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Bit Player: Genre Attack!

April 15, 2011  |  1:01pm
Bit Player: Genre Attack!

For sixteen years, I mispronounced the word "genre." I had never had cause to utter it out loud to anyone; in my head I heard it as gin-ear. It wasn't until I played Phantasmagoria in 1996 that I was finally prompted to say the word out loud; I was describing the game to my older sister. "It's kind of like The Shining," I enthused, "and it uses full motion video! It's really pushing the adventure gin-ear forward." As if seeking to wipe the dopey smile from my face, she haughtily corrected me, "It's pronounced jeahn-re." Imagine my chagrin; her pronunciation sounded so sophisticated, so continental. I swore to myself that I'd never be so gauche again.

I suppose then that it's no surprise that Genre and I have had a bit of a checkered relationship over the years. Whether it be in music, film, literature or videogames, the walls of genre classification have always seemed like needlessly restrictive distinctions that served debate more than any practical purpose. We used to have "Rock 'n Roll," but now we've got Emo, Screamo, Hardcore, Crabcore, Shoegaze, Shitgaze…. sub-genres coupled on top of sub-genres until the entire thing feels meaningless. Jazz underwent a similar fragmentation as it changed over the years—first to Big Band and Bebop, then Cool Jazz and Hard-Bop to New Thing and Free Jazz and Electro and Neo-Hardbop, all the way up to the dreaded "Rock with jazz elements."

As a form of expression changes and grows, its genres branch outward from the trunk. Some of those branches grow limbs of their own while others fall from the tree, sprouting roots and becoming little trees themselves. These days, descriptions of my favorite musical albums always devolve into muddled navel-gazing—"It's like a rock kinda thing… with some folk to it, and these nice compositional undertones like baltic music or something? And a definite jazz influence. Really, you kind of have to listen to it."

Videogames certainly present all sorts of unique challenges when it comes to genre; to start with, they exist across a wide enough experiential spectrum that even the simplest ones require multiple types of classification. We must take into account how a game looks, its setting, and if applicable, the type of story it is trying to tell. But first and foremost, a game's genre must describe how it plays, the ways in which we can expect to interact with it.

So you can have a "Post-Apocalyptic Shooter" or a "Post-Apocalyptic Role-Playing Game." We can fire up an "Open-World Parkour Swordfighting Game," an "Open-World Racing Game," or a "Linear Futuristic First-Person Freerunning Parkour Game." Some genres have been around long enough to imply a whole host of features and qualities. A "JRPG" is something beyond a "role-playing game from Japan"—the genre implies an entire set of design connotations and hairstyles. Final Fantasy VII is very much a JRPG, but I'd hesitate to categorize either Demon's Souls or The Legend of Zelda thusly despite the fact that both games have stats, items, combat and exploration, and both games were developed in the land of the rising sun.

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Similarly, the term "FPS" can mean all sorts of things beyond "a shooting game presented via the first-person perspective." There are stealth-FPSes, open-world FPSes, First-Person Spatial Puzzlers, FPS/RPG hybrids… and even the game's intended audience can be a factor, with Call of Duty: Black Ops dubbed a "Bro-Shooter" with the comparatively cerebral (and side note: quite enjoyable) Crysis 2 commonly described as a "Thinking Man's FPS."

I recently read and enjoyed John Walker's op-ed at Rock Paper Shotgun entitled "Blurring Genres." In it, he argues that contextualizing games in terms of preexisting genres is harmful to both consumers and developers; it artificially restricts game creation and leads to oversimplified consumer expectations. As he put it:

There’s huge risk to blurring. It makes the game more difficult to market, it defies customers’ expectations, and it requires educating the public. […] Let’s stop calling things “genre crossing” shall we? It’s like finding a unicorn and calling it “a cross between a horse and a drill”. Let’s embrace the lack of genres, because then we switch from a very limited number of possibilities for our games, to an infinite number.

The idea piqued my interest; I quoted Walker on Twitter, linked to the article, and quickly found myself in the midst of a complicated, multi-front debate. Some people were of the belief that genres are useful for describing games to people who haven't played them; they are helpful for consumers to get their heads around a game they haven't experienced, and they provide meaningful context besides. Others made the point that genres can be anathema for developers, that preconceived notions of an in-development game hugely restrict the freedom with which game-makers approach their work.

