Monday, January 5, 2009

Modernizing Genre, Part One

This post is a part one of a three part series discussing videogame genres. This week I'm playing the bad cop, tearing down the useless and arbitrary categories we so commonly apply to videogames. I encourage to you disagree vehemently. However, be aware that next week I'll be writing in defense of genre. Lastly, part three of this endeavor will meditate on genre reclassification. These final thoughts are still in utero; so naturally, your comments will influence my own conclusions and are much appreciated.

The Bane of Genre

Genre is our fall back to understanding and analyzing artistic creations. Classification empowers our comparisons between games, helps us to recognize shared attributes and disparities, and shapes how we interpret these experiences before and after we play them. Genre is often the first frame we use to describe the games we play.

First-Person Shooters, Action-Adventure, Role Playing Games, Platformers, Stealth and Strategy games are some examples with which you are no doubt familiar. Wikipedia has a pretty thorough list for your perusal. These classifications tend to describe the mechanics of how the game is played, not the content.

Regardless, genres are made of mechanical, visual, and narrative conventions. Well armored soldiers and cookie-cutter army men populate Shooters, small oddly shaped protagonists traverse Platformers, and spiky-haired adolescents inhabit JRPG worlds. These tools of creation become crutches for faltering titles and can weigh down innovation.

Want a recipe for a mildly entertaining FPS? Tweak a generic space marine outfit, make your protagonist bald, give him/her a gruff voice, toss in a poorly implemented gimmick and serve at room temperature. And we are surprised that so many shooters lack innovation? Of course they do! They are built of guns and common spare parts.

Deviating from the norm means little when immersed in genre expectations. As discussed in my review, Mirror's Edge's innovative movement mechanics are crippled by shooter conventions. Dice set out to make an FPS that was not a shooter and created a frustrating oxymoron.

Japanese RPGs make little traction in the US because they too often rely on conventions that western gamers find hard to swallow. Many find resource management a frustrating characteristic of Survival-Horror games that have fallen victim to this phenomenon. I believe the same can be said for all accepted game classifications. It's not just copy cat developers, even major studios like Nintendo and Square-Enix have fallen prey to repetition. Where genre classification is accurate, it seems to supercede creative game design making the product unappealing.

When innovative games break the mold genre loses its utility. How descriptive is categorizing Portal as an FPS when the only available gun shoots portals, and turrets are your only enemies? What about calling LittleBigPlanet platformer when level creation is a crucial gameplay component? Does "Role Playing Game" adequately describe the social simulations of Persona 4? The unique characteristics of these games are incompatible with current genre terminology.

If we interpret these labels simply and literally, they are too broad to be of any use. A comedic game like Escape from Monkey Island is a vastly different experience than some of its more serious Adventure genre counterparts. Likewise, most of the games I play are adventurous - Would World of Goo fit into this category?

And how different is a third-person shooter from a first-person shooter? Are they both a sub-genre of "shooters," and if so, would Duck Hunt be related to Gears of War 2 in the shooter branch? And good luck telling the Starcraft fan fiction writers there is no role playing in strategy games. These examples are so disparate, there is no way their umbrella genre could benefit developers or players.

Most gamers are not genre fanatics, and I don't believe they rival the numbers or enthusiasm of hardcore SciFi or fantasy fans in the literature department. The top ten software sales of November include Gears of War 2, Wii Fit, Mario Kart, and Guitar Hero: World Tour, each with distinct and dissimilar gameplay.

We should hold no loyalty to the existing classifications. They are vestiges of an era where game mechanics were the most salient difference between titles. Now game styles and creative possibilities have broadened, yet we retain a set of ambiguous and arbitrary categories weighed down with convention. Genres no longer accurately describe what games players like or what tools developers can implement to strengthen their own creative works. Perhaps we should leave genre behind altogether.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly. Would it be crazy to say that gamers are more to blame than game creators? With these genres, come a shload of expectations from the consumer. (ex. shooter must have a badass main character, big guns, and gore) And if these expectations aren't met, it may discourage some gamers from purchasing the game. Maybe we all just need to be a little more open-minded?

    Awesome post.

    Matt (MWG)

  2. Hi. Just starting reading this morning (thanks to my Google Reader suggestion), so I thought I'd say "hi."

    Braid is certainly a fun example of this genre problem (as much as Portal). A platformer that is actually more of a puzzle game (but which has nothing in common with traditional "puzzle games")

  3. @ChrashT

    I like Gaynor's credo. It's on par "I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer."


    I can't say who is to blame, creators, gamers, or publishers who market the hell out games by barfing genre stereotypes all over the internet. The genre expectations that have been built up almost have a mind of their own, so I guess blame is universal. Consider CliffyB's desire to see more gun play in Mirror's Edge. He's a developer and a gamer who thrives on convention. For GoW it works. Maybe I'll just blame him and be done with it.

    @ James

    Yay for Google Reader Suggestion. I agree with you on Braid. I was intending to put pics of three "platformers" in the post (Mario, Braid, and LBP) to illuminate your very point, but html was being hostile.

