The Limitations of Genres

Dividing games into "first-person this" or "real-time that" makes it easier to ignore the bigger picture.

Last week, senior editor Brendan Sinclair and I were looking over a story on The Binding of Isaac when the proofreading process devolved into a five-minute debate on whether the game was a rogue-like or an overhead shooter. The discussion came to an unsatisfying end when he decided we'd wasted enough time and concluded, "The way we talk about games and genres is good and f***ed."

The Binding of Isaac is an overhead shooter. It's also a rogue-like and a Zelda-like. And probably a video game.

But why are genres as we apply them to games any more f***ed than other media? When The Blair Witch Project hit theaters, it captivated audiences as an original take on horror films. Its story was told through "found footage" supposedly recorded by students filming a documentary. This raw approach to horror put viewers in the thick of the anxiety, confusion, and fear faced by its central characters by embedding the audience in the scene. So why didn’t critics and producers call it first-person horror?

Because it's ridiculous to emphasize the minutiae of how we experience something to the expense of what we actually take away from that experience. That would be like preferring that your kids read Mein Kampf in print rather than Huckleberry Finn on a Kindle because you don't like e-readers.

Back to games. Why is it so important to know that a shooter is experienced staring down the gun instead of behind the character holding it? First-person versus third-person is little more than vernacular for how platforming and cover-centric a given shooter is in most modern games, even though perspective itself clearly does not prohibit these actions.

Schemas are useful in many cases, but for a medium fighting to prove its cultural value, they have little value.

It’s human nature to sort and classify things that may not really belong together. We put them into patterns psychologists call schemas, which we use to reduce the tedious work of considering a topic fully. They are useful in many cases (imagine having to ruminate on each bag of chips at Subway before you conclude which is appropriate for your combo meal), but for a medium fighting to prove its cultural value, they have little value.

Why are Braid and Super Mario Bros. lumped together as platformers? Braid’s homage to the Nintendo classic is clear, but the result--a game of metaphors vested in chronological puzzles--is different from Mario's simple, fast-paced, smooth acrobatic fantasy. Anyone expecting the latter from Braid because they both involve jumping on things is bound for vexation.

On the other hand, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II stars brawny soldiers barreling from cover to cover and blasting vicious aliens. Gears of War stars a brawny soldier barreling from cover to cover and blasting vicious aliens. The former is a real-time strategy game because players view the battlefield from the sky and command multiple units, while the latter is a third-person shooter because players control and focus on only one. To a core gamer, these are significant distinctions, more than enough to differentiate them despite their similar subject matter.

But outside the well-defined circle of gaming enthusiasm, they are not. It seems the only reason we classify most games almost solely by how we play them--first-person, third-person, top-down, side-scrolling, isometric, on-rails, open-world, tactical, squad-based, arcade-style, motion-controlled, massively multiplayer shooter--is because we experience the same things in all of them: kill and feel good about it.

Maybe our distinctions are excuses.

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Discussion

0 comments
nguedes44
nguedes44

I agreed, until you said "kill and feel good about it". There's a lot more to gaming then shooters. But, yeah.. We classify the games based on gameplay because the way we interact with games is the key defining characteristic of our experiences and, thus, it ultimately determine our preferences.

GameAdvisor
GameAdvisor

Well, I certainly think it makes a difference. From a narrative standpoint, maybe not as much, but you have to remember that these are games and that game play comes foremost. Two major points to consider though:

 

1. They do in fact give genres sub categories in movies. There are not just "comedies" - there are romantic comedies, black comedies, parodies, etc. New categories still pop up: there were no "superhero" movies in the 90s. They were just called "Action" movies.

 

2. Games can be defined by genre and need to be defined because it is important to tell the reader what kind of game they are playing. Again, it doesn't matter from a narrative perspective, but these aren't just stories - they are interactive games. Poker is a card game, monopoly is a board game. I'm sure there is a game out there that uses a board and some cards, but depending on the rules you can tell someone if it is a board game or a card game.

