"A Shooter with RPG elements! The Platformer meets the Racing genre! A Brawler with Real Time Strategy excitement! The first time a Social Networking Farming Sim incorporates Online Dungeon Crawling and Space Marine Dating!!!"
We've all seen these and similar advertisements plastered all over several games from the past five years or so; and in this musing, I'll be presenting my simple argument for why I think we'll continue to see this trend in our collective future. To be sure, genre blending is nothing new; however, it's a feature (and unfortunately sometimes a gimmick) that seems to be a point of pride or benchmark for developers these days and something that I don't really hear people talking much about. It's my belief that this trend originated due to a poverty of innovation and will continue to thrive due to a handful of successful titles. (Warning: I use the word "genres" a lot. Get ready.)
Everybody wants to be the first person to do something, especially when they do that something well. I'm not quite old enough to remember, but there was a time when someone released the first real racing game, the first real FPS, etc. I'm sure there's probably a fair amount of debate somewhere as to what games hold those titles, but that's not the point. The point is that after these genres were established, it became the goal of other developers to either: A) Improve Upon Those Genres or B) Create New Genres. However, at another point in time that I don't care to specify (or look up), we became saddled with all of the common genres that we know and love. Sure, every now and then we get a quirky genre-defying title, but those usually involve creativity and originality (i.e. things that aren't guaranteed to cash out) so those types of titles will probably remain few and far between. Ultimately, I think until we see a significant change in our hardware, we're not really going to see any brand new genres established. Some might argue that we'll be seeing that change in hardware with Motion Control but I'm currently quite skeptical as to whether or not those peripherals will work as "currently" advertised. All this being the case, I again make the point that there are certain set genres that probably won't see much change in the near future.
Unfortunately for gamers and developers alike, playing the same game with different graphics can get a little bit tedious after a while. There is, in my opinion, a poverty of genre innovation. I think Super Mario Galaxy is one of the only recent titles I can think of that really broke some ground in a stale genre by implementing new gameplay and design. Thus enters the art of genre blending. When you run out of ways to make French Fries and Frosties, you combine them to make something new and, hopefully, tasty (or in our case, fun). Again, the first games that were examples of this practice are up for debate, but I think everyone can quite easily think of several current gen titles that reflect this style. Many are on our favorite and most wanted lists. It is for this reason that I predict we will continue to see this practice refined and developed in the foreseeable future.
If I was forced to explain why a successful genre marriage is like heroin to a gamer, I guess it's the fairly obvious concept of having your cake and eating it too. I really enjoy good shooters and I really love RPG's; therefore it's no surprise that Bioshock, which marries a beautiful shooter, with a rich universe, and the customization and upgrading mechanics of an RPG is one of my favorite games. The best moments of Destructoid's Game of the Year, Uncharted 2, are the sequences which deftly combine fluid platforming and thrilling gunfights rather than having you do just one or the other for half an hour. There are many more examples of games which successfully merge genres, but there is a much longer list of games that unsuccessfully try to marry different gameplay styles. Like those icing filled Nilla Wafers, they might sound great, but you end up with something that has lost what made the individual components good in the first place.
The sophisticated example above, Brutal Legend, illustrates a game that tried to do too many different things and didn't do any of them that well. The universe was brilliantly designed but the genre orgy inside will most likely leave a bad taste in even the most open-minded gamer's mouth. This is my biggest fear for the future; that developers will look at the success of the Mass Effects, Bioshocks, Borderlandses, etc. and "see" that consumers like merged genres. The whole Alpha Protocol debacle, where a game advertised itself as being an exciting foray into genre-blending got delayed because (allegedly) it wasn't enough like other successful genre blending titles, is proof positive that mixing your gaming types is not a fad and is, in fact, the future of this industry.
