Genre is a tricky thing in general, but it can get even more complicated when it comes to video games. It’s purpose is the categorizing works within a medium so consumers can find more of what they’re interested in. You like the film Alien? It fits nicely into science-fiction horror. Knowing that you can lead yourself into Sunshine, Event Horizon, or Pitch Black for finding a similar buzz. It’s not a guarantee that you’ll love all films within a genre equally. It at least puts you into the right field to begin your search for more films though. As I mentioned it gets especially tricky when it comes to games. Particularly because it creates false expectations spawned from misunderstanding which part we’re applying the genre label to. Thinking about it I can identify at least three different aspects of a game that people try to correlate genre to. Let’s take a look at each of them and what impact they have when considering the game’s genre.
First and foremost I think most people go to the systems that establish how the game plays. Often the genre title itself is just explaining a mechanic of the game. First-Person Shooter, ‘Shmup, Adventure, Rhythm, Puzzle, etc. Of all the ways to classify a game into genres this is the most obvious as it informs us how the player interacts with the world. It’s not entirely wrong to think that someone that enjoys a Call of Duty might also enjoy a Battlefield or Medal of Honor game. Same core mechanics, similar UI or control scheme possibly. The minutiae of them will vary since they’re still different games from different development teams. So putting a system forward as the core identifier of the genre seems to be almost ideal. Once again, the function of a genre is to help recommend similar experiences. If I’m enjoying Grand Theft Auto 5 a suggestion to check out The Saboteur could definitely lead me to another game I enjoy.
That’s not always necessarily true. As we’re looking at the experience overall it can be dramatically different from game to game. In a world of first-person shooters drowned in sci-fi pseudo-realism like Halo, Bioshock, Doom, or Wolfenstein… we have Portal. It’s quick to dismiss the clean physics puzzler as the variable while the others are the default. Really Portal has as much of a legit claim to the genre of first-person shooters though since mechanically it functions very similarly. By definition of the genre it qualifies. In situations like these the overlap of interest might not serve the player at all. I can confidently tell you that just because you took to Portal does not mean you’d enjoy Crysis 2. So perhaps classifying the genre by the systems in play isn’t the best method?
Film and books are a lot easier to classify due to the methods we have to interact with them. We either read or view them, that’s it. Kind of like how we just play games. Perhaps we’re vesting too much power in the interaction we have with games and that plays a part in people shying away new experiences. The controlling device doesn’t change that allows us to interact normally, just the way in which we think about it. Dexterity aside it’s not unheard of for someone to be drawn to the theme of something to the point of ignoring the system that manipulates it. Being a fan of high fantasy, I had no problem jumping from Icewind Dale to EverQuest to Skyrim. The constant themes of good versus evil, magical realms, exploration, wilderness survival, or man versus god-like beings carries through all of these games. They all play incredibly different with turn-based tactical squad control, number-crunching cooldown watching faux-realtime combat, and action driven exploration respectively. For some though the underlying connections between them makes for an obvious line of recommendations.
…but then there are other times where that’s less the case. Nothing characterizes this more than the zombie epoch we’ve seemed to be trapped in for the last decade. It’s a theme that probably has a foot in nearly every type of system dictated genre. Thematically identifying genre works wonders for the more passive mediums of book and film, but I don’t think it’s the end all solution for games. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a fan that loves all of the following:
- Dead Rising (action-adventure)
- Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 (first-person shooter)
- ZombiU (open world shooter)
- Telltale’s Walking Dead (adventure)
- Resident Evil (survival)
- Left 4 Dead (first-person shooter)
- OneChebara (action)
- Rock of the Dead (rhythm)
- Zombies at My Neighbors (run and gun) – My childhood favorite.
We all hear the terms “overtones” or “undertones” a lot when explaining the feel of something. Really they’re addressing the nature of that game. Sometimes it can be something that appeals to one’s personality a lot more than either the theme or system of the game. Implementing dark or sadistic undertones to a game can really bring out the sinister side of a player. The “Shock” series of games (System Shock / Bioshock) it serves as the connection between what is otherwise a significantly different set of games. Sure they’re first-person shooters, but what separates them from other FPS’s is the atmosphere; their tone. The Halo series have an action-jackson feel to them. Likewise Bulletstorm has a comedic slant to it’s interpretation of the genre. Humor is another popular nature that carries someone from one game to the next. Say you enjoy the witty humor of Portal, perhaps you should try out Discworld for some Terry Pratchett styled laughs? Does the slapstick approach of Octodad give you hours of joy? Maybe moving into Goat Simulator will keep tickling your funny bone. Acknowledging the nature as a significant identifier seems to be a plausible approach to the genre conundrum.
Or really, is it? Games are becoming increasingly lengthy and will contain several different tones throughout. Borderlands 2 itself suffers from not willing to commit to being serious or laughing at itself. Your lead villain Handsome Jack haunts you throughout the game with taunts about giving you turbo-mansions made out of smaller mansions and diamond ponies named Buttstallion. Towards the end of the game you’re suddenly supposed to care about his daughter’s death causing his rage or the permanent death of previous vault hunters? Recommending someone into Borderlands 2 off of something else that serves as a parody like Saints Row The Third or Godhand just feels like it’d be missing the mark. There’s just so much that could be lost between two games both carried by the same tone. Maybe this isn’t the solution either.
I feel like we’re back to questioning how to establish genres in video games. Systems, themes, and natures all potentially serve the purpose but ultimately will fail if you try to boil a game down to a single facet. What point does genre serve then if we aren’t able to effectively tag games together with associative term to one another for recommendations? I don’t think the validity of genre should be abandoned just because it’s a bit more complicated than usual. Establishing genres is still beneficial for players because you know how to find what you do and don’t like, right?
Perhaps it’d be better if we did abandon the idea of genres determining what we play? Some developers are too uncomfortable to adventure outside of expectations when designing a game to better fit the mold of a genre. For a prime example you have to look no further than the dying genre of MMOs; aka the World of WoW clones. We’re left with a stagnate genre that’s unchanged a decade in now. I get that the predictability of a game from the user can guarantee sales. Call of Duty knows how to walk that line as year after year sticking to their formula guarantees success. Even the maligned Assassin’s Creed generates serious bank off of sticking to their formula. Ubisoft branched their open world genre catalog with Watch_Dogs and Far Cry over the past few years by taking cues from the conceits of what we think open world games are. Liberating territories, finding collectibles, side quests, world traversal, etc. The other side to playing it safe and sticking to a genre though can lead to some serious acclaim. General users and critics both enjoy variation to an established genre to renew an outdated mechanic or maybe even subvert expectations with a significant twist. Braid comes to mind with how quickly it deconstructs not only the systems that normally dictate how a platformer plays, but also the mythos of game heroes and leaving you with a feeling of uncertainty of what you just played or your role in it. Without having a constructed expectation from years of genre identification we couldn’t have moments like this to question it. Sort of without the darkness we can’t define the light.