I don’t disagree with anything either of you said, and I feel the same way about most of my favourite games! This is definitely something that’s grown out of people using this term inappropriately/incorrectly that has rubbed me the wrong way more so than anything wrong with the word itself. I am probably not explaining it well because this has built up from years of reading bad takes on Twitter than anything important. Also I’d say the word has different connotations anyway when you’re talking about making games and critiquing them, I’m talking about the latter.
I wish people would talk more about artistic integrity, aesthetic confidence, thematic cohesiveness or emotional honesty. You could argue that any critical reading involves interpreting the text to project an intent or personality onto a work that may not be seen by someone else, but I feel terms like “earnest” are used less to say anything meaningful about games themselves as they are to say “anyone who doesn’t like the stuff I like is a jerk”. I’ve never seen anyone use “earnest” when describing games they don’t like, because they presume that the games they don’t like can’t have conviction in what they’re saying/doing? Again, this is definitely more the people I have interacted with than anything wrong with the word itself!
I also get weirded out when it’s applied to huge IP - Sonic and Kingdom Hearts are regular examples of this. I think earnest is a fair descriptor for a lot of games in both franchises, and I get people being defensive about them since they do both have their mean-spirited haters, but it’s still weird to staple that concept to a franchise or a mascot that exists to get his face plastered on everything. When the Sonic movie came out I saw a lot of people ragging on anyone who down on the movie “it’s Sonic! it’s silly! it’s for kids! stop dunking on it you jerks” and like man, sorry for not falling in love with a film that literally crunched its animation studio to death for a 2 star movie where Sonic hangs out with a cop. It’s like because most of the games are admirably committed to childish stories about friendship and teamwork people who connect with that project wholesomeness onto the brand itself…like MATE they make Sonic coasters not everything is a labour of love.
This is more a psychiatrist session for only me than having anything interesting to say lol, I just find in my experience a lot of people fall back on “earnest” to jump over critical engagement and instead file the games they like into the “wholesome works for nice people, like me!!!” category. There sure are a lot of joyless designed-by-producers pantry of Stuff AAA games that leave me cold so I understand wanting to highlight work that feels like it has a soul, but I don’t think that’s a specific enough term. By Brandon’s definition of “earnest” in a design context I’d say Kane & Lynch 2 is an earnest game, but that wouldn’t explain anything about my feelings on that game and would probably make a lot of people cry blood thinking about it.
also re: glib and meta, one time I was having a real bad day and wanted to play a game that people were recommending as chill and wholesome (I won’t say which one cos this is not a fair experience of it) and when I booted it up literally the second line of dialogue is a “LOL I’M A VIDEOGAME OPTIONS MENUS RIGHT????” which I was in no mood for and I shut that puppy down. A lot of games that get painted as “earnest” are my favs, I just think they deserve better brushes!