Game Genre and Game Interaction

(Nifty flyer which Joe Gilbert made for the talk -- PDF, 428k)

I hit this topic while staring blankly at the "upcoming releases" page on my favorite game web site. I'm flicking down the "genre" column of this table: adventure, shooter, platformer, music, rpg... And it occurs to me, everyone who plays games knows these genres. But everyone who reads books knows a completely different set of genres: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance... How did that happen?

It's not like these concepts don't exist in the game world. We're happy to say "this game is science fiction, that game is fantasy." But if I say that, I haven't told you the game's genre. It's just a fact about the style, or setting, or something.

Now, one explanation is that gamers are illiterate houyhnhnms who misuse the word "genre" all the time. Speaking as a gamer, I don't like that explanation. So let's take the word the way it's used. Let's assume that games have genres and books have genres, and they overlap weirdly, and we'll see what we can do with that.

When I was a kid, I read mostly science fiction and fantasy. (Today I read mostly science fiction, fantasy, and blogs.) My notion of genre was very clear: if you have spaceships and robots, it's science fiction; if you have wizards and dragons, it's fantasy. (If you have spaceships and wizards and robots and dragons, then Rosemary Kirstein is trying to confuse you. *1)

Well, that's setting. And scenery, which is a part of setting. The asteroid belt is a setting; Middle-Earth is a setting. That's how I divided books up, when I was young and unformed. But that doesn't carry you the whole distance, because there is no one setting that corresponds with the romance genre. Maybe there was once -- a sort of generalized 19th-century wilderness with a lot of ruined castles -- but then that describes the horror of the 19th century (Dracula), and even science fiction if you count Frankenstein, and anyway the current romance genre has amorphously engulfed all of space and time. Same goes for the mystery novel -- murders now get solved in ancient Egypt and medieval England and elven cities, anywhere, as long as there's either cats or cooking.

We can try to extend the definition beyond setting. The mystery genre is defined by plot: at one end, somebody gets murdered, and at the other end, everyone else sits down for a clever explanation. But this smells of ad-hoccery. We'd like a more fundamental notion of genre, and I didn't start to get that clear in my head until I read some romance novels.

You will note that romance is not the genre that I mostly read. This is not to say I've never read a book in which two people hooked up. I've read SF/fantasy novels which had obvious romance elements. Ann Maxwell*2, for example, has spaceships and robots and lovers whose hyperdimensional bond cannot be severed by any reach of time or space. Those books are great. But then I've also seen books with dragons or spaceships which were so colossally romance-y that I flung them across the room. Those books were awful -- or rather, unreadable -- meaning, I couldn't read them. I decided they were romance novels with SF/fantasy elements, as opposed to the other way around.

Well, that's great for pigeonholing, but I should be able to figure out why I react one way or the other way. So I read a couple of the ones I hated (sacrifices for science). The first thing I noticed was that these books spent a lot of time describing the characters, and not just objective descriptions -- the author wanted you to know whether to like this person. The love interest is strong, sexy, fascinating, mysterious, etc; the antagonist is cruel, petty, tortures kittens. And you don't just get that once; the book comes back to these passages over and over. Clearly the audience for these books really wants that stuff. And I don't. I want to have a sense of these characters, sure, but I have a completely different idea of how the book should convey it, and how much time to spend on it.

Obviously a science fiction novel has its own set of expectations. When I try to analyze SF, I'm kind of a fish analyzing water -- that's why I had to read books I hated before this started to come clear. But SF and fantasy spend a lot of time describing fantastic landscapes, for example; and strange social customs, and bits of technology or magic. Those are the passages that appear over and over, and I can only imagine that the dedicated romance reader skims through them thinking "But where's the good stuff?"*3

Notice that we've shifted our ground here. We started thinking about genre in terms of what's in the book; but now we're thinking in terms of how the reader deals with the book. What does the reader want? Is his expectation satisfied? Is it satisfied in a simple way or a subversive way? Are the book and the reader playing the same game?

