Please read A Clarification of Genre: Introduction because this post will be building off of 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 miscible genres: Action, Adventure, RPG and Strategy.
Miscible and Immiscible
The descriptions of the super-genres up to this point have all been under the assumption that a game has a single focus throughout its play. However, most games do not adhere to such neat little definitions if the concept of Action/Adventure games is anything to go by. In fact, most games probably aren’t a single focus. Taking terminology from chemistry I call this dichotomy in game focus miscible and immiscible games from the same concept used on liquids.
Miscible – all the same, uniform throughout
Immiscible – a mixture in separate parts
The specific thing to remember is that the focuses, like differing liquid mixtures, never overlap. The focuses of Action’s timing, Adventure’s milieu, RPG’s character development and Strategy’s resource management does not challenge one another for the player’s attention at the same time. While there may be associated elements of one during focused play of another t does no constitute change or duality of focus at any given moment. As adding a clock to an action does not by itself constitute the focus of that moment to be that of an Action game, nor does an open world environment by itself constitute an Adventure game, nor buying and watching the number of health potions by itself make it a Strategy game, no experience points make it an RPG etc. Immiscible games have multiple focuses within the whole and the game will switch between them fully at intermittent points determined by the player’s own interaction with the game. The best way to illustrate it is with an example.
Probably the most common combination, it is generally thought of an Action game with significant exploratory elements or the like. The granddaddy of them all is The Legend of Zelda franchise with its open world on the one hand and its timing focused combat on the other. The key to understand the dichotomy is that while the open world technically exists at all times, in and out of combat, once you, the player, engage in combat or are presented with a screen with enemies on it, the game ceases, however briefly, to be about it. Once presented with the danger of enemies, The Legend of Zelda becomes an Action game focusing on the defeat or evasion of the enemies via timed input. The exploration focus is turned off in favor of combat timing. It isn’t until the enemies are defeated or until the player escapes to an empty screen does the game shift to its Adventure focus from its Action focus. Both exist within the whole, but there are lines that divide the player’s attention between them within moment to moment.
Sometimes the switching can be a bit more complicated. In Grand Theft Auto IV we have a sandbox where the player can go exploring looking push the boundaries of the freedom that the game provides. The player can do the missions, shoot at pigeons, search for collectables, drive around, go bowling or see how much chaos they can instigate. It’s this last one I want to look at. When a player in the Grand Theft Auto franchise sets the goal to get his or her wanted level up as high as they can, they are still within the Adventure focus of the game. They are exploring the milieu to understand the rules that govern this world. It is in the form of wanton destruction, but it is an exploration nonetheless. During this escapade, they might find themselves shooting at police officers and may take the time to make sure they hit their target before running away and hijacking a car to ram it into an intersection to cause more damage and attract more police. The key here is when the player decides to change their mind. The cop shooting is Action and the hijacking of the car could have been, but the car was used in an ongoing effort to push the boundaries of the rules and therefore constitutes an Adventure action. Now while it still requires the player to push button and analog sticks just right to get the car into that crash, the crash itself wasn’t the goal or focus. Adding a clock to actions does not make it an Action sequence. If however, the focus were to hit that specific car, because the player wanted to run it off the road for some reason, then the focus would be on the timed inputs to hit that car with the window of success and failure clearly defined.
Now is there any particular usefulness to breakdown the moment-to-moment minutia of actions in this crime spree? Not really. The whole is only about the player’s desire for chaos and destruction and as an event seeing it, as an Action or Adventure game does not matter. What matters in the example is that one understands that these changes to and back can happen in a second or less and that the opportunities for both exist in the game, but only separate from one another. The minutia of the play doesn’t matter on critical reflection only the knowledge of the existence of the dichotomy matters for that is how a game is judged, on how it functions. Labeling the switching between focuses as they happen isn’t as important as understanding how the dynamics of the system change the player’s focus. In other words, while it is important to understand that driving along looking for the corner of 5th and 14th is an Adventure focus, but trying not to hit a car and get the police’s attention is an Action focus, but saying out loud Adventure or Action to signify what type of game you are playing now is not important as you swerve to avoid a car that came too close.
When defining a game as Immiscible and understanding how the two Super-genres interact within the whole, looking back at previously labeled games in a new light. Mostly with the games colloquially understood as RPGs rather than the defined Super-genre. In general these types of video games are broken down into two parts: combat and conversations. They are two separate systems with, and only sometimes, the loosest of mechanical connections between them. In fact, for the majority of RPGs, as you might have seen two essays ago, have a difficult time dealing with the concept of development of the player’s character. Combat may be an expression of the abilities chosen during leveling up and shopping for equipment, but are route in their own focus. Dragon Age is a perfect example of this dichotomy. Dragon Age: Origins has character building thought he dialogue options and the how you choose to define your character’s physical abilities in leveling up and equipment screens, but during the combat this focus falls away and it becomes about winning the battle. Dragon Age: Origins is a Strategy game during combat, with elements not often found in more conventionally thought of Strategy games. This description goes back to the very beginning of video game RPGs. Wizardry and Bard’s Tale were about winning fights by selecting what ability to use with limited resources, HP, MP and the turn itself. Decades on and this system hasn’t changed overall. The action is in real time, but still subsists off of turns and the same resource limitations are in place for combat. Dragon Age II is different in that its combat’s focus is taken from the Action school of thought. The management of resources has changed to a focus of evading enemies and hitting the timing windows to defeat them in turn. Kingdom Hearts would be another example of what is called the Action RPG. Before thought of as a subset of the RPG, when looked through the lens of Immiscible games is really a mixture.