 

And I think they would like to know which it is because some of us hate board games.

lindallison
lindallison

Good lord, what is this article about.  Got news for you Sheridan, you don't actually kill things in Video Games (they're not real)

SauhlGood
SauhlGood

i think it is about the game mechanics, and the differences in how you play and interact with the game, and it does matter if your looking down the gun barrel of a gun, or staring it at it from a strategic overhead view...

 

ask if a chess player thinks his game is anything like TF2, different classes with different abilities all trying to kill each other or capture a main piece... or supreme commander a strategy game where you use, naval, air, and land forces... by following your logic we have a flight simulator and a naval/submarine simulator and a tank/mecha fps game all in one...yet their not, because neither the flight mechanics are representative of an actual flight simulator nor are the tanks  or naval forces, the depth of their mechanics are treated topically, so you dont have to worry about aiming the turret of an individual tank in a 300+ unit battle encounter... and can play the game as a commander/general  which is what the intention is... and as such a different games/genres deserve to have a class/category distinction, not all of them involve killing/jumping/shooting as a main theme some are puzzles, or dramas/narratives/stories or a mixture of some/all.

 

 

 

 

charlesdao
charlesdao

smaller comments please... i am reading chronicles of ice and fire, and now come here and here a lot of text too... please...

Silos911
Silos911

Very well done, great article and I believe your first as a news intern at Gamespot. It was interesting and is a way to raise discussion and bring into question the way we currently evaluate games when it comes to genre. However one criticism before I express my thoughts, next time don't include the censored swears. The swears in general I don't believe were needed in this article when just saying the way we judge genre is wrong or misdirected works just as well. At least in my opinion.

Anyway I think we need genres, but we also need a better way at expressing them. The Binding of Isaac is many different genres in one, but do you really want to explain to your friend, "Hey, if you're looking for an overhead shooter, roguelike, dungeon crawler, adventure game. Try Binding of Isaac, it's pretty fun." Therefore maybe we should break games into their bare essentials and try that. Unfortunately, that is hard to define. Binding of Isaac is a hybrid of both a roguelike and an overhead shooter. Perhaps we just need some new names for hybrids. We have metroidvania for certain hybrid-esque games, maybe for action-like games (Brawlers, shooters, etc.) mixed with rogues we should call it rogue-fighting. Awful name, I know, but hopefully it gets my point across.

Also, ggregd has a good point. We have to include theme or setting as well when defining games. FPS for Halo is very different when compared to FPS for Call of Duty. One is a sci-fi arena shooter, the other is a modern warfare (currently) squad based shooter. We need this in order to interest people in two different ways. Instead of just saying "Here's an FPS, I heard you like them", we can use "Here's a sci-fi game, I heard you like them".

warwickallison
warwickallison

Nothing stops a game crossing genres. At least for roguelikes (one of the oldest but stupidest-named genres), there exists the Berlin Interpretation. Binding of Isaac pushes the definition by not being turn-based (as does my game WazHack by not being top-down), but art would be pretty boring if it was slave to the genres.

ggregd
ggregd

Unlike books and movies, games are interactive so the way you interact with them is important part of their classification for anyone, not just a core gamer.  I think games are correctly categorized using their gameplay genre AND their thematic genre, e.g. First Person Horror, Sci-Fi Real Time Strategy, Fantasy Turn Based Strategy. 

 

Incidentally, I just wish we could get more First Person Comedy, Third Person Historical Drama or Picaresque Platformer.  Because pretty much all games now fall into the Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Action or Horror genres.

RobertBowen
RobertBowen

By their very nature, games cannot easily fall into the same kinds of categorisation as movies, or even music, because at their very core they are interactive experiences, and the nature of that interaction defines the overall experience.

 

At the most basic level, each game spans two core 'genres' - one that defines the 'style' of the gameplay, such as first person, turn-based, roleplaying, etc., and the other that defines the 'context' of the gameplay, such as puzzle, horror, adventure, etc.  In order to enhance our understanding of a game, therefore, we really need both of these descriptors to more clearly define an overall 'category', such as 'platform puzzler', 'third person action', 'first person horror', etc.   For example, a movie might be categorised as a 'period drama', but in gaming it might be defined as a 'historical adventure'.  There's nothing inherently wrong with that, either, because it gives the gamer a fundamental snapshot of what to expect from the experience.

