Stuck in a Genre

Stuck in a Genre

A friend of mine was recently playing through The Last of Us and he messaged me on Facebook. That sort of thing irks me because when you can crank out words at keyboard speed, reading and replying to those things from your phone is tantamount to dealing with a full corral of voicemails. What bothered me more, though, was that it seemed like he just wanted to complain about the game.

I’m all for fair criticism and people having their own opinions, but I do prefer that it is 1) fair, and 2) supported. Throwing words out into the world like an abandoned baby in a basket is easy, but making people understand those things you’re saying is hard, and that is where the value of writing lies. He, apparently, valued seeing as many baskets in the air as possible.

To wit, he said, “In most situations, either there are too many enemies to justify using guns because they would swarm you after [sic] or there are too few enemies to justify using guns, because you can easily take them out stealthily, so guns are really just kinda a last resort option.” Grammar problems aside, it seems his primary problem with the game is every bit intentional from a design perspective. Guns are supposed to be a last resort; they’re loud precisely because they will cause enemies to hear and find you. Ammo is scarce because Naughty Dog didn’t want this to turn into a third-person shooter.

He followed up with this gem: “unless you want to waste limited resources for the sake of fun, it’s just the same stealth killing over and over, just different wall structures.” And what, pray tell, is supposed to be “fun”? I posit to him briefly that he perhaps was expecting a different game, something more akin to a Gears of War or Battlefield. There’s nothing wrong with liking those games, but to judge a game by the merits of another would be folly. (To which he said, “I wasn’t expecting fantastic shooter action a la HL3.” Yes, he is bringing up a game that doesn’t even exist yet.)

At this point, I figure I can conclude the whole ordeal by saying that The Last of Us is focused on survival horror tropes and not shooter action, but his response was fairly eye-opening. “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘survival horror tropes.’ if [sic] you just mean that the video game is a great story, then sure, it’s pretty well presented so far.” It dawned on me that he had no idea what sort of game he was actually playing, not just that he didn’t know what to expect.

The Last of Us sits firmly within the realm of survival horror despite its hard lean on action-adventure. If you are reading this article on this website, then you probably are filling in all the blanks already. The protagonist, while capable, is rendered weaker than most video game leads with limited resources, less health, and reduced mobility and is often one of only a few characters you’ll meet. You’ll have to solve simple, almost inconsequential puzzles to progress from area to area and you’ll occasionally get surprise-attacked for a little jump scare. Evasion and stealth is usually preferred to face-to-face confrontation for these exact reasons.

But you already knew all that. And you also knew that when you throw an action or adventure slant on it, you end up with a little bit more physical prowess in your hero (Joel can, after all, choke out, beat up, and gun down infected and dudes alike with relative ease, but he also goes down just as quickly). You know this because you’re a core gamer, a demographic of people who play video games on consoles and PCs for double-digit hours a week and buy new triple-A releases fairly often. These tropes of video game genres have become intuitive aspects of your gaming knowledge, and given some thought, I’m sure would soon foster new entries in your digital entertainment lexicon.

The problem is when people like my baby-basket-tossing friend play video games but do so at a cursory level. As far as I know, the only games he’s played this generation have been LittleBigPlanet, Red Dead Redemption, and now The Last of Us. They’re all great games, but the first two were primarily multiplayer experiences for him, so he greatly associates those with Friend Time and not Game Time. Outside of that, all he knows about video games is Call of Duty reveals and Gears of War trailers.

So it makes a bit of sense when he experiences a game outside of the Friend Time confines that he would expect it to follow the first-person or third-person shooter groove. The tropes of survival horror, self-imposed limitations of game design, are intimately familiar to the rest of us after years and years of conditioning to understand and accept them, but they seem egregiously foreign and ill-conceived to those that don’t have that same background. Why can’t I approach this room full of bad guys however I want (which happens to be shooting them all in the face)? Why do I have to manage my resources so carefully? Why isn’t this game more fun?

Perhaps it’s a problem of the medium. The entire industry seemingly operates on a priori knowledge where you have to already understand how games work and where they fit within physical and psychological constraints. There are a great deal of people I know who used to play games but stopped simply because couldn’t keep up. Controllers overwhelmed them. Digital representations of imaginary worlds outmatched their ability for visual intake. Genres began to form and rapidly define themselves as designers and developers further refined those tropes to a point. Pac-Man, for instance, could be the progenitor of many genres including survival horror, and look at where we are now. It’s easy to see where people would fall off the wagon.

The question, then, is how to fix it. It’s an issue of accessibility and one that many have tried to answer before us. Even outside of video games, movies and television shows and books and music all fit within genres of their respective cultural ecosystem. For example, slasher movies are appreciated for vastly different reasons than period piece dramas or specifically late 90s children action and a good movie in one of those would make it a terrible movie in another. And yet those differences in aesthetic and design and appreciation are unspoken in the world of film. Books, too, as you wouldn’t read a novel with Fabio on the cover if you knew you were into spy thrillers. You wouldn’t listen to country if you wanted to start a mosh pit.

There must be a point where worldly understanding of video games collides with our specialized understanding. For the majority of the world, there only exists a single thing that our industry produces, and that is video games. Dig Dug, Forza, The Unfinished Swan, and everything else is lumped into a single category with any further refinement whereas terms like “horror movie” and “romantic novel” and “space jazz odyssey” are thrown around with apparently intuitive understanding. My friend failed to understand what makes a survival horror game necessarily survival horror, and he doesn’t just play Call of Duty and Madden. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Of course, this questions the very value of genres. When things so easily slot into formulaic compositions of design and aesthetic, the value of all mediums—not just video games—comes under attack. Christopher Nolan, director and writer of The Dark Knight and Inception, completely eschews such categorical conventions because they take away the meaning those deliberate design decisions originally held. If you were to shoehorn games like Flower and Journey into genres, either the concept of genres or the solidarity of the games themselves would break because that’s just not how those work.

Limitations, however, are often what people seek. On the creative side, they want to know where the boundaries are so they have a vague understanding of when they’re crossing them. Given free rein, we’re overwhelmed to the point of immobilization. Author and psychologist Barry Schwartz calls it the paradox of choice to where such freedom fills people with anxiety. Limitations, however, gives us a bearing and allow us to know where to push and how much. Michael Abbott over at Brainy Gamer actually wrote up quite a bit on the topic of fostering the confines of genres, so read that when you get a chance.

The question remains, though, on the value of genres for the consumer side. Does it benefit people to have presupposed knowledge prior to enjoy a game like The Last of Us? I suppose so if you were wanting to play a game of virtual football and instead ended up endearing a heartbreaking tale of love and loss (and fungi), you find the immediately and inherent value of knowing what you were getting into. But I’d also like to think that ideally, you could sit down in front of a movie or video game or whatever and appreciate it based on whatever it presented to you without a meta-medium knowledge. Then, when you’re stuck in a room full of Clickers and you only have one round left for your revolver, you won’t question the “fun” (an immensely arbitrary and useless thing to qualify any creative endeavor with) and instead appreciate the game for what it is.

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