The Genre Trap

Portal 2 Trap

Another trap that it is all too easy to fall for.

Over a customary ‘discussion’ with friends about whether video games are inherently bad or beneficiary (the answer being, of course, that some are brilliant and some are terrible) one fact was pointed out to me that I had never noticed before; as humans, we make a very definite attempt to sort our games into genres.

Which is a bit odd really.

You see the games that we have a tendency to praise the most are those which can’t be defined by a genre or demand the creation of an entirely new genre just for them. Games like Metroid Prime (acclaimed as the first FPA game) or Portal (which is half puzzle game, half dark comedy). Well, these are the kinds of games I have a tendency to praise even if you don’t.

However, if we want to enjoy games more then why do we place them into a genre at all? If we (or maybe I) have to enjoy games that exist outside of genres then why bother with the definitions of MMORPG, RTS or FPS when they only lead to preconceptions of the game in question based off of other games with the same label regardless of the quality of said game?

Well, quite simply, it is because it makes the whole decision making process a great deal easier. I know that I generally like RTS and generally dislike FPS and so if Command and Conquer Generals’ box can boast that it is an RTS while Command and Conquer Renegade reveals how it is an FPS, I can know, on the spot, what the chances of me enjoying either game is. Further, classifying games in this way makes it simple to notice those truly original games that fall outside of any particular genre when they do pop up and it is easier to point out those games likely to have a properly original feature to their name.

Command and Conquer Renegade

I was so convinced this was a RTS for a good month.

So genres of games obviously are hugely important to us as consumers.

The problem is that in some cases they have become important to the producers and developers of games as well.

The way I see it is as soon as a developer decides to define his or her game by a particular genre, instead of simply allowing a genre to be assigned to it later by critics or the public, then they have a problem. Not just a little “oh my what a nuisance” kind of problem but a full on “this could very easily become tedious rubbish” kind of problem. As soon as any one particular genre is taken by a developer to be more than just a label, it becomes a set of constraints that developers who chose to see their game as controlled by seem to feel the need to either work within or waste time fighting against.

And this is a problem.

Why?

Well, when a game developer feels that they have to rigidly stick to a formula or template, all that is likely to come out of the end is a pretty monotonous product that does not really deserve the term ‘game’ because it is not fun in the slightest.

Of course, there is an alternative result – when these developers recognise a problem with their game as a product within a genre and feel like they have to break away from their genre then they are equally likely to produce a shoddy game. Aside from the fact that they are acknowledging that their game, at one point in development, was headed towards becoming monotonous junk, they then also chose to put the majority of their remaining effort not into producing a good game, but merely a different game. This should not be the aspirations of games developers, if they want to make decent games different, that does not necessarily mean good. Just look at the original Scribblenauts, a game that was without a doubt different, but on a gameplay front failed to deliver. Different is not a feature developers should be aiming to define themselves by, just as they should not be trying to define themselves by a genre.

Fortunately for us, the way to pick out games which have gone down this road is relatively simple, even before they are ever released into the wild.

Runescape

Here began my inherent dislike of MMORPGS

In the case of those games which are likely to be nothing special genre templates, you just have to look for games that boast of being the forefront in their particular genre in the first line of their website’s About page. Games like Adventure Quest or Runescape do this exactly. After all, if a developer believes that genre is everything then they are likely to boast that they are doing everything they can to be the best within that genre, perhaps thinking that it is a positive to be absolutely and completely defined by a couple of words or letters like “RPG”.

These however, are nowhere near as common as those games which are trying to prove that they have broken away from a genre and are doing their utmost to demonstrate this very fact. These are generally identified by the developer diaries that permeate their publicity. The diaries are often intended to show the thought process that went into a particular feature, but the fact that they need to explain just how genre-breaking their game is often points out the fact that they fall into the category of “defining themselves by difference”. In truth, if their game were truly genre-breaking, there would be no need to point it out as games like that stand out rather clearly once played, as games developers well know. So as soon as people like Prototype 2′s developer start speaking about how “most games” do this but we do it better, alarms should start going off in your head.

Developer diaries or boasts of genre don’t necessarily dictate that a game has fallen into the genre trap, more they are symptoms of a sickness among certain developers, like Radical Entertainment, that needs to be destroyed.

Much more satisfying by far though, is the knowledge that the games industry is trying to move away from the whole “defining itself by genres” phase (as detailed in this previous column, right here). In fact, games like Mini Ninjas, an apparently cutesy kids action game, are popping up all the time and contain features like innovative boss fights and a fresh art style as well as gameplay mechanics that push them well out of the realm of their prescribed genre.

Mini Ninjas

Aw, look at his adorable little costume as he tears those samurai to shreds.

What we need to see is more developers like these, ones that try to produce good games, as opposed to different games or genre-prescribed games.

Developers need to stop trying to sort games into genres on our behalf.