A Clarification of Genre: Introduction

Several months ago I tried to explain some of the problems I saw with the discussions of video game genres. These conversations around what are Adventure game and RPGs keep popping up every couple of days in posts and all over twitter and I wanted to address some concerns with what I saw taking place in these conversation. I didn’t convey my ideas well at the time. Also, spawning off of this post I realized that while people debate genre there is a lot of annoyance at these debates at the perceived uselessness of the idea of genres. To me that frustration isn’t about the idea of genres and importance placed on them, but the fundamental misunderstanding of what a genre is. My post on the subject started at a point and I failed to explain where that point was. My meaning didn’t come across and many people ended up scratching their heads at what I was talking about.

So I’m going to start from the beginning.

What is Genre?

In general genres are used as a form of categorization so that stores and libraries can split up their offerings on different shelves so that customers can have an easier time finding them. It is used as a categorization technique for what people want in their media. On broad levels people understand that Comedies make us laugh, Action gets us pumped up, Drama works our pathos etc etc. The problem comes from how people then think of what these categorizations mean. In every case I’ve seen talk about genres, I see them used as short hand for tropes and techniques common to the type of media people think of as that genre rather than fundamental core of what that genre is about. For example, when you say Western people immediately think of the American Frontier, cowboys, horses, miles of desert and wilderness, shootouts at high noon, John Wayne etc. None of that has anything to do with what a Western is. All those things can and do appear in Westerns, but aren’t fundamentally what a Western is. A Western in a genre about an exploration of a certain theme against a backdrop setting that highlights in physical terms what it is talking about in on a philosophical one. Namely nature vs. society, lawlessness vs. civilization, the nature of man between the savage and the moral, the struggle between the frontier and the march of progress. That is what a Western is about. It doesn’t even have to take place in the Wild West to be considered a Western so long as it addresses what the genre is about.

This confusion of tropes for meaning comes from the idea that genres are categories instead of descriptors. Genres are adjectives applied to a work to detail what that work’s core is constituted from. To continue with the above example of the Western genre, that genre itself can further be subdivided into sub-genres: the Classic Western, the Deconstructed Western, the Present Day Western, and the Post-Apocalyptic Western. Some of which can be further subdivided like John Ford Western would be a subdivision of the Classic Western. This is possible because further descriptions cause a genre to become more detailed with what the work is about though a person associations of similar works with those descriptions.

Think of it the Biological classification system. There are multiple levels that as you go down them you become more and more accurate in your descriptions and narrow what you are talking about. (For reference: Life -> Dominion -> Kingdom -> Phylum -> Class -> Order -> Family -> Genus -> Species -> Sub-species) These are hard and fast boxes in which to place a living being in, but rather a set of descriptors that apply to a species. The further down this list, the more precise. The above labels are an indicator of how specific each descriptor is. Last I checked there were 5 Kingdoms the most prominent being the Animal Kingdom and the Plant Kingdom. They are different branches and the resulting branches of each, as one moves on to Phylum, do not intersect.

Genres are like that. Except where the biological classification system deals with cell functions or DNA markers, genres deal with ideas. Each descriptor adding more of an idea of what a game will or does consist of depending on which side of the industry you are on. For example. Action -> Shooter -> First Person -> Military -> Modern -> Call of Duty 4. Of course artistic works are not living things, so this metaphor breaks down at a certain point, but I wont get there for a while.

A Word of Video Game Genres

There is a difference between what we normally conceive of as genre in other mediums and that of video games. Where as other medium genres are generally defined as the thematic and emotional space/questions the work generally deals with – Westerns with civilization vs. the wild or Noir the isolation of modern man in a post industrialized world – video game genres deal with the not the essence of a work’s meaning, but how that essence is delivered to its audience. In broad strokes, a game has mechanics, it delivers its focus through the interactive dynamics of those mechanics, to that focus, context is applied and from the result a meaning can be derived and extracted from the work. In no other medium is this a consideration. Artists may play around with the formalism aspects of their chosen medium, think Bergman’s Persona or more stereotypically Wells’ Citizen Kane in movies and House of Leaves for books, but they are fundamentally working within the same delivery system. The only thing I can think of would be that is remotely similar is that although a movie, a TV show and a youtube video are all ultimately the same medium, their delivery mechanism dictates content, style and the general thematic content of a piece. But that’s if you really want to stretch it.

Video game genres though don’t need that sort of stretching, because a first person shooter is fundamentally different from a point and click adventure, which is fundamentally different from a real time strategy game, which is fundamentally different from an open world RPG. In other words you wouldn’t apply the same design logic or critical methodology to Half-Life like you would Grim Fandango like you would StarCraft like you would Baldur’s Gate. I didn’t even choose as disparate titles in that example as I could have, all 4 games are from the same year and a product of the same environment. But no one will see them as similar because basically they belong to different “Kingdoms” of video games.