 

Having said that, I do feel that some games are not categorised correctly, or they cover such a broad range of different genres that they cannot easily be conveyed in just a few words.  Take a game like Just Cause 2, where you can do time trials with a variety of vehicles, go parachute jumping, hunt for collectables, sabotage pipelines, pull off stunts, shoot lots of enemies, and so on.  Some people would simply call it a 'sandbox' game, but actually that term covers a variety of different kinds of games offering different experiences, and it doesn't actually go far enough to describe the kind of game that Just Cause 2 actually is.  You need the words 'third person action'  in there as well to enhance your understanding of the core experience, but even that doesn't go far enough.

 

But honestly, no labels are ever going to accurately summarise or convey the total content or 'feel' of a game, just as movie 'genres' cannot convey the quality of art direction, story, characterization, and all the other things we see on the screen.  Nor should we expect that they would, because that must be left to the experience of actually playing it, or watching it.

SipahSalar
SipahSalar

Im happy with terms like "fps with RPG elements" or "3rd person stealth shooter". This article is points out many things but recommends nothing. Its complaining about something when it has nothing better to suggest.

vadicta
vadicta

I'm sorry, what? You know that "found footage" is a type of genre now, right? So the film industry actually has made that distinction. They have sub-genres just like us. And are you trying to say that Halo: Reach and Halo Wars should be in the same gaming genre, because they're both Halo? If we went by that distinction, then anyone who wasn't a "core" gamer would just think, "Hey, Halo," and then they'd be disappointed to find it wasn't an FPS. 

 

Our genres work well. Is there confusion at times about what genre a game falls into? Certainly. Is that any different from the genres of any medium? Certainly not. 

cheamo
cheamo

If you ask me it's kind of a pointless discussion. I think that most of us know that not every game fits within a the confines of a single genre, and some cross the paths of many genres or are a new type of game altogether. To me genres are still a useful classification to give me some information about a game. Maybe I like the idea of brawny soldiers barreling  from cover and blasting viscous aliens, but I've never been all that crazy about strategy games in the first place; why then would I want to know anything about Warhammer 40K over Gears of War?

moonlightwolf01
moonlightwolf01

Genres are basically an easy way for publishers to devise marketing strategies, its as true in books and film as it is in games and just like most writers and script writers, I imagine most game devs wish genre would just just crawl into a hole and die. I mean take George Orwell's 1984 it could be dystopian fiction, it could be science fiction (if you remember how long ago it was written) it might even be political fiction but what shelf will you find it under in a bookshop: "literature." Why? because its more than fifty years old and most likely to be read by intellectuals and English literature students. Genre means nothing at all.

Granpire
Granpire

It's like Chris Hecker says. For some reason, while movies have genres based on the type of emotion or feeling they evoke, games have boring genres that tend to describe game mechanics.

 

I think something's going to have to give, but I don't see the way we categorize games changing anytime soon.

ExplicitMike
ExplicitMike

Sorry to go off topic. Can we please get Binding of Issac with the DLC on the Vita? Back on topic Genres names don't matter to me. I seen a lot of my friends call an action RPG's just Actions games.

Toysoldier34
Toysoldier34

Rarely are there any games these days that strictly adhere to a single genre. Even most FPS games have strong RPG elements in their leveling and unlock systems.

Dudeinator
Dudeinator

The argument and idea are compelling enough to discuss, but the article is horribly written. 

 

"...kill and feel good about it. Maybe our distinctions are excuses."

 

Where did this conclusion come from? None of what you said previously in the article acts as premises to support that claim.

 

Perhaps you should discuss why having genres revolving around gameplay style is limiting to a "medium fighting to prove its cultural value"? In fact, why don't you define what "fighting to prove cultural value" means? Are you saying that the gaming industry is trying to prove its worth to society? If so, explain why that concerns the issues of genre.

