At the Gates of Genre

Does not fit.

At the gates of Genre, Saint Pong-paddle awaits. Newly minted video games must register their official genre here.

Being two-dimensional and rather dated, graphically, St. Pong-paddle cannot handle a feathered quill and instead bounces a square cube into the appropriate category. It's a fun way to stay culturally relevant, at least until the inevitable HD remix of Pong.

The day's categorization has already begun. Modern Warfare 2 approaches first, warily checking the horizon for snipers before clicking the left stick to rush to the gate.

St. Pong-paddle says, "Soldier, I really shouldn't have to ask, but for the record: What genre are you?"

Modern Warfare 2 replies, "I'm a first-person shooter. Bang bang, tango n00bs!"

"Of course you are," says St. Pong-paddle, and knocks a cube into the FPS box. Modern Warfare 2 goes prone and crawls through the gates.

Dragon Age arrives next, covered in flecks of blood and glowing with at least three stat-enhancing buffs. With every step, magical breastplates and shields tumble out of a backpack that is obviously too small to contain them.

St. Pong-paddle selects from a menu of dialog choices. "3. Pretend I am speaking with a slight English accent. Pray, what genre faction do you identify with?"

Dragon Age's saucy response: "1. I carry the weight and grandeur of a role-playing game. Shall I unbuckle thy +3 corset, my lady?"

There is no dialog option to explain that a vertical line cannot wear a corset, so St. Pong-paddle chooses "4. [Awkward silence]". At least the question was answered. Dragon Age takes ten minutes to optimize its equipment, and finally strides through the gate after picking the lock several times for extra experience points.

St. Pong-paddle trick-shots a cube off several walls and into the RPG category, enjoying how well the day is going -- how straightforward. It's nice when new games know their roots and stick to their tropes. The growl of an auto engine in the distance heralds the arrival of the third game of the day. A driving game, certainly. Forza 3?

No. Something else. Something difficult. Brutal Legend roars up to the gates, jumping out of a skull-laden hot rod just before it crashes into the wall.

"Jesus Christ," says St. Pong-paddle. "Doesn’t that thing have brakes?"

"I don’t think so," replies Brutal Legend. "That wouldn't be very hardcore."

"Well you’ve ruined your ride. And my wall, incidentally."

"No problem. I can always get another car, just by playing a rhythm mini-game!"

Brutal Legend unsheathes its guitar. The ripping guitar solo that follows has the unfortunate effect of setting St. Pong-paddle ablaze. Luckily, the high-resolution flames quickly glitch and sputter out, incompatible with St. Pong-paddle's primitive form.

"Whoops," says Brutal Legend. "Wrong solo."

St. Pong-paddle says, "Ow, my pixels. Okay. Let's just get this over with. You've decided? You're a driving game with rhythm components?"

"Not exactly," replies Brutal Legend. "I have this axe too. It’s for smashing."

Brutal Legend smashes the gate to Genre with a resounding clang.

"Stop that," says St. Pong-paddle. "Third-person brawler, then? With questionable auto-targeting?"

"Getting closer," says Brutal Legend. "But I didn't mention my army yet."

A large group of cavemen and groupie sluts rush up to the gate and begin gnawing furiously at the iron bars.

"They like metal," explains Brutal Legend.

St. Pong-paddle is horrified. "Select them! Select them and right-click away from there! Micro-manage those idiots!"

"Not really my thing," says Brutal Legend. "They sorta listen when I play solos, but I’m not a thoroughbred real-time strategy game. There’s no clicking."

"Then what the hell are you supposed to be?" asks St. Pong-Paddle, glaring at the recalcitrant army.

Brutal Legend draws itself up proudly. "I am a bastard child of the schizophrenic postmodern age. Know only that I am metal, and that I was forged from the raw materials of innumerable genres. No single acronym can contain my all. I am pure hybrid."

"That's not going to work," says St. Pong-paddle. "Grandiose, yes. I bet you worked on that speech for a long time. But you know you need to pick a proper genre for the record."

"Why?" asks Brutal Legend.

An uncomfortable pause follows.

"Well," begins St. Pong-paddle. "We need something short and snappy to put on your box and in your reviews. Players need to know what to expect. What games you're similar to. How you play. Your place in the glorious Darwinian rhizome of video games."

"I already told you. I'm heavy metal. Lot of history there, no?"

"Music genre doesn’t work here. Well, it does, sorta, but only as a corollary. As a setting. Some people called Halo a sci-fi FPS, but we all know that the first-person shooting is the important part. The kids shoot things, they get good at shooting things, and they want to buy a new playground to shoot things in and improve their shooting. Recycle to infinity. They could do it in space, or they could do it in Candyland. Shooting is a transferable skill."

