About games and gaming thereof!

Genre Names Are Weird

So, the latest Jimquisition is about the term “art games,” and why it is not a broken term and does not need to be done away with. He makes a good case, and I absolutely agree with him.

The main argument against the term is that calling some games “art games” implies that not all games are art, and that games not classified in that genre aren’t art. That isn’t really the case, as Jim points out.

It reminds me of a conversation I had at college a few years ago. I was sitting with some acquaintances who were talking enthusiastically about some fighting game. Eventually I said, “To be honest, I just don’t really like fighting games.”

I got a bunch of weird, surprised looks from them, but one person in particular seemed shocked. He said something like, “You don’t like any of them? Not even, like, Call of Duty?”

Then everyone gave him a weird look. One of us had to explain that the term “fighting game” doesn’t just refer to all games that involve fighting; they’re specifically games centered around a one-on-one brawl between two characters standing in an arena of sorts, probably with absurdly proportioned bodies and dressed in their underpants if they’re women.

Going off-track. Anyway, if what these people say is true, that calling some games “art games” implies that they’re the only games with any artistic merit, we’d also have to discredit “fighting games” as a term, because most games are about fighting.

I guess Jim’s video reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to talk about for awhile: video game genres have weird names, and sometimes the way we classify them is strange and contradictory.

Some genres are defined by their mechanics or how you play them. Fighting games, as I said, are games that have one-on-one brawls between two characters etc. Strategy games are games about controlling a veritable army with troops and headquarters, and that’s kind of a broad term used for a specific genre again, since you could argue that there’s plenty of strategy to be found in a competitive Street Fighter 4 match. Tactical shooters are shooters that employ realistic elements like iron sights, low damage threshold, and accuracy reduction from movement, which seems to imply that unrealistic run-and-gun shooters don’t involve tactics (they often do).

Then there are genres that aren’t defined by mechanics, but by the emotions they’re meant to elicit. Survival horror, for instance, is meant to engender fear and survival instinct from the player. This can be achieved using any game mechanics the designer chooses, which is why Sweet Home, Dead Space and Amnesia: The Dark Descent are all considered part of the same genre despite playing very differently from one another. There’s also the label of “party game,” which can refer to all sorts of games that are designed for casual multiplayer.

The other big argument against the label of Art Game is that it’s very vaguely defined. That also doesn’t really hold up, because there are other genre names we use that are also very difficult to provide a strict definition for.

The big one, of course, is the RPG, or Role-Playing Game. If you take it by its literal definition it means games that involve roleplaying. (That also requires us to choose a definition for “roleplaying,” because that can technically refer to any game in which you play a role, which would be basically every game ever.) In reality, it refers to games ranging from Diablo to Elder Scrolls to Final Fantasy to Mass Effect, which seem to have little in common with one another when you look at their actual mechanics.

Since the genre evolved from Dungeons & Dragons, ultimately it refers to any game that resembles D&D to any significant degree. Mass Effect doesn’t play anything like D&D, but it involves creating a character, and making choices that define your character’s personality (that’s that roleplaying we discussed earlier) and impact the world around you. Final Fantasy doesn’t have anything like that, but it does have turn-based combat built around commanding each member of party of adventurers. Diablo and Skyrim don’t have that, but they do have exploring, leveling-up, and looting epic gear.

I think the bottom line is that while genres can be hard to classify and sometimes the classifications sound strange or meaningless, that doesn’t discount them as labels. If we all know what I’m talking about when I say “fighting game” or “art game,” then the system is working. If a term becomes particularly outdated, it will probably die away overtime. (Remember how we all used to call first person shooters Doom clones?)

As a final point, I’d like to add that this phenomenon is by no means exclusive to video games. You can probably look up any number of music forums right now and find a heated debate about whether or not KoRn can be legitimately classified as a “metal” band.

And to anyone who’s curious, the Diablo 3 post is coming. It’s… taking awhile.


14 responses

  1. krellen

    Mass Effect 1 was barely an RPG. The rest of the series aren’t RPGs at all. They bear no resemblance whatsoever to RPGs.

    July 3, 2012 at 1:23 AM

    • JPH

      No, no, no, no, no. We are not having this debate again. Not on this blog.

      July 3, 2012 at 1:40 AM

      • krellen

        Stop calling them RPGs then. You’re undermining your own argument by making the distinction meaningless.

        July 3, 2012 at 5:16 PM

        • JPH

          Why Mass Effect 2 and 3 qualify as RPGs:

          -You create a character with a unique face, class and backstory.
          -You then build this character up throughout the course of the game, gaining experience from missions, and customizing the abilities of yourself and your teammates.
          -The games feature a heavy emphasis on exploration and roleplaying.