Video games do have thematic genres and even examples of genres that exist in other mediums like the above Western with Red Dead Redemption, Gun and Call of Juarez. But those descriptors are further down the list. Before you start to deal with them you have to deal with how it is going to deliver its experience.

Why Are Genres Important?

I feel like I’ve partially answered this question only two paragraphs above, but I feel a little more can be said with regards to how people approach the concept of genre now.

RPGs to most people are about gaining experience and leveling up. This idea that this is fundamental to what an RPG is that we’ve gone on to call these mechanics RPG elements as if no other mechanics matter in the grand scheme of things. These mechanics get the title of the genre itself, that’s how important they are. No they’re not. They are tropes common (okay super common) to the genre that like the cowboys and American Frontier to the Western they get confused for being the genre itself.

Common tropes and elements are born out of the fundamental determinant of a genre and do not inherently define it. It is the general focus of a work and from which the potential meaning is derived from. The broader the genre scope the broader the defining concept of the genres is. Genres are descriptors. This is in contrast to how they are mistakenly thought of, as doctrine. I use the word focus as opposed to meaning because the meaning is individual to each work, but the focus is where that meaning will emerge. It is confusing the techniques or common elements as the defining aspect of a genre where both creators and critics run into problems. It is the disconnect of the underlying concepts to the minutia of tropes that causes unfocused works both in creation and in evaluation.

With video games these amount to mechanics being solely associated with genres and then replacing them with what a genre is actually about. In all the genre discussions I’ve seen people have, they essentially are looking at Westerns and one says saying cowboy before the other counters with barman as some sort of argument to confuse the definitions. In doing so they narrow the definitions and trip themselves over trying to figure out, for instance what an RPG is. Always looking to the widely used concept of the leveling system or the inclusion of a dynamic story as a starting base for defining a genre, when both are simply tropes born out of creators driving at the core of what an RPG is. Up until very recently Adventure games were defined as only point and click affair with maybe some deference to text adventures and interactive fiction. Again we have tropes being replaced for the core. Just because it is just how something has always been done doesn’t mean it is the only way to do it.

Without proper understanding of what genres are we end up with a mess. A new game comes along the doesn’t look like anything before because it uses new mechanics and has its own way of doing things and suddenly people are at a loss of how to understand it, or misattribute what it is trying to do. They end up calling it junk because it does not conform to their expectations or maybe the creators didn’t realize what they had and ended up cramming in common mechanics and designs in an effort to categorize themselves in an already established “genre.” This was the fate of L.A. Noire, a game that took people over 6 months to recognize it as an Adventure game. Or how about people wondering why there isn’t any shooting in Dear Esther simply because it is in first person mode. On the other hand it’s also why L.A. Noire crammed in so many wasted sand box elements.

People claim it is genre that limits creativity, drastic innovation and design because it has to fit into the neat little holes in people’s mind, but in reality it is the opposite. Genres are a focusing agent that allows the creator and the critic to get to the heart of the work. I will concede that once a creator/critic has a handle on the basics of what particular genres are about, than mixing and matching defining elements appropriately can work wonders into new ideas. Though I believe there are limits. But throwing popular elements or mechanics into a work willy nilly without any naturalized understanding of why those mechanics were used, when used properly, and what they were about leads to disasters.

A Word on Nomenclature

Another pothole of this concept is conceptual stratification. What I mean is while we call an RPG a genre and a shooter a genre, they aren’t. One has a much broader spectrum of potential to cover than the other. Without thinking of the one to one, an RPG would be a “Kingdom” to a shooter’s “Phylum.” Back in November I tried to get around the generalization of what the community as a whole called genres. First Person Shooters, Racing games, Platformers were all called genres. In reality they are all Action games and are different in that they are distinct sub-genres, “Phylums” to Action’s “Kingdom” and the first in that list more of a “Class.” But since everyone still calls them genres I deferred and called the more encompassing concepts Super-genres. Given how that blew up in my face in trying to accommodate people I was willing to say, “Fuck that this time around.” I did it to facilitate understanding and it only muddled the waters. But then I came across my handy little metaphor and realize that idea if not the term Super-genres was very necessary. This series will only be covering in detail the Super-genres. Any descriptor and details below them on the scale will be used as examples and explanations only. I wont get to it because frankly covering the macro stuff is taking up more of my time than I’m comfortable with and at this point I sort of just want it done.