Both types of RPGs are a mixture. One Action and RPG, while the other is Strategy and RPG. I can already hear it from Strategy game fans how no it isn’t when what they really mean is that it isn’t the type of Strategy game I want to play. In some if not most cases if viewed in a strictly Strategy vantage point RPGs probably wouldn’t be viewed as very good at all. The other argument I can hear already is how the combat is necessary to show the character’s development. But I’ve already tried to make that argument and ended up tying myself up in knots trying to express it. Even Bioware has recognize this dichotomy with Mass Effect 3 by allowing those who want to to skip the combat sequences just as other games allow the player to skip cutscenes. The overall themes of the journey are unaffected for the player.
And this is just western RPGs. Japanese RPGs or JRPGs have a different history and their end products are vastly different from those in the west. Where the western RPG was generated from a desire to digitalize Dungeons and Dragons, JRPGs took the earliest forays, Wizardry and Ultima and built their own games from that. The thing is, the companies that made JRPGs, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and the like, had made visual novels previously. It can be seen in their later work where what the game is is a combination of this early turn based purely system based combat and visual novel style storytelling to dictate a narrative. The character’s paths are preset and predetermined. There is no character development only character explorations. In essence the narrative portions are not RPG, but Adventure. JRPGs are an Immiscible combination of Adventure and Strategy, one that we don’t really see anywhere else, but is such a combination nonetheless.
I went back and forth a lot on including that last paragraph. It came from attempts to create a digital RPG, but the JRPG just doesn’t fall under the conceits of what that type of game seeks to do. I fully admit that I may be missing something with regards to how they work within the focuses of the Super-genres, but after all this time and input from others, nothing has been found yet. JRPGs aren’t RPGs.
The Meaning Behind the Combinations
The difference in focuses in Immiscible games is with their focuses, not with what the game is trying to do overall. A good game can marshal the different focuses in conjunction with one another to drive home the central point. Broadly speaking with video game RPGs as a whole want you to develop and play as a character you care about. Allowing you to create and personalize them is one way, but in addition to that the games try to connect you to your character(s) b having you use them in situations of danger over and over, aka combat. Their successes are your successes. If they aren’t strong enough, spend the time and level them up until they are. In this fashion you will care more about the choices this character makes and how you want to develop them. The combat may not be the pinnacle of either Action or Strategy games, but their unique construction isn’t designed to be the best-designed pure Action or Strategy game. Those aspects aren’t there to carry the whole; they are merely apart of it.
Think of back to The Legend of Zelda. Take only the Action elements, the combat and maneuvering. Take out the exploration, the search for items and you would have a standard, possibly sub-standard brawler. The point of this game would be to give the player a power fantasy of being strong and being able to take out monsters and baddies due to their prowess with a sword, bow and boomerang. Now take the opposite approach. Take out all the combat and other timing based elements and leave in the exploration, the puzzles and search for items. Now you would have a vast empty world, barren of all life with only the terrain to give any hint of the history and story, a 2D Shadow of the Colossus without the boss fights in essence. Now the game is about history and learning of past and culture that no longer exists. However, neither of those is The Legend of Zelda. The two focuses establish different parameters for the game’s makeup and instead we get a game where the player switched focus between different Super-genres. The game is about heading into the unknown and not being a baddass, but overcoming adversity. The game turns from being a power trip or just a trip into the Hero’s Journey.
Grand Theft Auto with only one set of focuses could have been a game about killing because you are a sociopath or a vacation in a NYC analog. With both it is a game bout freedom because the Adventure elements allow the player to explore the wide world and find a wide variety of Action oriented activities. Instead of being a long string of crime missions in a disconnected world a la Kane and Lynch, the world adds a flavor and alters the central purpose of the game. Instead of being just a crime story, the world becomes a character in its own right that allows you to ignore the crime story if you so choose.
Just as elements do not dictate the genre, the genre does not dictate the theme. How the game is put together and how the elements interact matter and the different focuses when combined and interact create a different meaning. Both The Legend of Zelda and Grand Theft Auto are Action/Adventure games, but the details of the changing between focuses and interactivity of them create very different final products and meanings.
A Note on Other Combinations
I don’t care.
The specific combinations don’t matter. I used what I did to illustrate my definitions and some generally held irregularities. I’ve also proved that the combinations themselves don’t mean squat.
Again, don’t care. They may exists, but I don’t need them to make my point.
Immiscible games is a very basic top tier concept that as time goes on creates difficulty when working with genres. As time goes on genres become more and more disparate as they copy, steal and repurpose from others. This happens from the very small differences like two very similar sub-genres learning from one another to what Immiscible games are, the mixing of insoluble Super-genres. But because it is at the highest level it is important for two reasons. One to understand the concept of mixing and that at the Super-genre level is happens a slightly different way.
The combinations don’t mean anything in and of themselves and over all this can be expressed to everything about genre. Genre hints at purpose and the broadest levels of themes. It dictates areas to explore, not what can be said. And with mixing of disparately different genres we end up with something wholly new. Recognition and understanding of the process is the best we can work with once genre, Super or otherwise moves beyond the basics.
Finishing with the series conclusion.