I'm an unemployed college student, I've spent the last few years wading through a program at my local community college to prep me for entering law enforcement. My interests include: gaming, philosophy, sociology, logic and law. I hate math and I have a lousy memory. I'm 24 years old.
I was a late bloomer when it comes to videogames. Growing up, my family has never been especially affluent, and we pretty much just didn't have the cash to throw down on Nintendo or Sega.
I didn't really play a lot of games outside of the occasional visits to family friends in Phoenix, where I got acquainted with classics like Sonic, Donkey Kong, and Mortal Kombat. I was awful at them but I didn't care, I knew then and there that I'd fallen in love with videogames. The next time I'd get to play videogames would be on a PC, home-built basically from scratch by my uncle and my mother. It was a piece of crap that housed everything I could cram onto it, from Doom to WarCraft II. It underwent several hardware mods as time went on, but eventually we moved on to pre-built equipment and haven't looked back since. Some of my fondest memories, though, are of starting up DOS and typing in the command string to start up Rise of the Triad. I still have a huge soft spot for RTS games, as WarCraft II was the first game I really understood all the mechanics of.
The PlayStation was my first console. It was a pastime for me more than anything, really. A handful of decent games that I played occasionally when I wasn't doing something else. It wasn't until Metal Gear Solid that I really started to grasp gaming as a kind of physical concept. Metal Gear Solid made gaming a tangible thing for me, and I still have a powerful love for that series to this day.
I didn't become a real gamer until around 2004. That year, my gaming collection grew exponentially for the PS2, and for my newly-acquired Xbox. I made so many discoveries about games and gaming that year that I literally can't quantify it; it was an epiphany that has led me to expanding my horizons and seeking every new game experience I can find.
These days I try to keep an open mind about games, and let anything surprise me.
Two years ago today I wrote and posted my first blog on Destructoid. I'd been wondering after two years here on the C-Blog circuit what I could do to adequately commemorate this "blog birthday". Then it hit me. Two years. Two years. TWO YEARS! Two years' worth of material ripe for the picking on this subject. So here I am, two years later, two years wiser, and with a whole new slew of games to dissect with entirely new connotations of genre generalization, both good and bad.
For those of you who didn't read the original blog, and don't want to bother reading it now, genre generalization is my term for what happens when a game tries to mix, connect, or combine two different archetypes of game design and fails. In practical terms, we're talking about games like Mass Effect, which pushes together third person shooting mechanics with RPG design but doesn't deliver on either front. Just so we're clear: I'm not saying that this leads explicitly to bad games, though that does happen, just that it tends to result in a watered down experience of the two extremes. Mass Effect is good, but lacks the punch of a meaty, satisfying shooter. Likewise, it misses the mark on a truly deep character building experience of an RPG. This mixing of two extremes produces something unique, but lacking in really developed gameplay.
I think genre generalization is where the industry as a whole is headed. Every individual person has a distinct and unique appetite for everything, from food to colors to games. Mixing and matching game design philosophies allows game companies to capture larger demographics and get deeper market penetration by appealing to a wider audience with a variety of features. And with that definition over with, let's start digging into the guts of these games to get a better idea of what I'm talking about in practice.
Valkyria Chronicles is a poster child for what can go right when you mix genres. Welding together turn-based RPG style, real time consequences, rapidly shifting and dynamic objectives requiring teamwork between your units and careful management of your command points, this game creates a unique environment and an extremely satisfying mix of RTS and RPG mechanics. The main thing to take away from Valkyria Chronicles' success is that it actually uses its root genres to make something new and exciting. Valkyria Chronicles isn't a victim of genre generalization because its mix is used to produce something unique; it doesn't try to be both an RPG and an RTS at once.
One word. Well, two, actually. Borderlands. This game is a kind of polarizing lightning in a bottle; I only ever see pure love or pure hate for it. Personally I like the idea more than I like it in practice but that alone isn't reason enough to slide it off the good example list. Borderlands blends first person shooting, good level up and skill mechanics, an amazing loot system, and reasonably satisfying co-op.
Borderlands, more than anything else, manages to dip its fingers into the RPG world and draw influence from completely unexpected sources. Leaning more toward Diablo style mechanics, by focusing on loot drops and dungeons, Borderlands connects two very different genres and styles. The most surprising thing about it is, Borderlands does it successfully. Well-managed shooting, huge variety in loot drops (with each new weapon opening up potentially new gameplay styles and questions to the player), all sewn up with a slick but rough sense of humor.
It's not the deepest shooter, and it's far from the deepest RPG, but Borderlands manages to not cock up the mixture and produce something sub-par; it's more than I can say for a lot of games which try to blend genres and create a big ol' mess o' slop, which brings me to...
