The Limitations of Genres

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

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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."

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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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