Genre, and the Power of Words

‘Genre’ is a powerful word. While creating an automated checklist of expectations – and thus encouraging many to conform to those expectations – it can also blind many to new works of fiction and new ideas, leaving those to cower in the corner of their own imaginative spheres. And for many, the checkpoint to their particular corner blocks advances from games that forgo the words ‘first’, ‘third’, ‘person’, or ‘shooter’.

It’s this word, in my experience, that can damage the reputation of a solid title simply because it failed to shape its entirety to the mold set by its predecessors. Final Fantasy XIII is an apt example. Oft-compared to an action game – highly-linear, combat driven, with a less than concise story – Square’s latest foray into its seminal franchise often received the criticism that it’s ‘not a Japanese role-playing game’. Why? It didn’t have towns, nor did it feature a world map in the most traditional meaning of the terms. Granted, the game’s fantastic combat was marred by a poorly-conveyed story and linear design, but never, ever would I condemn it for its decision to break the mold its ancestors clung to so dearly.

Genres exist, perhaps, for two reasons: to allow marketers and retailers to – lazily – convey a product in just a few simple, universally understood words; and, at a more personal level, allow people to define themselves entirely by what they consume – ‘I’m a shooter fan, I like horror novels, and I love action films.’

And, as an unintended by-product, the implementation of ‘genre’ allows developers, again, if only unintentionally, to disregard particular aspects of a game depending in which genre they happen to categorize their product. This also seemingly curbs expectations, too. How many times have you heard ‘It’s a shooter, who cares about the story?’

Certain games, too, have suffered from their inability to ‘correctly’ categorize themselves. Brutal Legend, a game that promoted aspects of both action and strategy, was apparently trapped between the monikers of both ‘action’ and ‘real-time strategy’. From my limited time with Schafer’s brainchild, it failed to match the automated checklist of both. Is it a bad game? In some respects, yes – but not entirely due to its half-way house nature.

Burnout, touted as an ‘arcade racer’, is clumsily bundled into the genre of ‘racing’. As such, Burnout Paradise might often be uttered in the same sentence as Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo. So, when I recommended Burnout Paradise to a friend – a friend who adamantly professes a strong distaste for the genre – he immediately replied, ‘but I don’t like racing games’. And why did I suggest Burnout? It differs wildly from its more mechanically orientated, car-worshiping cousins. It’s a game, that regardless of his distaste, I thought he might enjoy.

Labeling is commonplace. We all do it. We have a label for those who happen to live on a different plot of land, for those who have a considerably smaller – or larger – bank account, and those who a different belief, or non-belief, system. That’s only to name but a few. Genre labeling masks the subtleties, the complexities and the uniqueness in almost everything it touches. Next time you’re tempted to walk away from a newly announced title simply due to its categorization, think again. Do your research – cast judgment based on its distinct merits, and not those of the genre it’s said to inhabit.

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