Brutal Legend. Sort of the opposite of Valkyria Chronicles, Brutal Legend never quite tells you that you're signing up for an RTS and not a brawler, and it's a painfully shallow RTS at that. This is a case of two genres slapped together to carry an idea, and it just doesn't get the job done. Not a bad game, but the gameplay on both fronts is generic and uninspired. The world is great, but the game itself is just lacking something more developed and satisfying.
Hunted: The Demon's Forge isn't what I would call your attention to if I wanted you to play a good shooter. Or a good RPG. It's a ballsy title that tries to mix cover based shooting mechanics with hack & slash gameplay and dungeon crawling, and only the dungeon crawling aspect actually provides any kind of satisfaction. The cover system is haphazard, the aiming is sluggish, the melee is slow and lacks depth, and the puzzles are mostly of the "get this thing, bring it here" variety.
Brink is... complicated. It tries to blend more than two genres, and sort of gets one of the four right. It's a shooter, mixed with an RPG. It also tries to mix singleplayer and multiplayer, which goes pretty poorly overall. So much so that most reviewers and most people who've played the game consider it essentially just a multiplayer shooter. What's more, it's a multiplayer shooter that was inspired and influenced by games which normally don't get talked about or looked at very often. Blending the first-person-platforming style proposed by Mirror's Edge, the extremely tight class-based team mayhem on display in Team Fortress 2, all curled up around the objective style of Enemy Territory. And it also borrows heavily from RPG concepts; there's a progression system with levels, powers, and abilities, all of which are obtained by earning experience points for performing a variety of tasks, such as missions, slaying enemies, and assisting teammates.
The problem isn't that games like Brink, Brutal Legend, and Hunted: The Demon's Forge try to branch out and appeal to a wider audience. The problem is that they generally do it very badly. Brink is a pretty good example of this because it misses the mark on most of the things it stuck in the mixing bowl.
The platforming is sketchy and loose, and being tied completely to one button basically makes their fancy parkour system a glorified sprint button. Hold sprint to jump over obstacles in your way, hold sprint to run on walls, hold sprint to sprint, so on and so on. It takes out almost all of the sense of actively maneuvering through a space, replacing it with a "hold this down to get to your objective faster" button. Likewise, the shooting leaves a lot to be desired for me personally by removing the additional damage of things like headshots; Team Fortress 2 does a similar thing, but retains it for certain classes and weapons, and it bothers me there, too. Both games, to different degrees, lack a certain incentive for players to step up their game. Finally, the progression and character building is satisfying but swift and when it's over a lot of the game's previous momentum seems lost. When you're no longer playing for the next level you're just playing Brink, and that alone seems surprisingly unsatisfying.
Even riddled with all these problems, these games still manage to be a passable experience. Muddy and unpredictable, but still pleasant to play if you get a taste for it. They're not explicitly broken games. This is genre generalization in action; a mediocre product that's dime-a-dozen and forgettable trying to do so many things at once that nothing ever gets the love and attention it needs to develop into something truly amazing.
Threading the Needle
Every now and then there is a game which manages to do something incredible. There are very few of these, I consider them to be the most impressive productions of the game world. These are games which manage to completely retain their original genre, in an entirely new medium or fashion. This is not genre generalization; genre generalization is a strait up mix of two genres in almost equal measure, which damages the depth or the playability of the final product. These games don't mix genres, they somehow manage to thread the needle and produce an experience which does not truly hamper or inhibit either influence. This is a very small pool of games, but there is one that I think almost anyone can relate to pretty easily, so we'll talk about Deus Ex.
Deus Ex is an RPG. It can also be a shooter, but let's not beat around the bush. It's an RPG first and a shooter second. Skill selection and leveling up can be used to turn Deus Ex into a shooter, but from the very beginning this game cracks you over the head with a sign that says "I AM AN RPG", and expects you to treat it as such. Somehow this combination of RPG and shooter isn't a contradiction. Here we are 11 years later, and I'm still not sure why that is.
So much of what you can do in Deus Ex is dependent upon your selection of skills and your chosen augments. Entirely new options open up for the player that focuses on hacking instead of heavy weapons. For each skill there is a purpose, a style, or a unique edge offered to the player to wield and use in the challenges presented by the game. It is pure RPG expressed in an entirely unexpected, non-traditional medium. More important than anything, Deus Ex manages to never lose or diminish its RPG feel in the maelstrom of first person perspective design. It avoids the problem of genre generalization by fine-tuning both of its influences into the final product, changing shooter mechanics to fit its RPG feel, rather than arbitrarily throwing both design directions up against eachother.
The next game in the series, and for many what is shaping to be the only true successor to the Deus Ex lineage is set to be released in August. Only time will tell whether Deus Ex: Human Revolution truly lives up to its namesake. If it does, we'll be treated once again to that strangely perfectly tuned game which retains depth without sacrificing anything in the transition to a different medium. This is where I'd like to see the games industry go. Away from generalization and toward a new generation of games which utilize a combination of influences to create something entirely new and fresh.