Where Have All The Genres Gone?

Games have changed a lot over the past few years.  And I’m not just talking about that whole motion controls Kinect bullshit.  I’m still hoping that fad fizzles out fairly soon.  No, the change I’m talking about is certainly more subtle than that, though if you ask me it’s no less fundamental.

Come with me, if you will, on a trip back to 1999.  Your Nintendo 64 or Playstation or hell, maybe even Dreamcast collection is the envy of all the other neighborhood kids – you have a game for every occasion.  If you want to play an adventure game, you play Mario or Crash Bandicoot.  If you’re in the mood for some action, Goldeneye 007 or Doom are there waiting for you.  If RPGs are your thing, you have Final Fantasy or Baldur’s Gate.  The sports enthusiast in you can turn to Madden, Need for Speed, or Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.  I could surely go on ad nauseum but I’m sure you see what I’m saying – games had genres.  Categories that they fit into. It helped me as a misguided 13 year old know what the hell I was buying when I picked up that copy of Metal Gear Solid (“Tactical Espionage Action”) in my local Babbage’s.

See that? The game's title literally tells you what genre it is. Ah, the good old days.

Now, in 2011, things are different.  I play Mass Effect when I want to play an RPG that’s also sort of an action game.  Or maybe it’s an action game that has some RPG elements in it.  Portal is a puzzle game loaded with action.  I think.  Warhawk is a great first person shooter that incorporates some trappings of an RTS.  The line is becoming blurred.  The concept of “genre” is becoming passe.  “RPG elements” are everywhere, whatever that means.

So what happened?  Did developers just get bored?  Tired of adhering to the same old “genre formula,”  did they just decide to try something new? An encouraging thought, to be sure, though even a cursory glance through any current “top selling” list shows that developers have absolutely no problem recycling game formulas over and over again.

My theory is that it’s a combination of factors that happened to come together at the right time.  On the one hand, as games have become exponentially more popular in recent years, the more involved genres like RPG’s and RTS’s just didn’t hold enough appeal.  In an age where games take several years and millions of dollars to make, if all but 1.6%* of your market are put off by hardcore resource gathering and inventory management, of course you’re going to cut it. After all, what good is a game that nobody plays?
*Not a real figure. Flame shield on.

This happened to coincide on the other side of the coin with the whole “gamification” thing.  In other words, it’s not enough to already be playing a game simply for the enjoyment of playing – now people are demanding to be constantly rewarded just for playing.  Small, ultra-hyberbolized victories are cropping up everywhere.  Everything levels up.  Our football players level up, our cars level up, even our fucking guns level up and they’re inanimate for god’s sake.  The “instant gratification” previously touted by video games isn’t instant enough anymore.  Now we need to see numbers everywhere to track our progress in real time (unrelated side note: how many Twitter followers do you have?)

The chimera resulting from this perfect storm of commerce and mass social boredom is some new sort of eternal middle-ground supergenre.  Or perhaps a more appropriate term is non-genre; a giant, all-encompassing splotch of gray quickly overtaking the otherwise colorful array of games out there.

But isn’t this a good thing, you ask?  Isn’t sticking to genre formulas a potential hindrance to innovation in games?  Absolutely, without question.  I’m not at all saying that we should firmly resist change and insist only only playing paradigm games.  But, what’s important to keep in mind is that these longstanding genres are longstanding for a reason – because they work.  Certain elements and mechanics may seem tedious, outdated, or useless individually, but are vastly important to contributing to the overall feel and experience of a game.  If you start cutting and pasting, adding elements to a game that “seem cool” whilst removing ones that “seem tedious,” you run the same risk as a 6 year old with a self-styled haircut.  Individual pieces may seem to work, but the overall thing as a whole is a mess.

Sometimes, when genre elements are mixed, it's an overwhelming success. Yay, great new games!

To put it another way, the difference between an “action RPG” and an “action game with RPG elements” is that I invest in an RPG.  That character is mine, goddammit, so I’m going to obsess over every piece of armor I equip and every attribute point I assign, and ultimately not even care that I’m essentially doing “work” because I’m connected to the game – I am, if you will, “role playing.”  In an action game, even with RPG “leveling” added in, I’m just shooting things, and every now and then I have to stop to assign some skill points or choose a new power.  It takes more than doling out XP to make a game an RPG, especially on the level of connecting to a game through your character.

And frankly speaking, sometimes I want that gruelling tedium offered me by RPG’s of old.  Sometimes, I really do want to sit down and spend hours pouring through stat sheets and inventory lists in a way that I can’t when I play one of these “action games” with their supposed “RPG elements.”  Maybe it’s because I was raised on these games but I honest to god enjoy that shit sometimes.  In automatically taking care of all the “under the hood” stuff for me, these games are actually depriving me of the stuff I want to do.  Conversely, sometimes I just want to take a load off and play a game of NHL – just a simple game of hockey, and not have to worry about if my second stringer has decent enough stats to lead my team if my starter happens to get injured in some random event somehow.  Different games fulfill different functions for me; that’s why I play so many different games.  Mashing up all the elements to make them all resemble one another is just purpose defeating and frustrating.

...And sometimes, when you mix genre elements, it goes very poorly.

Let me reiterate for those who think I sound overly negative.  Bucking the yoke of the conventional genre should be encouraged.  We want to see new, innovative games that take us to new places, tell new stories, and push the limits of the medium.  But while games should move on from their classic genre origins, they should never forget them.  Update the games, but preserve the spirit they’re trying to convey.  I promise that if games are pushed in a direction that still encourages true engagement, people will buy them.  And there won’t even be a need to gamify the hell out of it because playing a genuinely well-constructed game is, overwhelmingly, its own reward.  Let’s keep moving forward and, perhaps paradoxically forge some brand new genres. Maybe then gaming’s landscape of gray will start to get a bit more colorful again.

Patrick Lindsey lives in Toronto.  He writes about games because, frankly, what else is he going to do with a Philosophy degree?  Oh yes – and also, the whole “advancing the cause of games as a new art form” thing.  He will accept your praise directly via patrickwlindsey [at] gmail [dot] com.