are friends with an illustrator you enjoy working with, throw them a bone as well and bring them in (though we absolutely have no problems making arrangements for writers who don’t have a particular artist in mind).
7. You Can’t Learn Japanese (Or: The Folly of the Madoka Magica Hot Take)
This rule is for West-based and specifically White contributors; be extremely considerate and cautious in thinking about the cultural, racial, and country contexts of you vs the text. One issue that consistently comes up, for example, is projecting North American media readings onto Japanese text — treating a character as if they are racially coded as white, reading feminist intent into work due to different framings of gender, approaching a very culturally specific story fraught with culturally specific sociopolitical meanings and, well, putting your own over it. The author may be dead, but it doesn’t mean their context is.
Inform yourself, or if you’re not able to, restrict yourself to speak on what you are informed on. We also see this a lot in queer writing, especially given the understanding of queerness circa 2017 within western queer online communities doesn’t always apply one-to-one when aimed at video games with ignorant, hostile, or just plain different angles on gender and sexuality.
This is something we can try to help with a lot, but be aware that your editorial staff is white and West-based; we cannot ever fully account for any blind eye, so we encourage our writers to be EXTREMELY careful in talking about non-Western games with an air of authority.
8. Go Beyond The Closet
Writing about gayness/transness/queerness (yours, mine, or a fictional elf’s) is oftentimes stuck so heavily within the reach of the closet. Personal narratives oftentimes are built entirely around it — the prologue and epilogue of coming out, the how, why, when, and where, the realization and Coming To Terms With and Accepting Myself — that we rarely get a chance to talk about queerness beyond that. While coming out narratives can be a useful roadmap for others to find their way, they leave a disparity of roadmaps for, well, what comes after?
This applies to not only comics, but games writing as well — we have far too many pitches that are built around recognizing ourselves through a queer character or which propose a character as an unactualized queer person and not nearly enough about like, any other real aspect. There isn’t enough narratives, or readings of narratives, that can relate to the way we date, the way we fight, our politicized feelings, our negotiations, just what we do in addition to and after the “I’m This”.
We’d love to see more essays that queer games in ways beyond uncloseting characters — how does this gameplay relate to your interiority, what narratives mirror the social anxiety of community politics, isn’t it weird how the Fire Emblem series is basically about cruising? This interview our editor J Bearhat did with comics artist Cate Wurtz touches on these themes of queer stories including, and beyond, the closet.
9. We Love 7/10s
A 7/10 isn’t perfect because it took a risk. A 7/10 wanted to be something new. A 7/10 tried so much it couldn’t get all of it right.
This quote, from publication founder Aevee Bee’s original introduction of ZEAL, still holds true for one of our biggest guiding principles — that games that fell between the cracks, that “weren’t good enough”, that had messy ideas or sloppy executions, are worth examining. In gaming circles, obscure is oftentimes specifically associated with cult classics or ‘overlooked gems’ — for us, we love when people look at games that are flawed, or which offered an experience unlike others, or which simply have an interesting history, story, gameplay, or even just mean something special to the writer!
One of our earliest pieces was Aevee’s engagement with the unsettling memories of a specific enemy sprite in Final Fantasy Legend III, and since then we’ve had pieces on the historical context of airline business sims, the unexpected strengths of the King Kong tie-in game, the sublimated angst of apocalyptic JRPGs and robot fighting games. All these pieces excel at carving out a meaning in games that have featured far less extensive coverage or presence in the larger gaming conscious, and is exactly what we strive for at ZEAL.
10. Unique Perspectives Are Also About Unique Experiences
A common writing trope when people are outlining their unique perspectives is to simply give identity categories — “As an X Y Z, my thoughts are,” — but ZEAL always is about encouraging our writers to dig deeper into their unique personal situations that flavor and are flavored by this! The types of unique perspectives we love are the ones that connect themselves to the piece they’re working on, throwing themselves into it.
This can take the form of simply placing yourself in relation to the piece, such as Henrique Antero’s write-up of Brazilian developer Pedro Paiva which includes both broad national connections as well as personal relationships with him & his work. It can also be more intensely emotional, such as Alyssa Kai’s excellent piece on coping with family addiction and loss by numbing herself with Super Moneky Ball 2 speedrunning. It can look like Laura K’s comics she does for us, finding emotional resonance in themes and gameplay of help (and helplessness), or anger and frustration finding outlets in grinding. It can be abstract; Joseph Ruddick’s comic on Ico feels personal and confessional without saying too much about what inspired it beyond the game’s text, and it works to invoke that unique experience.
This is the kind of writing we adore at ZEAL and we always love to see it come across our emails.
Above all else though, remember — if you have an idea, we love to hear it!