Blurring Genres

A few years back I remember Kieron [Gillen]angrily arguing that genres were stifling development. I’ve decided to muse on that. Simply by applying the label we inhibit both the game’s development, and the audience’s appreciation of the results. So perhaps one of the most frustrating results of such thinking is the notion of labelling something a “genre crossing game”.

It’s convenient to label. If I’m reading about a film, I know that it’s helpful to be told near the top that it’s going to be a horror or a romcom. The problem is that’s horrible laziness on my part. Why can’t it be a horror romcom? (Other than the inevitable explosion of heads as they tried to market it.) But then, if I’m running a Blockbusters, I still want some sort of rationale for shelving the DVDs.

It was fun to watch the confusion all those years ago when Deus Ex came out, and people tied themselves in knots over what it was. FPS? RPG? (The answer, of course, was “yes”.) As RTS and TBS blurred together, it was similarly entertaining to look at those little boxes in magazines try to pick which field to tick.

But the issue seems to spread farther than just annoying editors. I think it causes damage in two significant ways.

The first is when developing. The idea that a developer either chooses or is forced to pick a label at the beginning of the development process is just terrible. “WE ARE MAKING AN FPS” they declare, and heaven forbid anything get in the way of that. “What if we were to include a way the player could develop their conversation skills, and open different paths?” “I SAID FPS!”

It’s an artificial prison, madly shutting down ideas before they can even be considered. Perhaps your RTS would really benefit from some point and click adventure. You’ll never find out. Maybe what tactical shooters need is some spelling challenges. How will we ever find out?

OK, so my suggestions there are terrible. But then look what happens when someone thinks something so silly. “Maybe what our match-3 game needs is some RPG”, gives you Puzzle Quest.

The second issue is the customer. That expectation of your horror containing no romantic comedy means you’re very difficult to market to. People like to blame consoles for the simplification of game content, but I’m suspicious it could have a lot more to do with customer expectation.

If the next Modern Warfare introduced dramatically different themes, there would be uproar. Sure, set it on the moon, but make sure I’m a grunt following the NPCs who get to play the game, or I’ll swear at you on the internet. If Creative Assembly released a new Total War that featured first-person combat, RTS fans would be enraged. And I completely sympathise with that. But I still believe it adds enormous restrictions to development.

Even the genre titles themselves are trouble. There’s so few of them! If we hadn’t restricted ourselves to RPG, RTS, FPS, MMO, simulation, sports, adventure, and puzzle, then what else might we have?

So here’s a funny thing. You know where the most innovation of blurring genres is going on? And it’s a place that doesn’t feel the need to say, “it’s a genre crossing game” as if they have to ask permission to not fit in one box. Do you know? It’s casual games.

I mentioned Puzzle Quest. How about Bookworm Adventures? Or what about the constantly evolving nature of hidden object games? While people are so tempted to poo-poo the hunt-the-thing games as trivial, they are constantly reaching to change. Some are embracing point and click, others are broadening their puzzle content, and games like the extraordinary Drawn series are impossible to conveniently label.

There’s huge risk to blurring. It makes the game more difficult to market, it defies customers’ expectations, and it requires educating the public. It’s safe to make yet another COD clone, because we all know them and what they do. And they’re what we want! But like the child who’s never tried a new food, refusing to eat it because it’s different leads to a very limited and dull palate.

Let’s stop calling things “genre crossing” shall we? It’s like finding a unicorn and calling it “a cross between a horse and a drill”. Let’s embrace the lack of genres, because then we switch from a very limited number of possibilities for our games, to an infinite number. Maybe what flight sims need is sword fighting. Maybe racing games will only move forward when… well, you figure it out.

John Walker originally wrote this for Rock Paper Shotgun, one of the world’s best sites for PC gaming news. He knows more about Canadian police dramas that you’ve had hot dinners, or something. E-mail him. He misses you.

Republished with permission.

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