Secondly, there is difficulty in codifying definitions due to the inherent slant of video game terms to etymologically favor the Action genre. Verbs, use, act, do, perform, interact, execution and action are all words that if not in their specific definition cause confusion due to their usage in common understanding. These words all common to video game theory sort of infect any understanding of other genres given associative definitions. To try and head this off I may end up being a little wordier in places than I’d normally like to be to try and dull confusion. Because there are standard understandings to these words and video game understandings to these words I’d thought mentioning and asking to keep that in mind in future installments might ease the burden.

Thirdly, with regards to the words action, adventure, role-playing, strategy, racing, shooting and any other words that are also named for Super-genres, genres or any other classification descriptor look to the capitalization. If I write Action and not action be assured I am talking about the genre not the concept of an avatar doing something. As for RPG, the genre term will be written out like that and role-playing will be lower case and written out.

I don’t know how much cross-reference words there will be or how convoluted some of the sentences are going to be when written out. I’ll do my best, but keep and eye out and call me on it if I happened to mess up on capitalization.

Fourthly, up till now I’ve been careful with my wordings so as not to give the impression that these genre labels and genre labels in general are dictatorial doctrine with check lists and strict definitions, but rather adjectives that apply to a wide variety of games. I’m not going to keep that up for the whole series. Words like definition, categorization, heading etc will slip in, as they are needed. This is not to be taken as me dictating a narrowing of what games can be or what certain games can specifically be. To the contrary this system of thought opens the world up to new things rather than the confining and confusion of the present thought process.

Finally, during the prework I realized I needed help to get my thoughts in order and someone to bounce my ideas off of trying to poke around for the holes and fill them up. I had adjusted much of what I came up with into a better concept and actually dealt with a number of nagging doubts when it came to certain “problem” games that by myself I couldn’t work through. Thanks go to Seb Wuepper for talking to me for hours to get through this. I bring this up here because he did bring up one idea that I considered for a few seconds before realizing the suggestion could go horribly wrong. He suggested I drop the previously used genre terms for my Super-genres and label them as descriptors. He even renamed a few for me. I think it’s difficult enough that I’m trying to put forth these ideas and concepts that go against such an established and ludicrous grain that I’d be adding more trouble for little to no pay off. Thought it deserves mentioning though.

Graphing the Super-genres

Before I get down into defining what I see as the 4 Super-genres I’d like to take a moment on how I came up with them as a different level of classification and some additional thoughts on the idea surrounding the number 4.

Originally when I had started this piece I only sought to clarify the problems I saw with the discussions, not create some new genre system by which to change the critical sphere. (I’ll be using it anyway.) Since many posts and the discussions were all about RPGs and Adventure games I focused on those, also throwing Action games into the mix because I had written a post on the concept of Action/Adventure games recently. But since I decided to throw all my efforts into this I shouldn’t leave it at just what is discussed.

I knew at the time I wrote that piece there was a fourth Super-genre – Strategy – mainly because the games under its descriptor didn’t fit under any other Super-genre label. I didn’t have any idea how to define or quantify it at the time.

But I had 4 Super-genres all the same. Humans are creatures of patterns. We see patterns everywhere, whether they exist or not, and we create patterns in everything we make almost instinctively. Or at least we see the patterns in what we created after the fact, whether they are there or not. Given this and the fact I had 4 of a categorization I figured I could place these Super-genre into the 4 quadrants of an X-Y graph. Then I tried to figure out X and Y lines were and what type of opposing scales would be. It did not go well. Without exception I could not place all 4 Super-genres on the graph. I could always fit three together along logical labeling of the lines, but the fourth Super-genre would always defy either the X or Y line. The fact that I could get some Super-genres to be on opposite sides in one definition of the graph and next to each other in another further hampered this effort.

It was about this time it dawned on me to ask what the point of graphing it would be. Doing such a thing would try to quantify rather than qualify artistic works and would change the focus of my argument. It would also create a system of limitation, the kind of which I sought to get away from in the first place. It did, however, open one line of inquiry for me. If you are familiar with Magic: The Gathering you will know there are 5 colors of mana and spells. White, Blue, Black, Red and Green. These colors are placed at the points of a pentagon. Each color has two allies that have overlapping philosophies and concepts. They even share some of the same mechanics, thought use them differently. For instance, White is the color or order and law, of society and structure. Its allies are Green and Blue. Green overlaps on the concept of society and groups. Though where White is culturally and governmentally imposed groups, Green has the groups found in nature and natural law to White’s societal one. Blue meanwhile takes White’s order and structure concepts to the arenas of self-discipline and mental pursuits to White’s societal ones. You can see the overlap, but not quite. Additionally the other two colors are their opponents’ antithesis. White’s order is to Red’s Chaos and White’s community is to Black’s self serving. I see the Super-genres this way. Vague overlap when it comes to certain concepts with its philosophical allies and different directions when it comes to its philosophical opponents. Even with the opponents there is common ground, but more in dealing with issues rather than answers.