Of course, each argument has its merits; it's hard to imagine a debate of this nature not winding up somewhere in the grey area. I like Walker's idea of moving from a very limited number of possibilities to an infinite one, though I'm not so sure that in order to get there we must let go of existing genres altogether. If anything, the very opposite seems true—by embracing the constant cascade of new genres and subgenres, we are in a sense already embracing the infinite.

In his 2005 Darwinia review for Eurogamer, the always-excellent Kieron Gillen posited that we had entered the realm of the "Post-genre." In his words:

Genres are a great aid for the gaming public as they get used to thinking about and playing games. We reached the point where there are people who don't just like the idea of "games" - they like specific genres or sub-genres. Or even singular mods of games: I'd imagine there are people out there who haven't played another game seriously since Counter-Strike appeared all those years ago. […]

At this point, we've entered the realm of the post-genre. It's what the progressive, intelligent gamers are playing. Simultaneously, it's also a terribly populist movement. After all, what genre does Grand Theft Auto belong to? None. It's about a half a dozen, blended seamlessly into a fluid, expressive form. Genres have burnt out, and we hit the post-modern point where everything is up for grabs again, the entire history of gaming turned into beautiful decadent cocktails.

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I'm guessing that to some degree, Kieron was just making a rhetorical point; after all, in the six years since he wrote that, we have seen the rise of a number of new genres but the phrase "post-genre" has yet to catch on. In fact, the Grand Theft Auto ür-genre that he describes has become commonplace and has even been given a name: it is a "Sandbox" game. And yet still debate rages about what is and is not a "true" sandbox game: does GTA IV count, or has Saint's Row usurped it? Or perhaps the sandbox distinction should be reserved only for truly open games like Minecraft? What of quasi-open games like Fable and Deadly Premonition? And what is the difference between a sandbox game and an "open-world" game, anyway?

I recently voted for finalists in the Smithsonian Institution's "The Art of Video Games" exhibit, and found myself gobsmacked by some of the genre distinctions I saw. The Adventure genre places hardcore CRPGs Baldur's Gate II and Fallout against Lucasarts's colorful undead adventure game Grim Fandango. The Action genre includes Halo 2, Jet Set Radio Future, and… Psychonauts. And I took special umbrage the classification of Minecraft as a Combat/Strategy game alongside Starcraft II and Age of Empires 3.

I do not envy exhibition curator Chris Melissions, tasked as he has been with organizing such a wide-ranging and inclusive exhibit. He is, in essence, attempting to wrangle the constantly worsening genre-sprawl of the last twenty years. The exhibit's FAQ states that "There are so many different types of games that we knew our show could not feature them all. We looked for four broad categories that would allow us to offer a wide selection."

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In an interview with Eye Level, Melissions said that "The principal criteria for the game selection was that the games needed to fit the overall narrative of the exhibition." So, it would appear that there were simply some titles that needed to be included, and that genre concerns were secondary to maintaining the integrity of the overall exhibit. And no doubt rightly so—Mellissions is obviously approaching his job with a great deal of thought, and his advisory board is one hell of a roster, including ThatGameCompany's Kellee Santiago, Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell, Wired's Chris Kohler and Double Fine's Tim Schafer. These men and women all know their stuff, and yet even they weren't able to break down the nominees along lines that made sense. Or at least, lines that didn't pit TIE Fighter and Crimson Skies against Diablo II.

So what does that say? It says that Genre is stupid and impossible, that it is a pest and a bore and its pronunciation is ridiculously counterphonetic. But it also says that Genre is necessary; if we're going to talk about games in any kind of orderly manner, we need to organize them somehow.

I suppose we might as well embrace it. Time and evolution have caused our once-simple sapling to blossom into a mighty tree, and its far-reaching branches now thicken the canopy of creative expression. The only constant here is change, and any statements to the contrary are folly, Ozymandian declarations of dominance over an ever-shifting kingdom of words.

"Look upon my genre lexicon, ye Mighty, and despair!"



Kirk Hamilton is Paste's Games Editor. He is a musician and writer in San Francisco and can be found at Kirkhamilton.com and on Twitter @kirkhamilton. Email him at Kirk [at] PasteMagazine [dot] com.

Voting is open to the public until this Sunday, so if you haven't done so, head over and make some difficult decisions!

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