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Genre Genre

Returning once more to the subject of genre: just where do we – or indeed can we – draw the lines?

I’ve recently had cause to sit down and tame a very elusive beast: the video game genre. As a serial cataloguer and self-contradicting fan of labels, I’ve often sorted my games out in my own head. Putting them into various piles based on their stylistic category for the benefit of others, however, has gotten me thinking.

I started by looking at other examples:

There is some common ground, and Wikipedia – perhaps as is to be expected – covers the most. Because its purpose is not to sell games effectively (necessitating clear and concise categories which even the most inexperienced gamer might grasp), and its format is that of an article rather than an open database, the custodians of this article have narrowed games down to the following types:

  • Action
  • Action-adventure
  • Board & card game conversions
  • Music
  • Party
  • Programming
  • Puzzle
  • Role-playing
  • Simulation
  • Sport
  • Strategy
  • Trivia
  • Vehicle simulation

The article also lists genres according purpose, notably including adult and casual games. The debate about whether a casual game is a genre or not is – to my mind – deeply misguided, since most of the casual games I’ve played have fallen under the role-playing or simulation umbrella. Adult games are an interesting one however, and a good example of the ‘meta-genres’ I observed in my own list of genres (I’ll return to this idea in a moment). Adult films and erotica are, of course, quite well-defined genres within film and book media. Unlike sci-fi, horror and fantasy, the adult genre refers to both a demographic and the type of content – irrespective of whether the book or film may exhibit other generic traits.

It’s because of quirks like this that I realised my own list should be split into three meta-genres, or ‘types of genre’, if you will. I’ve named them demographic, inherited and mechanical genres.

Demographic Genres

This rather small category of genres is a repository for those works whose content is overwhelmingly guided by the target audience. Adult games – just like adult films and books – fall into this category because they exist to provide erotic entertainment. Most or all elements of the game are geared towards providing that experience.

Although they make for disturbing bedfellows, lifestyle and childrens games work on a similar principle. I would concede that they could be weaker genres in this context; many a childrens’ game would also be considered an action or puzzle game. Again the demographic does dictate much of these games’ makeup though, and it’s fair to say that their being classed as a lifestyle or childrens’ game is what helps consumers to pick them out from the shelf. Just why the adult genre is better-defined is surely the topic of another blog. It could be because erotic entertainment is a simpler principle to understand, or a result of the stigma attached to pornography. Perhaps it’s also because some mature gamers enjoy ‘childrens’ games’ – who knows?

Inherited Genres

This is where I started, having written before on the way I felt some historical games should be classed as just that, rather than coming under the ‘first-person-shooter’ bracket wit the likes of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath and Halo 3. These games have no thematic similarity with the earlier Call of Duty games, beyond the presence of guns and a ruleset inherited from its mechanics.

Borrowing heavily from existing media (hence these being ‘inherited’), I devised the following list:

  • Action adventure
  • Crime
  • Educational
  • Fantasy
  • Historical
  • Horror
  • Humour
  • Sci-fi
  • Sport

Despite my persistence however, classifying the likes of LittleBigPlanet, Angry Birds and even Sonic the Hedgehog in this way is plainly impossible. Sonic games could at least be classed as action adventures, and while it sounds more like a mechanic, I believe that games of this type have come to form their own narrative and plot structures.

Though one would expect an element of (inter)action from a game anyway, there is some unique feedback between the player’s involvement and the adventure within the story which manages to define them as a whole. Action films like Die Hard, Sucker Punch and Terminator offer a similar experience, but because of the passive nature of film, the ‘action’ element comes to the fore and the ‘adventure’ becomes implied.

Mechanical Genres

These genres were the ones I’ve most tried to avoid, but had to concede as worthy ‘types of games’. Mechanics can definitely define the game and the type of player that they attract, so why should they not sit alongside the established genres listed above? I feel a need to stress the importance of that ‘sitting alongside’, since the medium has matured to a point where the narrative in a game has just as much allure as its mechanics. Gone are the days when most gamers would play games simply to test a high score – instead we long for rich experiences, and so I feel we deserve to filter horror out from history, and humour out from sports.

What really surprised me was just how many genres I felt I needed for this category. Though I’ve decided to leave behind the markers of the retro era (like ‘jumping game’, ‘dungeon game’ and so on), it seemed foolish to ignore the specific appeal a turn-based strategy game might have over real-time strategy, or the changes in narrative and plot which a first-person perspective brings to a shooter, compared to a third-person one. There are many gamers who will ignore a whole experience if it does not fit their preferred mechanics, and so I bowed to democracy:

  • Adventure (point & click and text-based)
  • Board game
  • Card game
  • Driving
  • Fighting
  • Hack ‘n’ slash
  • Music
  • Online world
  • Party
  • Peripheral
  • Platform
  • .. and the list goes on.

There are, of course, some games which fit purely into a mechanical genre: digital versions of Monopoly, the Mario Party series and Virtua Fighter to name a few. Many of the best-known contemporary titles fit into one or more of these and an ‘inherited genre’ as well though, and that fact got me to wondering if there’s a direct correlation.

The Mix

Take for example the Halo series, Portal and World of Warcraft. All are prized for their well-executed mechanics, but also for their plots and themes, which in turn generate a fierce fandom. Halo leans very heavily upon action, being a first-person shooter, but it distils solid science fiction through its cliffhanger narratives and enigmatic teaser trailers. Portal too combines a subtle plot with stellar mechanics, all the while ensuring that GLaDOS sits right up there with HAL and the T-1000 on a list of memorable sci-fi nemeses.

My intention with this article was not to come to some sort of conclusion based on generic appeal, but this has been a hard result to ignore.