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July 20, 2014 | by  | in Articulated Splines Opinion |
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My, Earth really is full of things!

We have an awfully large number of video games available to play these days. In an awfully large number of diverse ways. Obviously on one level, there are at least six or seven major gaming platforms out there, each with their own exclusive titles, and it would be prohibitively expensive to own them all. But even on those two or three platforms that we do own – say, a console, a mobile and maybe a PC – there are a bunch of different kinds of games that are so different to one another that they make for an almost completely different experience.

I hesitate to use the word ‘genre’ here, because it’s not quite the same meaning of the term as applied to film, books or music. A mystery film is watched in much the same way as a comedy, a cartoon or porn. But when you’re playing a casual game like Temple Run, you’re doing so in a very different way to Skyrim. Battlefield is different again, and so is Towerfall. Then there’s Dota, or Minecraft. They’re different genres, sure, but they’re also fundamentally different in nature in a way that “genre” doesn’t really describe.

Take Towerfall: Ascension. A game originally for the Ouya, it’s now on PS4 and PC. You play as a little 2D archer jumping around on platforms battling your friends competitively or little monsters cooperatively. So what’s its genre? Metacritic describes it only as “General”, because the ‘too hard’ basket is an aggregator’s best friend. Some reviewers call it “Action”, which is true, but that broad description covers everything from FIFA to Gears of War. “Action Platformer” might be closer to the money, but only just. And how do you recognise the fact that Towerfall is designed from the ground up to be played sitting beside a friend or lover, taunting them mercilessly between rounds? It’s often called “couch competitive”, but that doesn’t tell you anything about what we’d classically consider “genre”. Tekken was couch competitive too, but a very different genre.

The words that most gaming sites call genres don’t have anything to do with what we understand the word to mean elsewhere. Genre is about the content, not the way it’s presented or interacted with. We might as well call books “paper, chapter-based” or “single-player”. My point is, the classical idea of genre is inadequate to explain the differences in format between games because no other medium has ever been interacted with in so many different ways. There can be games of the same genre with very different formats, and games of the same format with very different genres. And then you can have games with more than one of each. Battlefield has the genre of war, in the format of first-person shooter and online multiplayer. Mass Effect is a sci-fi action-adventure, in the format of single-player RPG, third-person shooter with online multiplayer. Towerfall is low fantasy, in the format of a platformer with local multiplayer. Minecraft is low-ish fantasy, in the format of a sandbox. There are two distinct metrics, not just one.
Steam divides games by genre, but then its listed genres are all just kinds of format, like Action, Adventure and Strategy, along with Indie which doesn’t seem to fit in that list at all. It’s not a very efficient way of categorising games, especially when a game like Portal could fit into four or five categories. Frankly, the definitions are so broad as to make the whole thing messy and pointless. Take a game like Unturned, for instance. It’s so hot right now, perhaps because it mashes together three concepts that are very much in vogue: zombie survival à la DayZ, sandbox exploration and construction straight out of Minecraft, and a freemium subscription model (free-to-play with a basically cosmetic paid option). In terms of genre, Steam lists it as “Action, Adventure, Casual, Free to Play, Indie, Early Access”. We have to turn to community tags for description of the actual genre of the game, which gives us “Zombie”, “Survival” and “Open World”. All of this mess can be separated into two things: descriptions of the game’s content, and descriptions of how you play the game. And then there’s “Indie”, which is for the ego, I guess. Given the choice, I’d say it falls into the zombie survival genre (which is technically a subgenre, I suppose), and is a sandbox game.

It might seem petty (because it is), but it becomes more important as game sales move increasingly online. It’s now up to us to curate our own game libraries, and figure out what is worth playing. The marketplace becomes more crowded, and differentiating between games to figure out what we want to play becomes our job. It’s also something you notice when playing early-access or amateur games: that often the developers don’t have a clear idea of how to label or market their creations. It’s not the practical point that matters to me, though: it’s just the simple fact that video games are a very different art form to the other media in our lives, and we do ourselves a disservice when we try to analyse or think about them as one homogenous group.

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