Much of the work I did in trying to ascribe the 4 Super-genres to a X/Y graph lead me to see certain overlaps with the Super-genres’ focuses and that no Super-genre was really a direct opponent in whole. In some cases I could even see where they might fit with one another, but all this is reliant on the fact that there is a fifth Super-genre. That is what I wanted to make clear. There might be a fifth Super-genre that either I can’t see or we as an industry haven’t delved into that space yet or have under-delved into that space that we can’t separate it yet. Hell, there might be a sixth or seventh or however many. The minor point I’ve laboriously trying get to is that this systems and these definitions are not the end all be all.

The 4 Super-genres

And after all that I finally get to the definitions of these so-called Super-genres. And they aren’t so much definitions as philosophical descriptors of what any given game’s core would be about. They are inclinations derived from looking at the most desperate of examples with each genre and looking for the core, the thing you cannot take away without fundamentally altering the game and the experience it delivers. The 4 Super-genres are: Action, Adventure, RPG and Strategy.

Action – a focus on timing of the physical execution of the interactive elements to achieve mastery of verbs

Adventure – a focus on the exploration of the game’s milieu to achieve a mastery of understanding

RPG – a focus on the exploration and development of the self to achieve mastery via self-definition

Strategy – a focus on the collection and spending of limited resources towards a long-term plan where the physical execution cannot be the deciding factor

Full disclosure: I outsourced that last one to Troy Goodfellow and Rob Zachy of Three Moves Ahead fame. Both will know more about Strategy games than I could ever hope to. In working with it I’ve only made tweaks to the wording and essentially functions, as I need it to. A big Thank You to the both of them.

Another problem I felt with my original post on the subject of Super-genres was that I don’t think I gave enough time and space to each one to fully explain what I meant by each of these philosophical definitions. I felt it was obvious, but then it’s always obvious to the person who spends the time doing the work. I’m sure Calculus is obvious to some and would struggle with my ineptitude with it. I didn’t explain myself well enough the first time, so I’m giving myself the breathing room for each Super-genre. I will cover in upcoming posts in detail what I mean by these definitions. I’m sure as definitions they are lacking. Right now they are more of guidelines to facilitate my explanations. I will explain each in turn and detail where the tropes get confused for the definitions themselves. There were also quite a few surprises when you follow the logic about certain game genres and titles.

Immiscible Genres

This subject label is a product of my discussions with Seb Wuepper. In looking for a way to describe games that combine Super-genres we eventually came across this word from Chemistry and it’s opposite: Miscible. Miscible liquids are homogenous solutions where they are the same all the way through. A Miscible genre game would be where it is a single consistent genre, or in this case Super-genre. Immiscible liquids are those that will not mix together, namely oil and water. They are in the same container, yet still distinct parts of the mixture. An Immiscible genre game is how I explain the ludicrous term Action/Adventure.

I will go into detail in its own post what I mean specifically how Super-genres mix, or rather don’t mix as the case may be given my choice of terms. Again because of the mixture and commonalities they get confused. Action/Adventure is the most troubling term because as I noted a while back it is used as a catch all term for something we can’t be bother describing properly. It’s how Grand Theft Auto gets lumped in Zelda and Skyrim.

Not only identifying the problems that such a thing Action/Adventure poses to my conceptualizing I also see Immiscible games as a way of detailing the cross over of different philosophies. (This is where the Biology metaphor breaks down in case you were wondering.) We all understand the difference between an Action/RPG and an Action game with rpg elements on the broadest level. Again I want to detail underlying core that comes about with Immiscible games.

Out of the Starting Gate

If you managed to get through all that, I thank you. If not, the upshot of it is, game genres as we use them now are screwed up and I intend to strip things down to their basics to build up a basic understanding of what we are talking about when we talk about in terms of what a game is trying to do. This is something for both creators and critics not because it will provide a road map or add anything significant, but because the lack of this understanding will only produce problems and poor output. I also want to try and get rid of the tribalism mentality when it comes to ethereal concepts. I may tread on the established consensus, but if the established consensus is wrong by virtue it doesn’t work than I’m okay with that. The key to understanding this series is the fact that just because something has always been done this way does not mean implicitly that it is a key-defining factor of a genre.

Next post: Action

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