Monday, February 08, 2010

Genres Aren't Going Anywhere

I've been running a little roughshod over the comments on this post at the Brainy Gamer, when it's really well worth a post of my own.

The post is mostly about Mass Effect 2, but makes more dramatic statements about the nature of game genres at the moment:

More than ever, genre categories seem like arbitrary labels we apply to games so they can be properly shelved.

I tend to disagree with this, and it might be in part because I'm not "in the now" in game industry terms. In general I try to step back thanks to my history-based lens, but it's even more apparent in that I really haven't played very many new games or been immersed in the gaming press for the past five years or so. It all kind of looks the same to me - not necessarily in a bad way, but in a way that I'm very hesitant to say that any new game will be so important that it breaks down genre boundaries.

There are a few reasons for this. First, I tend to think that genres are a necessary part of human existence. We categorize information. They're shortcuts, or hacks, which allow us to judge new info quickly, and act on it accordingly. Sometimes this doesn't work perfectly, of course, and more often it requires major caveats along the lines of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a romantic movie that's funny, but there's no way in hell that it's a romantic comedy" sort. But these caveats, which critics like myself may focus on, don't negate the inherent use of classification. There will always be a use for if-you-like-x-you-may-like-y.

Second, as long as genres have existed, genre-bending has existed. As I mentioned in the comments, Deus Ex was a first-person shooter role-playing game, and Quest for Glory was a role-playing adventure game, and modern action sports games like Madden have long-term strategic "franchise" modes. A single example of a game isn't enough to indicate that genre-bending is bigger now than it was then. Sometimes great games which fit between-genres redefine their genres, like franchise modes in Madden, whereas in the case of Quest for Glory, they might just be interesting experiments. If you'd asked me in the late '90's which game was more likely to redefine the computer role-playing game, Fallout or Diablo, I'd have said Diablo in a heartbeat. It had the critical and commercial consensus, and was immediately accessible. Yet Diablo has barely spawned clones, let alone a genre, whereas the Fallout style of gameplay, through Bioware, has become the default for CRPGs.

Even if does demonstrate a pattern where FPS/RPGs become common, then that's not going to eliminate the concept of genres: it'll create a new genre. Way back in the '80's, there were adventure games based around using items to solve puzzles, and there were action games which were often real-time reflex-based games. When games like The Legend of Zelda started combining puzzles with reflexes, the previous genres didn't disappear, instead they created the Action/Adventure genre!

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