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.
While I agree with your sentiment, I think you may have misinterpreted what Tycho’s opinion. I believe his main complaint was misrepresentation.
The advertising showed the game as purely action. The Brütal Legend demo even completely omitted the RTS aspects. Since people base their buying decisions on advertising and the demo, this is an important point. It seem like the game was misrepresented.
I don’t think Tycho dislikes cross-genre games, but rather the misrepresentation.
I can’t comment much on the promotion; I only saw the trailer, which did look to be promoting an action-adventure, but at the time I was somewhat intoxicated and standing in a field with 60,000 Germans (don’t ask). However, the previews I’ve read seem to mention the fact that there are different game modes, and the mainstream reviews that came out simply don’t agree with Tycho’s assertion that it’s mostly an RTS. It seems to me like he and people like him have spotted a certain set of traits within a certain part of the game, wrongly felt that they already know the rules, and have got unhappy when they found themselves not being as good at the game as they’d expected their prior knowledge to make them.
Additionally, Tycho’s assertion that “I don’t want to play a rhythm game while I’m playing an RTS while I’m playing a third person action game” is the most damning comment in my mind. Once upon a time I truly would have said “I don’t want to play an action game while I’m playing a strategy game”, but these days that’s exactly what I do. You have to be willing to learn a new set of skills – and unlearn old habits – if you want to enjoy new experiences in a medium such as games, I feel.
I think this is partly because we in games have a poor definition of the term “genre”. In games it tells you next to nothing about the setting and more about the interface and the abstract gameplay. But it is possible to vary those two independently – for example, Baldur’s Gate broke from previous RPG tradition and has an interface not too dissimilar from an RTS (albeit on a much smaller scale). But because everything about it screamed ‘RPG’, people can overlook the fact that it physically plays much like Command and Conquer. Brütal Legend may have parts that have an RTS-like interface, so people are playing it in the same way that they played similar games with that interface, and overlooking the new things specific to this game. I wouldn’t blame the designer for that. The interface has implied the genre and the genre has implied the gameplay but I think that’s a problem that exists outside of this specific game and more in the gaming ecosystem.
Perhaps it says something about how complex our control systems are though, that we effectively force people to learn a handful of different control paradigms in order to be able to effectively enjoy future games.
Or maybe it’s more a statement on how unvaried games with the same interfaces typically are; I for one was very disappointed to see that Company Of Heroes had almost exactly the same abstract gameplay system as Command and Conquer, for example.
This episode also reminds me a bit of the people who complained about Thief: The Dark Project having zombies, because “it’s about being a Thief, not about the supernatural”. It’s sad that people can’t take a step back and switch off their preconceptions to enjoy the work as it was designed to be.