"If you watch any game for about five minutes or so, you should be able to identify a core set of actions: the recurring gameplay loop. There's your starting point. Speaking of which, maybe I should just call you a multifaceted Gate-Destroying Simulator and be done with it."

Brutal Legend snorts. "It's not like I'm the first game to defy the establishment's lame taxonomy, you know. Remember Puzzle Quest?"

"Pretty easy classification, if you ask me. The word 'puzzle' is in the title. Puzzle genre."

"Blue Dragon? I met that game earlier. A bunch of huge-eyed kids JRPG-ing it up, and all of a sudden they're shooting moons with laser guns and flying around in a rail shooter segment and doing Quick Time Events to lock robots in a closet or some sh*t. That's some serious hybrid right there."

"Let's not talk about Blue Dragon's identity issues. It spent a good deal of time in counseling before it remembered that it was an RPG."

"What if you played me with a mouse and keyboard? Messed with the hardware? Would that change my genre?"

"Maybe," says St. Pong-paddle, feeling uncomfortable. "Some players think that certain genres work best with a particular type of controller. It’s complicated."

"I'm complicated too," says Brutal Legend.

"Yes," says St. Pong-paddle. "Yes you are. But listen. I've just devised this great new category for games such as yourself. It's called 'Action': terribly redundant for a video game, and not very descriptive, but it'll hold for now."

"Action," muses Brutal Legend. "Yes. Yes! They'll never see me coming. Everybody will assume I'm like Final Fight or something, and then POW! Stage battle! Drive around! Find all those dragons! Buy weapons from Ozzy Osbourne!"

"Indeed," says St. Pong-paddle.

"By the way," says Brutal Legend, finally convincing its army to abandon the ravaged gate and move on through, "What genre are you supposed to be, Pong?"

"Sports, obviously."

Brutal Legend raises an eyebrow. "Really? Sports? If you say so."

"I'm like tennis!" St. Pong-paddle yells after the vanishing horde. "I'm tennis, goddamn it!"

St. Pong-paddle sends a cube into the yawning crevasse of Action (wow, this'll be a huge category in a few years), and surveys the damage. The gates of Genre have been badly beaten, but remain upright for now.

Comments

Very entertaining read. Haven't played Brütal Legend myself, I would still like to be considered a Schafer fan.

Yahtzee's Zero Punctuation describes Brütal Legend as a "hidden RTS", but I think it takes creative minds such as Schafer's, that have been in the business this long, to cherry pick features and cross-pollinate genres.

"I'm like tennis!" St. Pong-paddle yells after the vanishing horde. "I'm tennis, goddamn it!"

Ah, how times change.

Could perhaps genre also be described in terms of game mechanics as "the thing a game does well", e.g. requiring you to shoot at things? It seems each genre has a particular set of mechanics we associate with it, and either a game has good mechanics within that genre, or bad ones. Perhaps we would find it easier to classify a game like Brutal Legend if it did something well (besides story)? Or could it have great and varied mechanics and still fit nowhere?

Kick-ass shooter! Kick-ass shooter!

Nice one, Clem. Enjoyed it a lot.

I had no idea what was going on for the first few paragraphs, then loved it. Fun stuff Clem =)

The part of my mind that wants to compartmentalize and organize things wants to list Brutal Legend as an adventure game, but really it isn't one either, in the traditional sense of the word. At least, it's not just one.

The first game that comes to mind that's similar in that it cross-pollinated genres was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. And being on NES, it had no choice but to be a small series of base-level genre tropes thrown together if it was to look "better" than it's predecessor: world map, side-scroller, RPG villages and treasures, hack-n-slash...

This article reminds me of something Sephirotic taught us in a Game Design class a couple years ago: don't define your design by genre. There are so many games out there now that incorporate elements of other genres that there's hardly a solid example of any one anymore. With the economy and state of the games industry, though, it's easy to see why a lot of the AAA games are returning to the traditional tropes of genre (it's what we know, it's safe, etc). Thus, clear genre-specific games like MW2 and Dragon Age are at the top of the charts. Even then, however, they use elements of other genres: MW uses perks, which are basically RPG-style buffs; Dragon Age is third-person, which was a view previously relegated to adventure/platformer games; it also utilizes the dungeon-crawler/strategy fighting elements.

Neither of those, however, cross as many lines as Brutal Legend, and sure enough, the game that goes further out on a limb is not doing nearly as well in sales (for obvious reasons though, the main one being that no one could beat Modern Warfare with it's installed fanbase and clout). Unfortunately, and as much as I love the game and hate to admit this, sales have shown that now's just not the time for AAA niche titles like Brutal Legend. It's sales seem a sign that that time is ending, but I hope that it's also a sign that such games don't go the way of the buffalo.

