Originally published on GameInformer.com November 20, 2017, at 07:00 AM.
Selected for Blog Herding -- The Best Blogs of the Community, 12/1/11.
Selected for Game Informer Newsletter, 12/3/11.
6,339 views as of June 4, 2018.
The tendency to pigeonhole a video game with an inadequate genre label has become a serious pet peeve. It's bad enough we want to segment an increasingly diverse gaming community into hardcore or casual, but identifying games -- and our industry -- with labels that verge on obsolete is a disservice.
I’ve played video games for over 30 years, since way back when they were children’s games. Space Invaders, Asteroids, Missile Command, Defender, Pitfall!, etc. were the mainstays of the first popular home console. The Atari 2600 was a dream realized for kids of my generation.
To say that video games have evolved of course is an understatement. They have ratings now to address the myriad content that is available for an audience that has grown in age and maturity. And while the labels we apply reflect genres unique to the medium, they do not account for our experience playing games today.
My concern began with the tendency to refer to certain titles with labels that I think are inappropriate. Two of the more egregious examples are BioShock and Portal. To call either a shooter not only does their gameplay an injustice but plain fails to capture the totality of the experience.
Understand that I am a longtime shooter fan (my gamertag/member name, after all, is no accident). Since the days of the arcade game Tempest and, later, console title Combat I have loved the genre and all its varied offspring. But as titles like BioShock suggest, game development is no longer a by the numbers affair.
What I mean is that even when a studio sets out to create a game for a specific genre, the final build more often will reflect a product that has much more gameplay variety than its genre specific label might suggest. Whether this is a result of focus group feedback or marketing studies, the trend is toward deeper, more expansive gameplay.
The result is titles like BioShock, where beyond the typical shooting mechanic is the opportunity to use myriad Plasmid powers. In fact, this tandem is not unlike other games such as Mass Effect and its mix of guns and biotic powers. Of course this is not unique, as Psi-Ops for example is a last gen game that BioShock bears more than a passing resemblance to.
But BioShock goes beyond even these limitations to incorporate puzzle minigames for hacking turrets and drones in addition to other options. There are even role playing features that upgrade one’s abilities or weapons. In this context, the label shooter is inadequate to describe the myriad gameplay options.
Portal shares this labeling conundrum. Its portal gun is less a traditional projectile weapon than a tool. Indeed it’s primary use is as a method of teleportation, whether of oneself or objects. It can be used as a weapon against bots, though even this application is less assault weapon then environmental deformation mechanism ala Fracture's entrencher device.
Indeed, the primary gameplay is puzzle solving that involves use of the portal "gun." Whether its challenges entail escaping a testing area or avoiding bots, gamers are tasked with analyzing the environment, planning one's navigation around obstacles and executing each plan to escape safely. Its shooting mechanic, therefore, is not an end, but a means to an end.
I’d even go so far as to label traditional shooter franchises like Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row, True Crime, Just Cause, etc. as action games as the driving or flying elements oftentimes are just as important a gameplay function to say nothing of the melee combat or myriad other pursuits. L.A. Noire, which shares these elements, raises an interesting question of its own.
There has been confusion about how to label Rockstar’s recent release as the shooting mechanic and even driving take a back seat to the game’s interview/interrogation gameplay. In many ways, to use conventional terminology, it plays more like a simulation than action or shooter title. The problem is, it does incorporate those other elements as well.
It could be called an adventure game of sorts, however, as you likely could already tell, that label is one I tend to overuse along with action to describe titles that either incorporate a variety of gameplay or game scenarios. Such a reliance is likewise indicative of a failure in our labeling conventions.
Certainly there are games for which those labels are duly appropriate, whether God of War, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Dante’s Inferno, etc. But using them to describe titles not normally associated with such genres weakens traditional genre titles for which the descriptions might be more apt.
On the surface, it's easy to label a game like Shadow of the Colossus as an adventure game. But the core element is really action as each mission amounts to a boss battle. However, dig deeper and, like Portal, it more accurately can be described as a puzzle game. Each boss amounts to a colossal puzzle in terms of analyzing how to mount, scale and defeat it.
The strength in our labels is that they convey the unique interactive aspect of our medium. Whether shooter, role playing game, driving game, simulation, survival horror, platformer, etc., they conjure a specific image of gamers’ participatory role in the games that we play. No other entertainment medium can boast that.
But when they fail to portray the full extent of gameplay elements in a medium that more and more celebrates variety in each and every title, such a labeling system has to be re-evaluated on the merits of its descriptive qualities. Nevermind that such labels conjure an image of an industry that produces children’s games.
Role playing games, in fact, incorporate "game" in the genre label but are a perfect example of a group of titles that have grown more varied and mature and reflect the trend toward more complex subject matter and gameplay options. Mass Effect, Fallout, Dragon Age and even The Elder Scrolls all have been impacted by the movement to more inclusive gameplay.
The practical implications are that the traditional role playing elements have been watered down in favor of emphasizing gameplay more commonly associated with other genres. Whether Mass Effect or, especially, Fallout, both franchises began with more solid genre credentials that involved greater character customization and development.
However, sequels Mass Effect 2 or Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas eschewed their predecessors' RPG features for more streamlined options and in fact focus on shooter gameplay and, in the case of Mass Effect, biotic powers. Similarly, Dragon Age 2 reportedly focused on action at the expense of its RPG heritage.
Of course, the evolution of a genre is nothing new and always courts controversy. A notorious last gen example is how Prince of Persia Warrior Within deviated, to a fault, from Sands of Time's platforming focus in favor of more combat. Likewise, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim's less rigid class system (and dual wielding feature) strays further from RPG canon.
Yet even as our games evolve to explore new opportunities within every genre, often blurring the lines that had for so long delineated each respective group, our labels still reflect increasingly obsolete categories that emphasize an element of gameplay at the expense of an overall experience that has grown and matured along with its customer base.
That the video game industry has an image problem among our lawmakers, regulators and the public at large is no surprise to anyone. And while we should not cater to self-serving politicians or self-righteous public interest groups, there’s no reason public relations -- or marketing, for that matter -- can’t enter in to our consideration of labeling conventions.
What I have in mind is labeling our products with genres common in other mediums of entertainment. Whether literature, drama or film, for example, all share a common language when referring to their respective art. Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction, Suspense, Thriller, etc. are all applicable for our medium as well.
BioShock is mostly adventure, though mystery, science fiction or suspense also could apply. Portal likewise is an adventure game, or sci-fi, though mystery might be more apt. Mass Effect is mainly science fiction. GTA and its kind are action or crime drama. Of course these labels likewise do not capture every element of the experience. But they have advantages.
I think, for instance, that they are more encompassing of the respective scenarios than the more detailed gameplay descriptors more commonly used today to describe our genres. Also, they are more universal and therefore more easily convey a set of expectations for each individual title.
Yes, there is something lost in the translation when you take away the gameplay element from our genre names, but they also gain from labels that are more encompassing of the overall experience, that imbue legitimacy to our medium where it otherwise is lacking, and that demonstrate for all how our medium and its audience has grown and matured.
To that end, I think the time has come to stop referring to our industry and its products as video games. What we offer more than any other medium is interactive entertainment. It is mature, it is progressive and, most importantly, it is the future. And it’s high time our terminology reflects the stature that our industry deserves.
Of course, if people stop referring to BioShock and Portal as shooters, that would make me happy too. Just don’t call Ace Combat a flight sim, F.E.A.R. survival horror or infamous a shooter, and we won’t have a problem. ; )
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