          Like I said, RPGs aren’t defined by core gameplay mechanics like some other genres are. The fact that Mass Effect 3 is a shooter does not exempt it from being an RPG, just like the fact that Ratchet & Clank is a platformer does not exempt it from being an third person shooter.

          The reason why I don’t like persistently arguing about this with you is not because I don’t have a definition — it’s because it’s very clear that your personal definition of RPG is very different from the definition I and many others use.

          July 3, 2012 at 10:31 PM

          • krellen

            Your definition is victim of a marketing creep, trying to label things as RPGs and adopt RPg-like mechanics because they sell, not because they want to make RPGs. By adopting your definition, you’re doing the opposite of what you’re looking for: you’re making “RPG” a meaningless descriptor. Your loose definition can be applied to so many things as to make the term basically useless to use.

            It’s exactly the same as saying all games that make any artistic point even indirectly are “art games”, rather than allowing “art game” to be a game that exists specifically to make an artistic point.

            July 7, 2012 at 10:45 PM

            • JPH

              It’s not a meaningless descriptor, though. The definition of RPG is just as vague as the definition of art game, and it works just as well. There’s a very clear distinction to me between Mass Effect 2 and any non-RPG shooter I’ve ever played. It’s not about the game mechanics — it’s about the itch it’s designed to scratch.

              Most people can easily identify what games are and aren’t RPGs. Magicka calls itself an RPG on Steam, but nobody regards it as an RPG because that’s not what it is. Marketing does not define genres.

              July 7, 2012 at 11:41 PM

              • krellen

                I don’t think anyone would claim you can have an art shooter, and I don’t think anyone should accept the idea you can have an RPG shooter either.

                July 7, 2012 at 11:54 PM

                • JPH

                  “I don’t think anyone would claim you can have an art shooter”

                  Play Metro 2033 and then say that again.

                  July 8, 2012 at 12:02 AM

  2. Great article, once again. Completely agree with what you were saying here.

    July 3, 2012 at 2:16 AM

  3. Counterpoint: I know of plenty games wherein you don’t assume any role. Puzzle games spring to mind, or the more skirmish-oriented RTSes.

    Beyond that, I pretty much agree that labels are useful as long as they’re useful, and people who get hung up over them are always a little silly in my eyes.

    July 3, 2012 at 7:37 AM

  4. Sumanai

    There’s also the problem in regards to movies. Someone wrote an article online some time ago where the writer liked Wargames, and because of that someone bought them Call of Duty.

    I remember when, at least Finnish magazines, called first person shooters Shoot ’em ups. But they were closer to bullet hell games back then anyway.

    There’s a frustrating thing about current video game categories, which is that they’re not all that descriptive.

    For instance I like puzzle games, but to me Tetris etc. are not puzzle games. In fact if it has any kind of a time limit it’s not a puzzle game. A proper puzzle may bother you for hours before you solve it and then the mechanics shouldn’t make the actual act of solving any more difficult than it has to be.

    This means that whenever I’m looking for a specific type of a game because I’d like to play one I have to usually go through at least two different groups (in this case “puzzle”, “strategy”, “tactics” and “casual”) and check every game one by one and hope that the video/description tells me what the game is actually like. Or has a demo, but those are rare and surprisingly often misleading.

    If its promising but a bit too expensive for a blind purchase I then have to search for and then go through reviews that may or may not actually mention anything of value. Most of the time they don’t, regardless of the popularity of the genre. Note that it can be important to check reviews even if there’s a demo, since the gameplay might change after it.

    July 3, 2012 at 8:59 AM

  5. It always bugged me that Steam uses a label like “indie game” in its descriptions. Indie is NOT a genre, it’s a business model. We can have a FPS indie, a Plataformer indie, a RPG indie etc.

    July 3, 2012 at 10:12 AM

    • Sumanai

      I have a feeling that if Mumbles read that she’d laugh. See, this sort of stuff has already happened in the music circles and according to her Twitter feed she finds it incredibly funny.

      “Indie game” is transforming, or has transformed depending who you ask, into a vague description of the game itself. It implies a set of attributes, like “novel”, “low-fi visuals/audio”, simple or focused gameplay and so on. Even when the term started it was clear that to a lot of people an “indie game” was partially the feeling that it elicited, not merely a business model.

      Also Steam is using a system where a single game can be in several, at least three, categories. I don’t know if it has been that way the whole time, but I noticed it only a few days ago. So it’s possible to have a game that’s “Adventure, RPG, Indie”. In this example Legend of Grimrock.

      July 4, 2012 at 7:41 PM

      • Sumanai

        Of note is that I’m usually bothered when something like this happens, but for some reason the “indie” descriptor has never really felt important to me. Although it is yet another category I have to go through in order to find a new game I might like, but at this point that’s like having to pass a fourth location during a long drive. My butt is already hurting, this isn’t making much of a difference.

        July 4, 2012 at 7:45 PM

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