There’s a post on Penny Arcade from a few weeks back which is complaining that a certain game Brütal Legend seems to masquerade as one type of game (ie. a Real Time Strategy game) while actually being something else (a third person action-RPG). The tone of the article is that games shouldn’t be mixing one type of gameplay with another, and the main complaint is that players have expectations of a game playing a certain way.
Personally, I feel this is a false problem caused by narrow-minded reviewers and fans. Games won’t get taken seriously until it’s accepted by both groups that they don’t exist merely to fit into pre-existing categories – although they certainly can choose to do so – but are individual creations and should be judged as such. There’s nothing wrong with genres as descriptive labels, as they carry a lot of useful semantics. What’s wrong is when they move from being descriptive to prescriptive.
Nobody complains that a film’s exact genre wasn’t explicitly specified before you watch it. Crossovers and variations are par for the course and often encouraged. Film reviewing and criticism moved past this single-genre categorisation long ago and a film’s entry on IMDB typically lists several genres for each individual film, reflecting the way in which different aspects are combined into each whole. Games should surely be seen in the same way.
Tycho at Penny Arcade should really know better and I am disappointed at his attitude, wanting to classify games as Either This Or That and not wanting people to experiment with crossover. Imagine if we’d thought that way 15 years ago. To paraphrase his quote towards the end of the article, “I love action games, but I don’t want to play an action game while I’m playing an strategy game”. Bye bye to the entire RTS genre then! Luckily, some people at the time noticed that although the strategy aspect did suffer a little, you gained something from the urgency of the action. And thus a new approach was born. Mixing a bit of this with a bit of that is how biology has improved species for millennia.
It’s arguable that in this case the tutorial doesn’t educate the player adequately and therefore gamers fall back to genre stereotypes, coming undone when they hit the boundaries of the metaphor. But it’s nobody’s job to explain a game in terms of other games or existing genres. If all games are to be presented and judged that way then we’re in for a boring future bereft of creativity where games can only borrow from within their genre to ‘innovate’ (if such a word could be said to apply). Cross-pollination between genres would seem to be frowned upon and God help those who might actually come up with a completely new game type. I don’t think that’s the future we want to see.