Don't worry, WipEout, in ten years someone will release the "spiritual successor" to Brütal Legend that bastardizes everything that was charming about the original. It'll be railed against on message boards (or Wave boards, or whatever the hell we're using) by fans of the original who will say that it's been dumbed down for whatever the platform du jour is and lauded by pundits and reviewers for doing something that has never been done before in video gaming.

WipEout wrote:

This article reminds me of something Sephirotic taught us in a Game Design class a couple years ago: don't define your design by genre.

This is interesting... because I did a game design competition the other year, and pretty much every industry professional emphasized that you really need to have solid genre referencing to pitch a new game idea. They were mostly marketing and financier types, though, so their justification was pretty much, "Hey, this other game was popular and profitable, so there must be market share for a similar game... sounds like a good investment."

They encouraged us to work on an elevator pitch that worked as follows: Say your new game is like [insert multi-million dollar profit game here], but with [insert new 'selling feature' here].

It was rather demoralizing, actually.

Clemenstation wrote:

They encouraged us to work on an elevator pitch that worked as follows: Say your new game is like [insert multi-million dollar profit game here], but with [insert new 'selling feature' here].

This is common throughout the entertainment industry. Television shows and movies are generally pitched as "X meets Y": Defying Gravity is Lost meets Gray's Anatomy in space; House is CSI meets ER; Fringe is X-Files meets Lost.

Clemenstation, you're my favorite writer on this site.

Clemenstation wrote:
WipEout wrote:

This article reminds me of something Sephirotic taught us in a Game Design class a couple years ago: don't define your design by genre.

This is interesting... because I did a game design competition the other year, and pretty much every industry professional emphasized that you really need to have solid genre referencing to pitch a new game idea. They were mostly marketing and financier types, though, so their justification was pretty much, "Hey, this other game was popular and profitable, so there must be market share for a similar game... sounds like a good investment."

They encouraged us to work on an elevator pitch that worked as follows: Say your new game is like [insert multi-million dollar profit game here], but with [insert new 'selling feature' here].

It was rather demoralizing, actually.

Very demoralizing, especially for us creative-types.

But that's something we just have to do in this kind of environment if we want investors. Frankly, there are a great deal of people in the industry that really have no idea what it takes to make a game-- and they don't care that we as designers want to make our own games and not remake someone else's design. So that's something we just have to do to appease the money-men.

When working on a small project in the past, we found ourselves constantly referring to other games or aspects of other genres, after we told ourselves flat-out that we would not say "It's like this but with that instead!" We found rather quickly that to pitch the idea to others, though, we simply had to make those associations for those folks to visualize.

So what I've learned now is to not necessarily think of specific genres or games when writing my own game designs, but go back and look over it again to see what I can relate it to when I have to describe it to others. This way I can keep my mind disconnected from that mentality and prevent turning my (hopefully) original idea into a genre clone. The really difficult part is when you constantly have to refer to those associations, you almost start to see it as such yourself.

Clemenstation wrote:
WipEout wrote:

This article reminds me of something Sephirotic taught us in a Game Design class a couple years ago: don't define your design by genre.

This is interesting... because I did a game design competition the other year, and pretty much every industry professional emphasized that you really need to have solid genre referencing to pitch a new game idea. They were mostly marketing and financier types, though, so their justification was pretty much, "Hey, this other game was popular and profitable, so there must be market share for a similar game... sounds like a good investment."

They encouraged us to work on an elevator pitch that worked as follows: Say your new game is like [insert multi-million dollar profit game here], but with [insert new 'selling feature' here].

It was rather demoralizing, actually.

Yeah that's fairly typical of elevator pitches, designers have to be able to justify their game to the moneys, but when you design a game it's more fertile to avoid genre and just focus on the game play and experiences the player will have. When you pitch you need to pitch it in terms of genre if you want to get funding. Even among designers it is easiest to use other games as points of reference. "It's like Gears of War, but with gnomes and flowers and gardens!"

What kind of article is this, anyway? Opinion piece? Short story? Atari fan fiction with allegorical elements?

Whatever it is, I like it.

Great article, Clem. I literally LOL'd a couple times. "I'm tennis, goddamn it!"

Your point is quite valid. Games that don't conveniently "fit" into other genres often end up in the Action genre, but like you said, every video game has at least some action in it.

This just makes me wonder how Portal could have been marketed if someone other than Valve had released it.

Who would have bought a "First-person puzzler that is really an extended player-training exercise with 13 tutorial levels and one normal level."

WipEout wrote:

The part of my mind that wants to compartmentalize and organize things wants to list Brutal Legend as an adventure game, but really it isn't one either, in the traditional sense of the word. At least, it's not just one.

Action RPG kinda always meant Adventure game to me, a.k.a. you'll press a button to swing the sword instead of telling the peon to do some sort of attack. The prime example being the first Zelda. Press A to swing your sword, not choose 1. [Kill creature]

WipEout wrote:

Dragon Age is third-person, which was a view previously relegated to adventure/platformer games; it also utilizes the dungeon-crawler/strategy fighting elements.