On that metaphor, let's turn around and look at games. We now have this notion that genre is defined by the interaction between the audience and the work. Does that make sense for games?

It does. In fact, when we look at our list of commercial game genres, we see they're defined entirely by the player interaction model. Are you driving a car? Are you choosing attack options from a menu in a hit-point-whittling slugfest? Are you examining scenery for clues and clicking on details? Are you reading and typing text? Are you mowing down waves of monsters with a giant gun? Are you trying to avoid waves of monsters because all you have is a broken broom handle?

Each of these correponds to a game genre. It doesn't matter whether the waves of monsters are Martians or hobgoblins, or whether your racecar runs on gasoline, levitation spells, or antigravity. I mean, it matters, but it's not what players talk about when they talk about genre.

...Usually. I mentioned the term "survival horror" earlier. That's a well-known game genre. And "horror" is a well-known book genre. Coincidence?

Obviously not. Someone had the notion of making a "horror game" -- maybe it was Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, whatever you trace the origin of "survival horror" to. They were inspired by the conventions of written horror fiction. Then the notion took off; there were imitators (Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, Eternal Darkness). Why "survival horror" but not "survival fantasy" or "survival sci-fi"? I could try to cast it as a logical necessity, or I could guess about particular planning decisions made in particular game companies at crucial times. Either would be a Just-So Story.

But I can point at design elements that are common among these games, and they're not just a list of visual elements or sound effects. You are typically a fragile human surrounded by powerful monsters. You are not a badass, and you do not have a Big Friggin' Gun. You have a stick. If you find a gun, it's low on bullets. You have to engage enemies one at a time, and on your own terms, to have even a hope of survival. You have to move slowly, watching out for any threat or clue -- charging across the screen will get you squashed. And, of course, things are waiting in every corner to leap out and scare you.

These are all features of the interactivity of the games. Which ties survival horror nicely into my definition.*4

By the way, when I talk about interactivity, I don't just mean a particular set of button controls. It's every feature that affects the course of your gameplay. For example, what's a platformer? It's got platforms, that you jump around on, okay... but Tomb Raider has platforms, and it's not a platformer, or at least not the same kind of platformer as Super Mario. You can say one is a subgenre of the other, but there are still distinguishing elements. Such as collecting coins. Every Super-Mario-style platformer out there has you collecting coins, or rings, or jewels. This isn't an arbitrary thing; the coins are tied into the gameplay in all sorts of ways. Rows of coins direct you around the level, they define subgoals (like "collect every coin"), some coins are rewards for subgoals, they give you a short-term reason to run around and explore, and so on. Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia have different sorts of mechanisms which fulfil those roles.

In some discussions, these concerns of interaction and presentation are bundled up as "form". The difference between a novel, a sonnet, and a screenplay is called form in literary analysis. So people want to carry that over, and say that the difference between a text adventure and a graphical adventure is the form. Which is true, but then everyone goes back to the word "genre". I do, anyway.

So maybe genre is the same thing as form, in games?

Recall my original naive definition of genre in books, which boiled down to setting. (And plot, sort of.) Well, in the game world, the naive definition boils down to form.

Does naive mean trivial? No, this is an interesting difference. Why did it happen?

It seems obvious -- by which I mean, "I guess" -- that it's a question of what's important to know. Necessary skills. If you get good at one shooter, you'll be pretty good at the next one, regardless of whether you're shooting bullets or plasma bolts. But thinking about the setting and the plot don't register at all. Much as I love to talk about interactive fiction, the plot of most games consists of little bits wedged into the corners. The game mechanics are set up to let you ignore the plot entirely, or -- for adventure games -- ignore all of the plot except for the parts with flashing "clue" signs.*5

Whereas a book doesn't challenge you with physical manipulation, but with clued-in backgrounds, confusing plots, familiar plots, interesting variations on familiar plots -- which are not interactivity in the game sense, but which you must still interact with -- or else they fly over your head.

