Category Archives: Genre

Eric Swain and Genre “Elements”

So Eric Swain is kicking off a gigantic discussion of genre in gaming. It’s really neat, and rich enough that I’ll have to think about it for a while before I really come to grips with it.

Granted, I disagree with his attempt to structure genres through a sort of biological “phylum/kingdom/species/whatever” sense. I don’t think it’s an analogy that’s really necessary here.I’m also definitely not sold by his argument that things like leveling in RPGs are just “tropes”. The RPG bit I’ll get to in a sec, but I simply don’t think the word “trope” is useful or helpful in this case. It’s just too slippery to be used in defining ANYTHING. It’s like trying to define something with the word “synergistic”. Ergh. No.

But it’s still really interesting, and a perfect starting point for discussion. There’s one bit that I wanted to highlight.

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…

…Video game genres though don’t need [the sort of stretching you see in other media], 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.

This is really, really important. GAME GENRES ARE NOT ABOUT SETTING. No, really, they aren’t.  I don’t think they’re even about classifying games, either.

No, here they are, in a pinch, put quite simply: a genre in game design is a particular set of related gameplay mechanics.

That’s it. It’s not complicated. It doesn’t really require heavy classification.  They do have to be related, of course, and the process of experimental game design is always bringing up new ones and sunsetting old ones.

Note what I didn’t say, though. I didn’t say “a type of game”. I said “set of  mechanics”. That’s really important. Trying to say that any particular game is “an RPG” or “an action game” or “an adventure game” or “a strategy game” (to use the four uber-genres that Eric is using) isn’t helpful or useful.

It isn’t helpful or useful because almost no game focuses purely on a single set of related mechanics. Games are almost always mixtures of genres. There’s a bit of this, and a bit of that, and a whole lot of something else. Some are purer than others, but precious few are completely pure examples of genre mechanics.

Sometimes the genres present in a game work together, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s brilliant, like the mixture of music and action in a game like Child of Eden. Sometimes it’s a wee bit dubious, like the mixture of RPG and FPS in the multiplayer component of Modern Warfare. Sometimes it’s just bizarre, like the platforming elements in Sierra’s old (and entirely underrated) Manhunter series. It’s the mixtures that often make a game interesting.

That’s where the word “element” comes into it. (Wondering when that one would come up? There it is.) We implicitly recognize this when we use the word “element”, even if we don’t always recognize what we’re saying. When we say a game has “action elements” or “adventure elements” or “puzzle elements”, what we’re really saying is “these are sets of related mechanics that are present in this game”.

When we say that there are “RPG elements” in a game, we aren’t saying that it’s a pure RPG: we’re saying that  a particular set of mechanics are present in the title. That’s why I disagree with Eric on the “level” thing; the presence of “leveling” in a game is the presence of, yes, the sort of mechanics that we label as “RPG” mechanics. That doesn’t mean setting, or whatever the hell a “trope” is supposed to be these days; the fact that Modern Warfare doesn’t feature elves or swords or spaceships or what-have-you means nary a thing when it comes to discussing its RPG elements. Not tropes, gameplay.

That’s where I part ways from Eric. Eric’s definition seems to be top-down. Mine is bottom-up. He’s trying to classify from a set of “super-genres” downward. I’m pointing out that genres are something that evolve more than anything else, and that they work a bit like DNA: what makes games special and interesting are the ways that they combine, mutate and bud off the sets of related gameplay mechanics that we call “genres”.

It’s also why the complete loss of a genre is devastating to the medium; it’s taking away from the ways in which games can evolve. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen often. Even adventure games, that poor, benighted genre that so often gets confused with RPGs—and don’t think I’m not going to go off on THAT thing soon—are still a going concern thanks to the vitality and freedom of modern  open platforms like PC and mobile.  Sure, it’s small, but small and open go together really, really well.

(Ditto with the “scrolling shooter” genre: if you think that one’s dead and buried, you haven’t played Jamestown yet. Besides, Cave’s on iOS now.)

I’ll read Eric’s future pieces with great interest. And, to be fair, this is only based on a quick reading. I may realize that he’s making a completely different point once I start going over his arguments in more detail. But I still wanted to get across what I think the word “genre” really refers to…

…After all, I wanted you to be ready when I finally start going off on what the word “RPG” really means. It’s gonna be fun.

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