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.