Friday, February 25, 2011

Game Genres Are A Mess, Just Ask The Smithsonian

messThe “Games As Art” debate is officially over.

You may have thought, “Surely we put that to bed a while ago,” but you’d be wrong. It flares up every few months like a venereal disease, after the release of a particularly “arty” game or when defenders of the “artgame” can’t digest the brazen fratboyness of something like Bulletstorm.

But you don’t have to worry about that anymore. The Smithsonian is curating a videogame exhibit.

According to its website, The Art of Videogames will showcase “the forty-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium, with a focus on striking visual effects and the creative use of new technologies.” There’s a likelihood everyone from Mario to Master Chief will wind up in the exhibit, which goes on display in Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian American Art Museum next year.

Rather than arbitrarily pick a handful of games to include, the Smithsonian compiled a list of 240 games with the help of Past Pixels creator Chris Melissinos. The institute’s since categorized the nominees and has opened up voting to the general public. Each voter selects eighty games from the full list, which is divided up by system and genre.

This is all a wonderful idea, but there’s one problem. The classification of these potential Smithsonian artifacts is bold-faced reminder that videogame genres are severely busted.

What’s In A Name?

pacman_500pxAs I mentioned above, the Smithsonian sorted the games by various genres. This has the admirable goal of making sure we don’t vote in seventy-five shooters and leave only five slots for everything else. Unfortunately, the taxonomy is so arbitrary that very little information about the games can be gleaned from their classification.

Can you guess which games belong in the Target genre? What about the Adventure genre? Action? Combat/Strategy? At the earlier stages of voting – games on the Atari, ColecoVision, and Intellivision – these classifications feel vaguely accurate. Space Invaders falls under Target. Adventure on Atari goes in, duh, Adventure – as does Pitfall. Pac-Man is an Action game and Combat clearly belongs in Combat/Strategy.

Things get harrier, however, as you climb the videogame tech tree. Why is Diablo II competing in the PC Target genre with Star Wars: X-Wing? There’s absolutely no call for pitting Limbo against Mass Effect 2 in Xbox 360 Adventure. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Eternal Darkness, and Metroid Prime 2 all use a third-person camera perspective, but does that mean they should all be lumped under “Gamecube: Action”? I also call shenanigans on any category that forces people to choose between Halo 2 and Psychonauts, as if that makes any sense. I’m looking at you, Xbox Action.

These four categories simply do not hold water as games become more nuanced, more influenced by other media and by one another.

Going on an Adventure

It isn’t the Smithsonian’s fault, of course. With the aid of knowledgeable members of the industry, they organized this list in an effort to best present the evolution of games to a museum-going public. Presumably, the exhibit will be divided up by genre, so that one can time travel through the history of Adventure games merely by meandering past a series of monitors.C64_Maniac_MansionLet’s stay on the subject of Adventure for a second. The Smithsonian list of nominees largely excludes what the vast majority of gamers today consider “adventure games,” featuring only Zak McKracken for the Commodore 64 and Grim Fandango in their DOS/Windows category. Every other option on that list is some form of role-playing game or descendant of Atari’s Adventure. That is to say you are either building a party of class-based heroes pursuing an epic mission (in either the Western D&D mold or the Eastern Final Fantasy mold) or you move a single character throughout the world, encountering enemies, quests, and treasure (Zelda et al). Under their category system, there’s nowhere else for these RPGs to go, but they do squeeze out scores of excellent adventure games.

Is this discrepancy the Smithsonian’s problem or our, the gaming public’s, problem?

The gaming public knows what adventure games are. Drawing inspiration from William Crowther’s text-based Adventure from the 1970s, LucasArts and Sierra On-Line basically codified the genre name. So when Telltale Games announces they’re making new adventure games based on a broad spectrum of popular franchises, we know what we’re in for. There will be puzzles. There will be dialogue options. Perhaps they’ll throw in a unique action sequence.

Does this mean there’s no adventure in The Legend of Zelda or Uncharted? No, but PR teams, gamers, and developers tacitly (and wisely) agreed on a shorthand of “Adventure Game=Point and Click” to avoid confusion. After years of such conditioning, it is then surprising to find very few “adventure games” representing the Adventure genre.

Thinking Outside the Box

portal_2The rigidity of the Smithsonian system does the games themselves no favors. Half-Life 2 and Portal should not be competing against one another in Action. Of course, had the institute gone with market-jargon genres, they’d probably be competing in the crowded First-Person Shooter* category.

Mostly, these categories draw lines between modes of interaction. Does a player point at stuff and hit a button? Do they click through story elements and solve puzzles? Are they required to react quickly to avoid obstacles? Must they manage resources to achieve victory over an opponent or more abstract goals like democracy or research?

The messiness of classification raises questions of standardization in game design. The way the player manipulates objects on screen is the primary mode of expression for a game designer. Yet, gamers have come to enjoy standardized control schemes and camera setups for various genres. Should we view this as akin to conventions in other media such as reading left-to-right (for Western audiences, anyway)? This would place other elements of a game – its story, its art assets, its voice-acting – above the one feature that distinguishes gaming from most everything else: interactivity.

Adventure games succeeded because they brought limited interactivity to more conventional means of storytelling – words and pictures. They declined because technology allowed games to become more complex and other genres – RPGs, open-world games, basically everything – were enabled to take up the mantle of narrative while adventure games stayed largely the same.

Now modes of interaction are becoming rote through standardization. Shooters and Japanese RPGs face similar stagnation because they are getting boxed in by genre.

Mass Effect 2 said, “I’m an RPG, but I have no loot and no dice and I control like a shooter.” Portal said, “I look like a shooter but I’m really a puzzle game because you only have one gun and it doesn’t kill stuff.” Rockstar tosses almost every type of game into a blender, adds a fully-realized setting, grinds it all together and says, “Have fun!” Games like these are the hardest to classify. Come to think of it, I’m not sure there’s a single Rockstar game on the Smithsonian’s list.

Boiling It Down

Genre is all about managing expectations. Sometimes it’s nice to know ahead of time what a particular work is setting out to do: seeing a horror movie you did not know was a horror movie might be unpleasant. Too much management, however, and genre becomes a self-fulfilling trap.

Classification by its nature is a reductive science. This doesn’t suit games well. Games now rival film and television as one of the most complex forms to work in, combining picture, sound, writing and then adding another layer of interactivity.

Visit the Smithsonian site. Vote for games you think people need to see. But don’t expect complete satisifaction**. It’s a messy business inside a bunch of messy boxes.

* Portal is not a first-person shooter.
** So, is Tetris somewhere else in the Smithsonian? Does it not count because it came from Soviet Russia? Or did I just miss it in my flurry of voting?