    I heard one reviewer critique Braid because it was a good platformer. What kind of a critique is that!? But like you said, even "puzzle" game is confusing. I think its physics based reasoning shares more in common with Portal (an FPS) than Tetris or Bust-A-Move.

  4. G,day I love video games anything from Impossible creatures up to the Universe at War game out now have all been vivid works of art that have helped shape not just myown imagination but people and children across the world. Games are the new interactive art world and despite the violence and its growing adictive tendancies to relieve stress online the imagination has produced some of the worlds best sci-fi ever. I write sci-fi horror adventure also.

  5. Most gamers are not genre fanatics, [...] The top ten software sales of November include Gears of War 2, Wii Fit, Mario Kart, and Guitar Hero: World Tour, each with distinct and dissimilar gameplay.

    The top sales you've mentioned don't prove that there are little genre enthusiasts. Those games could have been bought by different people. In fact, they probably were since purchasing many games at one makes no sense due to lack of time and money.

    We should hold no loyalty to the existing classifications. They are vestiges of an era where game mechanics were the most salient difference between titles. Now game styles and creative possibilities have broadened, yet we retain a set of ambiguous and arbitrary categories weighed down with convention.

    I think you are referring to a past that never really were. Back when game "game mechanics were the most salient difference between titles" the differences were too severe to draw similarities and group titles by them. The establishment of genres and conventions is a relative modern phenomenon (late 90ies).

    Genres is not something we can abandon. They are an artifact of how we understand and value all cultural products. They are not a problem because they are flexible and genres, which no longer hold value will automatically disappear. There will be always games that don't quite fit but their uniqueness is based on previous conventions. So even if they don't quite belong to the 2D Jump & Run Genre, where would Little Big Planet or Braid be without the Super Mario Brothers Series? With time, if there are enough follow-ups, the uniqueness of those game might receive credit by becoming a genre in itself: "The Sandbox Jump & Run" or "The Puzzle Jump & Run". Until then, they will profit from being unique. Either way, genres help.

    I do agree however, that the increasing penetration of games into the mainstream might result in establishing genres by slightly different criteria than camera perspective or technical gameplay details. I have also noticed that for people unfamiliar with the games culture, the existing genres sometimes do appear obscure.

  6. I appreciate the intention and completely agree with it. But eschewing genre will pose some new challenges as well.

    Genre can grant a common vocabulary, a semantic shortcut if you will. If we want to move from genre, we'll need to find a better way of communicating the core essence of a game.

    In short, if we build a first-person game that relies heavily on gunplay, it should because that method of interaction will enable better communication what we're trying to say with a game, not because it's a proven, marketable model. There's nothing inherent problematic with the genres (which really just means method of interaction + abstraction), but we should select and modify them with purpose and intent. And when they are insufficient, it's time to cook up something that does.

  7. To be a contrarian:

    Most gamers are not genre fanatics?

    Outside of our circle of games discussion and hardcore gamers, it seems all I run into are people who adhere to a certain genre; be that jRPG, RPGs in general, FPS, schmups, et cetera.

    They have specific things they want from games. Thankfully we are starting to play with those genre conventions more and more, so they are exposed, but this is a comfort blanket for them in many ways.

    This happens in most genres: musicals versus 'real' theater, romantic comedies in film, action films, romance novels, et cetera. Some people don't want to step out of that comfort zone.

    Should we take away that safety?

    (Otherwise, I completely agree.)

  8. To address the fanatics and sales numbers concerns:

    I probably should not have used November numbers, since as Krystian points out, consumers probably don't buy all of those games that month. Unfortunately total 2008 numbers aren't in yet.

    The top ten software sales for all of 2007 include Halo 3, Guitar Hero 3, Mario Galaxy, Madden, Assassin's Creed, etc. So the variety in sales is still there year round.

    Now of course this could be explained if groups of comparable numbers only bought the games within their genre of choice. Meaning the 4.82 Million Halo 3 players, mostly, did not also make up the 4.12 million who bought Wii Play, 2.72 million who bought Guitar Hero, or the 1.9 million who bought Madden. Of course I don't have the statistics to prove that either way, but I'm more comfortable making the assumption the consumer base is more spread out than that.

    Also, I don't consider someone who "prefers" shooters a fanatic, but someone who plays shooters to the exclusion of other gaming experiences. Through my own experiences, from the casual to the hard core, people seem to be open to play all sorts of games. Not to say there aren't shooter fanatics out there (you can find them on xbox live.)

    @ Nels and Krystian

    I agree with you both actually, on the utility of genre, and hopefully I'll address both of your concerns next week when I write in defense of genre. It may come off as schizophrenic, but it helps to work out my own competing thoughts on videogame genres (its also fun).

    Thanks to all for the comments and keep them coming, my conclusions are still rumbling around in my head!

  9. Perhaps we are moving towards a model of genre that relies less on game mechanics and more on thematic choices?

    For example, could we have a genre of "Westerns" that could encompass sandbox gameplay (like Gun) as well as tactical strategy. Imagine a tactical strategy game about the Indian Wars!