Writing in videogames: Cross-genre moments

I recently read the first essay from Michael Chabon’s book Maps and Legends, in which he argues against the “ghettoization” of genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, romance, western, all that good stuff). As a writer who enjoys reading and writing in marginalized genres, I found it vindicating. As a gamer who loves it when games push the boundaries of the medium, I found it a bit depressing.

Not that the article itself was depressing, far from it. It just got me thinking about videogames and genres, and how hopelessly restricted most mainstream games are. Sure, videogames have genres: FPS, RPG, puzzle, sports, strategy, simulation, etc. I can’t help but look to movies for corollaries, and it seems that if games were categorized by the criteria of movies, a depressing number of them would fall under the catch-all category of action/adventure. I’m not trying to compare apples to oranges, I’m just saying that in most videogames outside the sports and puzzle genres, the player is asked to fight and destroy. Where are the dramatic games? Where are the comedic games that take on personal relationships or the seriously political games? Videogames don’t need just a Citizen Kane of the medium, they need a Sixteen Candles and Lawrence of Arabia too.

I’m currently playing Okami for the Wii, and it’s the best game I’ve played since Bioshock. One thing I found particularly interesting, especially in the midst of all this Grand Theft Auto IV hoopla, is that fighting and action seem to be de-emphasized. Yes, there’s fighting, but Amaterasu gains power not from killing demons but from restoring the land to its original beauty, and earning the trust of humans and animals. When I describe this gameplay mechanic to my friends they laugh or roll their eyes, but it’s actually incredibly satisfying. Okami reminds me a bit of games like Soul Blazer or Dark Cloud, where the player must rebuild towns and areas, but instead of doing so through killing enemies, the player accomplishes this through acts of love. Weird, but it works.

So is this breaking genre conventions? I’d say so, even though fighting is still present. Is it a new genre? No, not quite—although it would be interesting to see Okami with all the fighting and violence removed.

Chabon’s essay claims that the best genre writers are like tricksters—they play with the conventions, flout them and toy with them in order to lead the reader into something new. This got me thinking about the Metal Gear Solid games, which definitely fit into one genre (plot-heavy stealth-action), but contain nods to others. With its self-aware sense of humor, MGS often dips into comedy or self-parody before bringing the player back to the present action. Remember that part in Metal Gear Solid 2 where you have to evade enemies and sentries completely naked, cupping your junk in your hands? I don’t think you would see that in Splinter Cell.

I hear there’s a lot of genre experimentation going on in indie games, but I haven’t had the time to really explore yet. What do you all think? Is genre stratification in videogames a good thing, or do we like those moments of slippage?

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~ by Ian D. on May 4, 2008.

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