I'm not saying that gamers do ignore the story of every game. I'm saying that they could; it's the low-demand part of the game experience. Recall the experience I described earlier, where a book wasn't giving me what I wanted. Well, if I say "that platformer wasn't giving me what I wanted", do you think I'm talking about the plot? No, I'm talking about a sense of dexterity and exciting 3D spaces to jump in.

You're probably bubbling over with exceptions. Fair enough. In a text adventure, the plot and the setting are very much the thing. In a CRPG -- Final Fantasy certainly has gobs of plot. Inhaling all that plot is a skill. I don't have it. I want to fling Final Fantasy through a wall. No doubt RPG fans are unsatisfied by the lame plots of lesser games. That's a genre boundary.

I could slice this sideways and say that "lots of plot" is an aspect of "form", but that's label-twiddling. The fact is that genre is always a bunch of ad-hoc criteria. You have books with setting, except some book genres have common plots, and others are defined by focus on character. You have games with control schema, but sometimes plot, and then setting inches into the picture.

All of the categories I've given -- among both books and games -- started out as blatant imitation. Somebody tried to imitate somebody else's success. Then someone else thought, hm, how can I do that better? Or differently? And the readers (or players) wanted more of the same -- or a more interesting version of the same -- or a more complicated version. Eventually that develops to the point where newcomers need some background information, or training, to appreciate what's really going on. It may be self-training, sparked by particular interest, and it may not be a conscious process; but that's how these little wrinkles grow up to be genre boundaries.

Genre happens. I can't generalize it any better than that. It's an evolutionary process between readers that want stuff and authors who are trying to give it to them. Like any evolutionary process, you only get to define the important dividing lines after the fact. You can't point at a mutation and say "Ooh! That funny-looking one! That's the start of a new species!" You have to wait a few million years and see what populations die out, which ones merge back into the mass, which get isolated on an island and grow funny snouts.



^1 Rosemary Kirstein: Writing an ongoing series of novels which look like fantasy at first glance. The second glance is more interesting. I won't spoil them, but they're excellent. The Steerswoman's Road (comprising The Steerswoman and The Outskirter's Secret), The Language of Power, The Lost Steersman. (Author's home page)

^2 Ann Maxwell: Wrote science fiction in the 70s and 80s. (Then turned to mysteries as A. E. Maxwell, and romance as Elizabeth Lowell.) Her SF spans an immense and wildly imaginative future history. With gonzo sexual tension. I recommend the Fire Dancer trilogy and Timeshadow Rider.

^3 SF expectations: Lest you think I am throwing romance under the bus as "irrational", let me repeat Patrick Nielsen Hayden's comment about a favorite trick of SF: "... the numinous explosion of mystical awe that's carefully built up to, step by rational step." (from Making Light, March 18 2008)

^4 As a test case, see the Japanese game Disaster Report, which is widely characterized as "survival horror without the horror." It takes place in a generic Japanese city which is struck by an earthquake. You then have to make your way across the city, dealing with non-supernatural threats: fires, collapsing buildings, hostile gangs. The structure is immediately familiar to a Silent Hill fan. Health (fresh water) is rare; you are fragile and have no weaponry; you have to proceed slowly across unstable ground. (See my review, although that stresses the adventure content more than the survival horror.)

^5 The adventure genre: See my essay on Characterizing Interactive Fiction.

^6 Context: I presented this as a talk at the Digital Therapy Grad Student Luncheon at UVA. Thanks to Joe Gilbert of the Scholars' Lab for inviting me, Wendy for showing me around campus*7, Jay Laefer for giving me his miserable cold the day before, and Colgan Air for stranding me in Charlottesville overnight.

^7 Best overheard line: We walked past someone who was declaiming excitedly on the notion of "...operationalizing Pluto. You can't operationalize Pluto! It's just Pluto!" I think I have to agree.

Updated April 22, 2008.

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