 

Don't just throw stuff out there for the sake of sounding sophisticated, yet fail to elaborate any further.

otaviogalileu
otaviogalileu

While I agree that genres are overused I believe this is just a part of human nature. We have been labeling everything out there, ethnicities, cultures, types of people, sexual orientations, etc, etc. The truth is, most things are very dynamic and could never truly fit any label afer all. Also, to say that the genre classifications are a mask for our guilty-free murderous satisfaction is a huge fallacy. Come on! Suddenly an article about how genres are futile becomes a slanter on violence in video games. And no, we don't experience the same thing in all of them. I don't recall feeling any good for killing anything in Portal, for example. But I did feel good about flying into multiple portals in quick succession though!

robfield
robfield

Solution: MORE GENRES!!...Problem solved.

 

Also, I refer to Braid as a "Puzzle Platformer" rather than just a platformer. That solves that issue.

 

But in all seriousness, I think that there are only a few of genres that are broken: action, adventure, & RPG.

The lines distinguishing these 3 genres from others are very thin.

 

For example: I can easily distinguish these 3 titles:

- Gran Turismo = simulation racer

- Burnout Revenge = arcade racer

- Mario Kart = cart racer

 

Besides the 3 genres mentioned above I think the rest are okay.

slayer1090
slayer1090

I only use genres to organize games into categories based on what to expect from them and how they play out. Mind you I play a variety of everything and enjoy certain things more than others, but it's mainly categorizing.

 

Think about it, if there were no genres and you could only go off of the box and manual of the game, those nowadays are very misleading and very linear, not compared to the manuals back in the golden age of gaming.

damnstraight003
damnstraight003

Like any argument denouncing a particular vernacular as useless or even detrimental, the problem here is that regardless of what you call it, there is a reason we use those words. As gamers we've come to expect certain things from a first-person shooter that we wouldn't expect from an RPG in the same way that you'd expect different things from a science fiction novel compared to a romance novel. Hybrids come up all the time, of course: Commander Shepard has plenty of risque rollicking during his/her time aboard the Normandy. Likewise, I'm sure people engage in erotic roleplay in EVE Online all the time, but nobody would ever dare to say that those games are part of the same genre. Their settings are similar, but they are very different games.

 

The names of our genres matter very little: if I liked, I could say that Call of Duty and Battlefield are action-oriented human anatomy destruction simulators. Now let's say that I'm a big AHADS gamer, and I've just heard about this game called Company of Heroes. A friend of mine describes the game: it has soldiers like COD and BF, a wide array of firearms, explosives, even vehicles. Great! So I start up the game and I'm confronted with the interface of a route planning and tactics management game. The world of RPTMs is completely alien to me! If only my idiot friend had described this game in terms of how it is played instead of its setting elements! THAT is why we have game genres based on gameplay elements.

 

Actually, Mr. Sheridan's distinction between Braid and Super Mario Bros. is accurate. That's why Braid is a "Puzzle Platformer" while Super Mario Bros. is simply a "Platformer." The incorporation of more complex puzzle mechanics is what differentiates these genres, and the idea of a Puzzle Platformer came after the idea of Platformers, presumably due to improved technology allowing these puzzle mechanics to flourish. Anyone who reads the simple blurb describing Braid's gameplay when they endeavor to purchase it through Steam will realize that it has these puzzle elements. It's a major part of what makes that game unique and interesting. Honestly, if you are foolish enough to assume that all platformers will be identical then you deserve the shock your underdeveloped cortex is about to receive. Even the Super Metroid games are distinct in their mechanics from Super Mario Bros., despite the fact that those games are part of the original core of the Platformer genre.

 

"To a 'core' gamer these are significant distinctions... But outside the well-defined circle of gaming enthusiasm, they are not."

So what would Mr. Sheridan have us do, then? Shall we ignore the clear difference between Soul Calibur and Dynasty Warriors just because they both involve fighting opponents with weapons, and both games feature characters and settings of the far east? Frankly, those outside the "well-defined circle of gaming enthusiasm" can like it or lump it: games, astonishingly, have gameplay. It is just as important to distinguish games by what sort of gameplay they have as it would be to do so by any other metric.

