Please read A Clarification of Genre: Introduction because this post will be finishing the foundation concepts put forth there. That post also contains some clarifications for how I will be writing this series. You can read the previous entries of the series: Action, Adventure, RPG, Strategy and Immiscible Games.
What was the point?
Outside of very limited set of application that all mostly resides in broad based introductions to the material either in a storefront or in explaining what it is, genre is not a useful concept. The purpose is to classify, label or categorize depending on how you do it, but as time goes on in an artistic medium, the less those concepts matter. Music is the easiest place to see this. Even from just the narrow vision of Rock and Roll we eventually got Hard Rock, Soft Rock, Punk, New Wave, Funk, Surf Rock, Prog Rock, Space Rock and Metal. Taking Metal we can further divide it into Heavy Metal, Black Metal, Thrash Metal, Speed Metal, Folk Metal, Power Metal, Nu Metal, Death Metal etc. And each of those can be further subdivided and I didn’t even list all the ones I know of. And then there is stuff that seems to defy all attempts at genre classification like Lights of Endangered Species and the only ones who care are the people at Apple who have to give it an iTunes label.
I wont even go into how people actually define those labels or what bands and music would fit under them. This is true for movies, books, and games as it is for music. Yes, genre creates expectations and history and creates a vague expectation from its audience all of which can be useful or detrimental. But still, what is the use of genre outside this very narrow scope.
It is a starting point. It is a lens and it is a starting point. Genre by itself is useless, but it is still necessary to know and understand the basic tenants of genre and the history and expectations that it creates. As a critic it is a must. But the conversation should not end with it. If the your purpose is to figure out what genre a work is and end there you’ve wasted everyone’s time, including your own. ‘What genre is it?’ is a question at the beginning of a thought process, not the goal.
I stuck with Super-genres and brought examples from all the different genres under their umbrellas to make the broader points. In a way I have set down the basic understanding on how to begin the discussion and a framework by which to being to answer that above question before moving to see how it utilizes genre and what it all means.
I never claimed to have all the answers. In fact I’ve learned a lot while writing this and during the time I was supposed to be writing this series. I set down a basic framework that holds up and doesn’t have wishy washy, vague definitions to be reworked at the whim of a writer. Of course the irony is that I could only do that with the broadest of contexts. Genre is a wishy washy thing that is at the whim of the people who use it, up to a point. Like most things, subjectivity up to a point. King’s Quest is not an Action game and never will be, just like Chess is not an RPG and you get the idea. Some things can and are set down, whether we verbalize them or not.
I see the genre conversation come up again and again even after I’ve said my piece and yes again they are with RPGs. In the last few days MMORPG and whether or not MMO implicitly means the RPG second half. It always seems to be with RPGs. You never see anyone question the definition of an Action game. Maybe because it deserves more attention or maybe because RPGs have been a mess of mixtures up until now with the only crossovers being specific elements instead of focuses and purposes.
What Did I Get From This Project?
Knowledge and the satisfaction of having completed something of this size even if it took me half a year from conception to completion. But really I learned one major thing beyond all the minutia on how to think and work with the concept of genre. I learned I don’t give a rat’s ass about genre anymore. Spend enough time with a subject as ephemeral and as pointless to the progressive use of specific criticism as the ‘are games art’ question and you suddenly don’t care about he discussion anymore. Dig deep enough into that type of material and you see how much of a waste it all really is.
Genre is interesting in what it means not what it is. It’s trying to pin down objective definitions to western, noir, medial drama or epic. They change and don’t mean the same things and can hold stuff as different as Out of the Past, Asphalt Jungle, Blade Runner, Dark City and Drive under the heading of noir. It all gets grandfathered in as the definition changes. Die Hard is a technically a western, but who the hell calls is that?
Games are slightly different than other media in that their form is not a stable thing. Music is sounds, movies is movie pictures, but games take on many different type of interactions that other media don’t have a readily available analog to. You are doing a single thing during a game at any one time, but it is something different from game to game. Each game has its own unique formal language and sometimes that language is so different that the verbs aren’t just assigned to different button presses, but they are different verbs completely. The Super-genres are a broad categorization of these highest-level formal differences. I hesitate to delve any further as difficult and contentious even they are.
In the end, I’ll just be glad if I was able to contribute anything to the discussion and leave it at that. Leave it at that as in I want to leave this discussion. It is a critical framework meant to aid and help. It isn’t meant to be explicit or part of a checklist to be mentioned. It is something to be engrained and understood. People who play games already understand these differences, but no one has ever bothered to calmly spell them out. All I did was write down my observations in as clear a manner as I could.
In between the time of my Strategy post going up and me sitting down to write about Immiscible games and this conclusion I went to PAX East. While there I attended a panel on video game genres by James Portnow of Extra Credits fame. It was more of a college classroom lecture with him calling on the audience for answers to his questions. It was very interesting and at the end of it I posted this tweet:
Seb Wuepper, the man who helped me focus my thoughts back in March was kind enough to favorite it. Later I watched this video and the ensuing internet series. It is one of the best serious critical video series on the web and is in my top 5 web video critics. These two things killed my passion for writing this series. I knew I didn’t know everything, but it is still something to be confronted with work that has already explored the ground you are trying to cover.
However, I still maintain that this series has some merit for two reason, minor as they may be. James Portnow was showing off think tank work meant to help developers understand what their game was trying to accomplish and create a process of editing video games to reenforce what they are actually doing and cut the chaff out. My view of genre has some overlap with Mr. Portnow’s postulations, but the focus and audience is very different. His is to help with the creation of games, mine is to help with the reading and critiquing of games. Opposite ends of the same concept.
Secondly, Folding Ideas’ video looks to the specific complexities of genre, but it does not account for the formalism of a medium. To go any deeper on my scale introduced in the first part of this series and his video would apply. It would show the inherent uselessness of genre as an end all to critique, but thanks to video games changing nature from game to game, I think understanding what those different formal structures and focuses mean or rather what they do to derive meaning is important unto itself.