Emergent Genre

There seem to be differing views of what “genre” is, at least as it pertains to video games. I suspect partly this is due to the fact that there are differing views of what a “game” is. One viewpoint, which is probably working its way forward as we speak: “Why does it even matter?” The answer is very simple, and gets back to the entire point of language in the first place.

We use tokens (sounds, letters, images, etc.) to communicate. You cannot communicate effectively without an agreement on the meaning of the tokens. If you think that “cheese sandwich” refers to a piece of cheese between two slices of bread, but I think “cheese sandwich” means being stuck between two tv news anchors, our conversation could get rather confusing.

Of course, conversations can (and do) get confusing all the time, because lots of words have multiple meanings, nuances, and associations, so in order to have a formal* discussion on a particular topic there must first be a clear agreement of the meaning of particular terms used. This is why any field develops its own jargon, and why academic articles, textbooks, contracts, etc. can come across as characterless and bland.

Some may still be asking the same question. After all, they’re only games; why would we want to be formal about them? Thus we turn a corner and bump into the “Can games be art?” debate. For what it’s worth, I think they can be, but that’s not really germane to this topic (genre, in case you’d forgotten. I almost had). Regardless of their artistic merit, games are certainly worthy of critical** analysis. If we cannot examine what worked (or didn’t) about a particular game, how can we expect to make the next game better? Plenty of movies have the aim of entertainment, without aspiring to high art, but still benefit from a clear understanding of the art of cinematography.

So, back to the topic: How to define genres for video games? To a large extent, I suspect (as implied by the title), that genres emerge from the exploration of a medium as the creators codify aspects that work well together. They can be influenced (basically, given a head start) by pre-existing genres in another medium, but they must take into account the techniques and details of the newer medium. “Hard-boiled” detective/thriller novels served as inspiration, but noir is a uniquely filmic genre (including particular styles of plot, lighting, music, etc.).

Similarly games must establish their own genres based on the features of the medium. Aspects of look, tone, plot, etc. can be taken from other media (film seems a particularly favourite source of inspiration), but the “ludic” aspects must be involved as well. We can see the beginnings of this: a FPS (First-Person Shooter) would once have been referred to as a “Doom-clone”***. However, I think these “genres” are as-yet too broad to be of much use; the genre of a game should give an indication of the style or tone as well as how you interact with it. For example, Doom (horror/action) and Portal (sci-fi/puzzle) could both be classed as FPS.

I’m confident we will eventually settle upon a more useful classification system; we just need to keep paying attention to what aspects of a game contribute to the overall experience.

* As opposed to a casual conversation. Most of the time, people are content to accept a little ambiguity (which is often quickly resolved by context) in order to facilitate conversation.

** That’s “critical” as in “critique”, not necessarily “critical” as in “criticism”.

*** A particularly notable example is often the starting point for establishing a category, which will probably be called “things like X” until a more suitable name is decided upon. An example of the transition can be seen in the debates over the term “rogue-like”.


Games and Stories

Narrative in games is a topic I’ve read a lot about, and pondered a lot about, without coming to many definite conclusions, but a recent blog post on gamasutra (“Why We Suck at Subtext and How We Can Fix It“) solidified several of my ideas. Basically, I agree with it, and I also think there’s more to the difficulty than that.

Storytelling has been around arguably as long as language. It’s traditional forms (e.g. spoken, written, acted) have been codified as far back as ancient Greece (see Aristotle’s Poetics, for example), if not further.

One important understanding is that different techniques are available in a different medium. Written forms can make use of the size and shape of words or paragraphs. Spoken forms can add volume, tone, and speed. Theatrical forms allow re-enacting of the events of the story.

The modern world has introduced two significant new mediums with the invention of cameras and computers, each of which have their own allowances and restrictions on what techniques can be used to tell a story. Film and television productions have been more extensively studied, due to being around longer and having a large overlap with an existing medium (i.e. theatre), but they have still developed their own extensive vocabulary of techniques relating to camera angles, edits, lighting, focus, special effects, etc.

Computers have created a whole new environment for games which is far from fully explored. While games (like stories) have been around as far back as we have any record, most non-electronic games have little in the way of story owing to the need for simplicity. Often the “story” can be better described as a “setting”. For example, chess would be the same game if the pieces had different names/shapes—you could play with a bunch of small stones and a board scratched on the ground if you wanted to—it needed to be simple enough to remember all the details*.

Even with the extensive resources video games have available, however, there is a general sense of being underwhelmed with the stories associated with them. Pundits frequently speculate on when (if ever) we shall see the “Citizen Kane** of gaming”. I don’t think we’re there yet, basically because if we did, there’d be a lot more consensus on it. Most of the games put forward as candidates are a victim of the polarising that comes from internet hype; there’s no middle ground, something is the “best/worst thing evar!!!11!!!eleven!!1!!bbq!!@@!outrageoushyperbole!!”. There are many games that have done remarkable things with conveying moods, themes, etc. but the large-scale “AAA” games are largely stuck in the play-it-safe blockbuster mould.

There’s a lot of potential in video games to craft truly amazing experiences; to take players places they’ve never been before; to explore different facets of the human condition. They just don’t do it much, yet. Next time I’ll explain why it’s proving so difficult (as far as I can tell, anyway).

* I realise there are a lot of modern board games that are far more complex and have more of what we would call a story, but these generally require much more… well… stuff. You really need to have the box full of cards, dice, miniatures, tiles, etc. in order to play the game, and even experts will refer back to the rulebook during play to clarify a particular circumstance.

**Citizen Kane” is used as a simile for its significant innovations to the techniques of film-making. Basically, it went out of its way to do things that hadn’t been done before, and were unique to the medium of film.