 

Finally, I and every gamer who reads this had ought to be outraged at Mr. Sheridan's accusation that the convention of grouping games by their common gameplay elements is a veil for some suppressed murderous instinct; however, since he is new at this I will be gentle. For the future I would like to advise Mr. Sheridan to avoid insulting his intended audience. That said, I wish him all the best with his career in journalism.

Kryptonbornson
Kryptonbornson

Bout damn time. This should be worked into a manifesto for this site. I'm tired of the Genre talk, especially when you're trying to talk about why one game is more fun than the other or not. I miss the old Gamepro fun factor rating, but even picture ratings were used to punish games that didn't do exactly what they wanted or to over hype games. I only use genres so I know what I'm getting out of a game or know what the developer intended, not strict guidelines. Once you've played enough games, watched enough movies, read enough books, etc, the lines blur. If I want to fear for my hero and get thrills I can go for a GOOD horror or espionage thriller, they evoke the same emotions. Just do I want a plot to take over the world or zombies.

MooncalfReviews
MooncalfReviews

Fully agreed. Great article. I hate people who go around saying "this isn't even a real RPG". Honestly, why do you care so much? If it's a great game, then it's a great game, and conforming to some pre-determined genre isn't going to improve it.

 

Shenmue is my favourite example. Part RPG, part adventure game, part brawler, part life sim, and it worked so well.

foxrock66
foxrock66

I was with this until the last two statements. 

 

"Kill and feel good about it... maybe we're just using excuses"

 

Ok whatever. Not interested in philosophical guilt trips.

Ovirew
Ovirew

I think, even though these distinctions within genres are long and tedious, that they are usually necessary for describing the game.  Someone who enjoys turn-based RPGs, for example, might really be into that specific sub-genre of RPGs.  But there are lots of different games with RPG elements these days, so if they buy an RPG expecting it to be turn-based and fill that sort of gaming style that they're in the mood for, then they might be disappointed if it's not quite the same type of game play they'd been looking forward to.

 

Specific genres, it's a necessary evil.

Sohayboom
Sohayboom

I am always interested to cross genre games that innovate and break from tradition, I miss SpellForce...

JustinCoplen
JustinCoplen

Hey there newbie, very nice article. There are also many more examples of simple classification confusion out there. It's best to take classification lightly and just treat games as games.

 

The reason indie is getting popular is because they don't use cookie cutters, they take various genre's as you know them and spin them or even combine genres, or even attempt to create their own. They are creative and new, and that is where we should all be heading, attemping to break the walls of simple classification and have a spew of games that are genre breaking.

dkdk999
dkdk999

I think one of the reasons why video games have such strict categories is because of the primitiveness of the genre. I think we're going to see more and more genre differentiation in the future.

fatee
fatee moderator

yeah, you know what? F&*( it... WHERE IS MY FPS TETRIS!? 

Unfallen_Satan
Unfallen_Satan

I never care about "genre" except to the degree that it informs me of the interactivity I can expect, much like hermes200 described. Many newer games, especially indie, defy classic identification. It's the reason why good game reviews are more important than ever and why I like GS where so many staff are outside the box.

jinzo9988
jinzo9988

Let's put it this way, we're not nearly as bad as the metal genre in music.  Once we're there, I think we'll have issues.

Kryptonbornson
Kryptonbornson

 @SauhlGood Yeah, I think strategy games are alot like Chess and I have played alot of Chess. There might not be the same tension until endgame where you can repeatedly have to redo  a certain stage, but yeah, having to think to win is something that's similar to alot of board or card games? Anyone who's played a really tough opponent in checkers can tell you it requires strategy as well. 

vadicta
vadicta

 @moonlightwolf01 Technically, dystopian fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction, so it can be both :D

vadicta
vadicta

 @Granpire How does defining a game based on how we play it not make sense? You want them to be based on the emotions we have when we play them. So then, like what? Do you want a "fun" genre, and a "pissing me off" genre, and an "aha!" genre? 

vadicta
vadicta

 @Toysoldier34 But if someone called a shooter where you could use skill points an RPG, I think you'd be annoyed. 

