Thoughts on classifying games by genre.

Game classification by genre is a bizarre and pretty short-sighted thing, isn’t it? It can mean so much, and often very conflicting things. For example, when does “adventure” stop meaning the same as an “action role-play game” like the main Zelda series and when does it mean “puzzle-based interactive story” al la Monkey Island? When does “fighting” as a genre discern between the different approaches afforded by Street Fighter versus Final Fight?

And also, isn’t it a little bit redundant? The cover art for, say, Devil May Cry features protagonist Dante wielding both sword and gun. To therefore call the game a “slash ’em up” or “shooting game” or hybrid thereof, isn’t that insulting the intelligence of its potential audience who (supposedly, upon seeing said cover art) will know these things?

It says little of the content of the game from an interactive gameplay perspective, too. It differs from Fallout 3 (which features both shooting and slashing; but is generally categorised as a role-play game, or RPG) in a few ways, not least the sheer spectacle of the former. Versus, arguably, the depth of the latter.

I’m going to argue as well, this mode of classification isn’t for games. It may work for film and literature, where the audience participation is passive and requires very little on their part, but not games.

Although not being proposed as an alternative, here’s how I personally perceive the nature of games:

venn1I’m often asked “what type of games do you like?” and it’s a difficult one when the gamut runs so wide and yet so selectively. I like first-person shooters but never had any time for Half-Life or Halo. Fighting games are a favourite, but I always felt Killer Instinct and Tekken overrated. Genre doesn’t really describe what I personally look for in a game, nor what I enjoy.

Consider the above diagram. I personally see games in what they offer; or where the primary focus is; in terms of (ordered by my personal preference) mechanics, spectacle and story. Simply put; how solid and balanced the rules and game physics are, how much it’ll make me utter under my breath “woah, that was cool!“, and how good the story is. If any.

It’s pretty safe to say that I favour games which overlap the ‘mechanics’ circle of the above. What kind of things do these describe? A tricky question, and not one that is answered simply:

venn2

The extremes here are very simple to determine. All mechanics and nothing else would be a pure old-guard strategy title akin to Chess or Go. Pure story? Any interactive fiction. Pure spectacle? Dragon’s Lair.

When story is married to mechanics, the game usually ends up being either a strategy or RPG title. Exceptions always exist due to the esoteric and wide-reaching nature of game content, but this generalisation works for now.

Combining mechanics with spectacle was the modus operandi of many arcade titles in their day, and now the same is true of many arcade-style games. And retro console games, but many of those looked to ape their arcade cousins. Except for the RPGs and strategy titles, of course — those ever-present exceptions I mentioned.

I’ve listed the hybrid of story and spectacle as AAA here, although this is the most far-reaching of these shots in the dark, as it could describe any David Cage title or movie tie-in. Generally shallow experiences with very little in the way of rewarding mechanics that manage to enthrall in other ways.

venn3

But what of games that offer all three? Are these the very best the medium has to offer? Probably. This isn’t in any way a definitive classification, just a few thoughts I had (incidentally whilst pummeling my way casually through Streets of Rage II — that would be the blue portion of the above).

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