Genre: Moving On

Videogame mosaic

Part of the discussion during VS Node‘s “Game of the Games of the Decade” episode considered representation of genre in a list of all-time great games. Most of the participants in the discussion were in agreement that all genres needn’t be afforded a delegate to the round table of the elite, which led me to ponder the benefits of, and perhaps more importantly, the problems with genre as it relates to progress in the videogame industry, overall. Can individual works qualifying as pure embodiments of genre be taken together as a complete mosaic of what makes gaming what it is, or would it be better if a more free-form, experimental approach was taken instead?

Indeed, there are video games that epitomize what gamers have come to know as the basic genres in gaming; works such as Tetris, Starcraft, World of Warcraft, Super Mario 64, Double Dragon, and others all adhere firmly to the prerequisite characteristics of the genres they represent, in many cases serving as the original templates for their respective style of game, on which all to follow have been based.

Video games have a habit of borrowing heavily like this, riding on the successes of past games without innovating, and driving once-novel gameplay concepts to monotony well after others have reached the apex of refinement for a particular formula. Sometimes it is simply an act of copycatting, but I would argue that just as often, it is the fault of the genre itself, already having been epitomized by another title or titles. For example, Dante’s Inferno may be a dead ripoff of God of War, but perhaps only because God of War games have become the crux of what that genre is, and in order to produce a game in that genre, a development studio can’t help but essentially reskin and repaint the GoW template.

Dante's Inferno

This method of producing game content may be acceptable practice for developers who wish to make quick cash, but this industry exists on two very distinct levels, the economic/business level and the artistic level, and anyone who hopes to see artistic growth in the medium would do well to quickly distance his or her concerns from its business end. Truly, the continued reimplementation of gameplay styles with limited capacity for improvement, although a benefit for the bankroll, is an exercise in artistic stagnation, and the conservative mindset of companies that practice this unfortunately carries over into an audience that becomes increasingly resistant to change.

The establishment of and adherence to genre, while allowing room to play within a tested framework, fuels this limiting cycle. By reiterating certain aspects of existing video games, it suggests that they are necessary inclusions and absolutely must be incorporated into games of that type, leading gamers to expect very rigidly defined combinations of features, and pre-conceive developers’ work and what a game should be before it even reaches their living rooms. In other words, it breeds narrow-mindedness.

The modern gaming landscape should be a virtual orchard of ideas, ripe for consumption. Touching again on that dirty concept of economy, the apprehensiveness to experiment as game design branches out and genres blend together can now be assuaged thanks to distribution services such as Steam, XBLA, and PSN. Here, unique ideas can be tested with minimized risk for developers and non-prohibitive expense to gamers, encouraging the abandonment of the play-it-safe guidelines that genres can easily become. Those long-standing delineations between traditional definitions of genre are rapidly blurring in the independent games market, but mainstream gaming is sluggishly trailing in the innovation race.

Animal Crossing

Video game journalists, critics, or bloggers by any other name can become equally crippled by obsession with genre. First, it must be pointed out that these individuals who often have little more than a voice and a forum are still gamers like anyone else, and can fall victim to the comfort of familiarity just the same as the rest. The difference lies in the responsibility that comes with our positions; we must recognize the hindrance of genre and beware of the growing conservatism within our own veteran-gamer minds, then open up to untested ideas and champion those that push the envelope.

Genre can also become a crutch in a culture where everything is categorized and jargonized. By relying on old descriptive language and referring to already-encapsulated concepts, we limit the ways we can talk about video games — an antiquated and obsolete term in itself — and in turn discourage industry growth. If we can only describe a game as being an “FPS” or a “strategy game” or a “platformer,” etc., we are constraining it to one of those pre-conceived notions of what a game of that genre “should be.” If we are to use genres to label certain aspects of games that blend gameplay styles, then we somehow discredit the ambition of those titles and beat them back into conventionality. This sort of dependence on genres as descriptions also creates a barrier for less seasoned videogame enthusiasts; “game X is just like game Y and game Z, which are genre N games” doesn’t say squat.

Familiarity and experience with genre is indeed important, if only to know what should be avoided, promoted, or shunned in this industry. However, clinging to genre or constantly measuring titles by what has come before are probably not good things to do if we want to see this medium reach new heights. Without categorization, labels, expectation, or prejudice, everyone involved can openly take (and even critique) each new creation as it comes — as a step toward, not a blueprint for, what is to follow.


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Author: Eddie Inzauto View all posts by
Eddie has been writing about games on the interwebz for over ten years. You can find him Editor-in-Chiefing around these parts, or talking nonsense on Twitter @eddieinzauto.

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