ferna1234
ferna1234

 @Toysoldier34 RPG is not even well used these days, since it means role playing game, not necesairy gaining exp and ulocking things, but taking the role of someone and submitting the enviroment to your free will. Nowdays rpg fps you mention are mostly like hallway runners with unlocks yo make the obvious linear progression a little more variable.  :)

JustinCoplen
JustinCoplen

 @damnstraight003

 The best thing about this article is it's an opinion, and you don't have to agree with it. Doesn't make it a bad article nor should it "insult his audience". The best thing about your comment is it's an opinion, which means Mr. Sinclair doesn't have to agree with it. That also means your opinion isn't "right"

 

You talk as if your letting Mr. Sinclair off the hook because he's new, is he not allowed to have his opinion and write about it?

Polybren
Polybren

 @Gelugon_baat Dissent is healthy and debate is encouraged. More people need to understand this. 

otaviogalileu
otaviogalileu

@foxrock66 Completely agree! An article about genres becomes, out of the blue, another slanter on violence! Besides, we don't feel the same thing in all of them! That's a huge fallacy and a terrible argument!

glez13
glez13

 @foxrock66 Same here. He tried so hard to try to elaborate something in this article that he ended up reaching nothing. I don't even know how he even reached that conclusion, it basically came out of nowhere.

Falzonn
Falzonn

 @foxrock66 Yeah that was a bit weird.  I kill lots of things in video games, and yet I still feel bad when I step on an ant.

Kryptonbornson
Kryptonbornson

 @vadicta I don't see any reason a shooter couldn't be an RPG. That's silly. If EPIC handled the shooting and Bethesda handled the RPG elements in Fallout 3 for instance, you'd have than RPG/Shooter. If you can call Diablo 3 an RPG, then Zelda is an RPG as well minus the runes, using items instead (which is largely a part of Diablo 3 as well).

Toysoldier34
Toysoldier34

 @vadicta No where am I calling a shooter an RPG. All that I am saying is that some aspects of what defined the RPG genre many years ago are present in other genres in a way they weren't many years ago.

Toysoldier34
Toysoldier34

 @ferna1234 Like I said, many games have strong RPG elements and borrow traits from other genres that weren't seen in years past.

damnstraight003
damnstraight003

 @JustinCoplen He's of course entitled to write his opinion, that doesn't mean I am barred from criticizing it. Okay, maybe I was a little harsh, those last few sentences made me pretty mad. But I tried not to attack the author's character, only his argument.

t0pheNutz
t0pheNutz

 @glez13 

"He tried so hard to try to elaborate something in this article that he ended up reaching nothing."

 

Maybe he just finished playing Mass Effect 3?

Kryptonbornson
Kryptonbornson

 @vadicta Mass Effect 3 is a shooter/RPG. Just as a Fallout 3 with better shooting is a shooter/RPG. It isn't important at all except for the audience to know what they might expect. Rage is a shooter, but it is as much as an RPG as Diablo 3 for instance. In fact more.

vadicta
vadicta

 @Kryptonbornson It's not silly. Ultimately the game would lean in one direction or another. Fallout 3 is certainly an RPG, because it's all about character building, stats, and quests. Also, your character is you, which is a big deal. If we had this dream collaboration between shooter mechanics and RPG mechanics the area might get a little grey, but ultimately it would be about the game around the mechanics that defines it. Is it linear, an open world? Are there side quests or just one story? Are you the character, or do you play someone already crafted by the designers? These will still define exactly what genre the game is, and also who would enjoy it.

 

It's important for telling us that, because there are people who like great shooting, but don't want to be bogged down by character management, and people who love the stat building of an RPG, but don't care for shooting down wave after wave of enemies with nothing else. There's nothing wrong with genres.

 

Look at something like Mass Effect 3, which certainly blends shooting and RPG elements really well, but is still really an RPG, because you are the character, you make his decisions, and you build him. People could disagree with that, but that's how I see it.

 

I don't know. Maybe I just don't see the problem with the genres, because I have them very well defined in my own mind. I suppose everyone might define them differently. 

ferna1234
ferna1234

 @Toysoldier34 I know, i was aknowledging your point of view of inconsistentence with more inconsistence.