I keep reading things like this, but they always seem to indicate that the person writing didn't play any Western RPGs (e.g., Ultima 6-8, Baldur's Gate) in the 1990s. Is the "third person" talk a reference to the shoulder-cam that's locked in for console versions? I do most of my PC play of Dragon Age zoomed back out to isometric--the way God intended.

Unfortunately, and as much as I love the game and hate to admit this, sales have shown that now's just not the time for AAA niche titles like Brutal Legend. It's sales seem a sign that that time is ending, but I hope that it's also a sign that such games don't go the way of the buffalo.

You know, "buffalo" is one of the most grammatically flexible words in the English language.

wordsmythe wrote:

You know, "buffalo" is one of the most grammatically flexible words in the English language.

We all know all too well that Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. The self-perpetuating buffalo cycle among Buffalo buffalo is one of the worst buffalo-related problems currently facing the nation.

Don't buffalo those poor Buffalo buffalo!

Switchbreak wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

You know, "buffalo" is one of the most grammatically flexible words in the English language.

We all know all too well that Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. The self-perpetuating buffalo cycle among Buffalo buffalo is one of the worst buffalo-related problems currently facing the nation.

Though certainly not the most concerning Buffalo problem.

Hahaha, this is fantastic! Exactly how I felt actually playing Brutal Legend.

Brilliant article, particularly the first half.

As a side note, I don't necessarily think that the whole "it's like X but with Y" definition is such a bad thing; the Y just has to be compelling (oops).

I like a game to give me something completely familiar in a totally original way. When I take stock of all the games that I gave hours upon hours to over the years, they are games that fit squarely into a particular genre but redefined it in a significant way. The designers were intelligent enough to stay true to their genre, but creative enough to give me something utterly new within that neatly defined universe.

"We need something short and snappy to put on your box and in your reviews"

Genre isn't something applied to a game after its finished, y'know. Geez.

That Brutal Legend can take all these different pieces of established design and use them to define this world is great. Thumbs up to Schafer. Also will anyone else be glad when it is no longer possible to buy games in boxes from a shop anymore so that this isnt even a problem?

Cossak wrote:

"We need something short and snappy to put on your box and in your reviews"

Genre isn't something applied to a game after its finished, y'know. Geez.

That Brutal Legend can take all these different pieces of established design and use them to define this world is great. Thumbs up to Schafer. Also will anyone else be glad when it is no longer possible to buy games in boxes from a shop anymore so that this isnt even a problem?

It'll probably be worse at that point. Internet people (ie, our behaviors over the internet) do not want to slow down and smell the buffalo-- if anything, we want things faster than we can reasonably get in real life. So things will need to be compartmentalized even more so as to better categorize and list them within a given structure, just so we can get to that item and get out as fast as possible. Unfortunately, lack of genre means a lack of structure, which then means we're hunting through multiple links to find the page we want. Without a genre "tag" we'd have fewer means of sorting through everything to find exactly what it is we want. And that, really, is the same reason why genre's exist in real life entertainment stores as well. I don't want to sort through Michael Bublé CDs to find Me First & the Gimme Gimmes.

wordsmythe wrote:
WipEout wrote:

Dragon Age is third-person, which was a view previously relegated to adventure/platformer games; it also utilizes the dungeon-crawler/strategy fighting elements.

I keep reading things like this, but they always seem to indicate that the person writing didn't play any Western RPGs (e.g., Ultima 6-8, Baldur's Gate) in the 1990s. Is the "third person" talk a reference to the shoulder-cam that's locked in for console versions? I do most of my PC play of Dragon Age zoomed back out to isometric--the way God intended.

As I said, "previously relegated". There are/were plenty of WRPGs that took on such a view or other perspectives-- Daggerfall is one that comes to mind at the moment. But yes, in all, the "third person" talk is very much a reference to console games, as those are the games that arguably brought about gaming's current level of popularity.

And Man being Man, we have defied God at every turn since Day One. Buffalo.

So, what genre is Custer's Revenge?

Loved it man, good job!

Awesome. Awesome to the max.

I think we can safely put Brutal Legend in the "Tim Schafer" category, a subset of the "games you play to get the story, even if the gameplay is lackluster" genre.

Oso wrote:

This just makes me wonder how Portal could have been marketed if someone other than Valve had released it.

Who would have bought a "First-person puzzler that is really an extended player-training exercise with 13 tutorial levels and one normal level."

Portal wasn't really marketed on its own, it was a pack in with the Orange Box. I don't think it would have the following it has today if it had been marketed and sold absent Half Life 2 and TF2.

Or, to put it another way:

Portal + (released by someone other than Valve) = Mirror's Edge.