Sunday, April 7, 2013

Genre


Looking at the bookshelf visible from here I can see about a hundred books, of which nine don't fit easily into the categories of science fiction or fantasy. Of those nine, three are biographies, one is a joke book that I didn't realise I still own, one is historical fiction, and the other four are science books. Oh wait, ten, there's a Tom Clancy behemoth in there as well. I think it's a fair representation of my reading habits to say about 90% of what I read is genre fiction. By comparison my game collection is far more diverse by genre. 90% of it is still science fiction or fantasy of course, but that's not what genre means in games. In games genre is about mechanics, the interaction of the player with the world.1

It is interesting to see that as the games industry becomes more populated with, if not driven by, smaller teams and subsequently more focused visions2, the critical acclaim is drifting away from the traditional AAA games. Games like The Walking Dead, Journey, Cart Life (this year's most indie of darlings), and so on keep getting nominated and winning awards above their big budget cousins. Depending on who you ask, or more likely who starts telling you about it completely unprompted, the reason for this varies wildly. To the video game indie types, who are distinguishable from their musical counterparts only by their use of "game jam" rather than "gig", it is because people are finally realising that big studios are creatively bankrupt, ruled by market demand rather than true artistic something-or-other. To the more, uh, h4rdc0re gamer it is some sort of pathetic flailing for legitimacy that achieves nothing but to get in the way of "real" games getting made.

I'm of the opinion that is mostly to do with these games being designed in a way that is the reverse of the traditional model3; rather than decide to make a first person shooter and then figure out what to make it about, there is an idea to make a game about something and the mechanics are then designed and built to support that. Independent of the ideology that drives this approach, when done well it creates a game in which the setting, story, themes, and player interaction are all at least trying to achieve the same goal. This creates a level of cohesion which I think makes for a more enjoyably complete experience.

Genres in games at some point changed from descriptions to definitions. Some of this is the understandable need to create a common vocabulary for players; there is no need to change what moving the mouse around means in a first person game any more than you should change the personal pronoun in a novel. However there are a lot of conventions that have moved over the years from to being considered a necessity. Cover systems, iron sights, recharging health are expected to be included to the point where developers have to explicitly provide explanations as to why they're not present. For me, the more games where the only useful description is "you have to play it to understand how it works" the happier I'll be.

1 In games Trainspotting, Lolita, and Ready Player One would all be considered the same genre. Sure they've got some superficial differences, but they're all fundamentally first person narratives.
2 I'd rather not use vision here, but it's the stock word for when a creative person has an idea of a thing they want to make
3 traditional here refers to a period covering the last decade or so, in which a lot of prior experimentation was consolidated into a small number of game archetypes by publishers

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