Now comes the part where I share my personal opinions about all of this; if they weren't already clear. I think mixing genres is a fine practice when done in moderation and when done in service of a developers creative vision. However, I think it's bound to fail when blandly employed to make a quick buck (Activision-style). However, if I've convinced anyone that it's a response to a poverty of innovation, then I think those of you will hopefully agree that it's a temporary solution for a larger problem; like a band-aid on a bullet wound. Better than games that continue to refine and refine the same mechanics with iteration after iteration, or those that try to Frankenstein-up new experiences by forcing genres together that don't quite fit, I think developers should continue to push our expectations for what those genres are in the first place. Games like Portal or No More Heroes, which definitely employ some familiar mechanics (platforming and brawling respectively) but are unique enough in style and design that they defy (in my opinion) traditional genre classification are my idealized future for gaming.
While I don't think we'll see any completely new genres created in the near future, I do think that there is a bright future for titles that push expectations and reinvent stale mechanics and tropes. This is obviously easier said than done, but I think it's preferable to continue striving for that than to rely on mimicry or stale formulas. Bottom line, I think the days of vanilla shooters, fighters, racers, and RPGs are coming to an end. There will obviously some hold-outs, especially (I predict) among the Fighting and Sports genres, but even Square Enix has recently gone on record as saying that they might be exploring different gameplay styles and abandoning the traditional JRPG (though I doubt it). While not inherently bad, I think that abandoning a straight genre in favor of a hybrid-style title for the sake of this new trend is risky. I will continue to applaud and seek out those titles that attempt to reinvent and innovate rather than combine well worn mechanics to pass for innovation. Hopefully some of you will join me in the days to come.
Or maybe I am nothing...Darkness. By the way, this is my first CBlog (or post of any kind other than a comment) so 'Hello'. This CBlog serves as part introduction, part Monthly Musing. Ever since I saw the most recent MM topic I've been sitting on this post and haven't seen anyone else tackle it (though if others have, this isn't an attempt to steal thunder); so, emboldened by having a question of mine addressed on Podtoid, I decided to take a shot. I opened with Jim Sterling's iconic (in my mind) quote because I feel like it is the perfect encapsulation of everything that Kingdom Hearts is. A lot of something and a lot of nothing. This will be long, so get some cocoa and a blanket.
I remember seeing commercials and reading snippets of articles advertising the first game in the series many years ago. I was intrigued but that was about it. To fully understand my love affair with this series, you're going to need to take a brief RichardBlaine history lesson. You see, I was a stalwart Nintendo supporter back in the N64/Playstation days. I grew up with an NES, SNES, and so on. When the Playstation came out, I was convinced that this new "fad" wouldn't last that long but I was secretly envious whenever an interesting title was released. I was a pretty casual gamer and basically lived off of whatever I received for holidays and birthdays, never buying games on my own or researching them. One series that I never played, but was always curious about was Final Fantasy. When the original titles were released for their Nintendo consoles, I was obliviously content with my copies of Super Mario Brothers 3 and Bart vs. The Space Mutants for my NES (I seriously think those were my only games). My parent's taste refined when they later gifted me Donkey Kong Country, Super Empire Strikes Back, and (most importantly) Super Mario RPG for my SNES (among other titles). You see, Super Mario RPG was my first RPG title and the first game that showed me that video games could tell stories slightly more complex than 'Kill 'Blank' to Save 'Blank'' and truly make me feel like I had entered another world.
Unfortunately, by the time I realized that the Final Fantasy series was attempting to do the same thing, I had traded in my SNES and was living it up N64 style. I would have asked for Final Fantasy 7 for my family's computer but we were that one Mac family that you knew back in the 90's before the iPod made it cool to own one. Therefore, it was not until late in the Playstation 2's life cycle that after a couple of price drops, I picked up my first Sony console and my first Final Fantasy game, Final Fantasy X. It was love at first sight. Don't get me wrong, the series is heavily flawed in some respects, but it's very good at the things that it does well. I quickly went out of my way to play through the majority of the other games in the series via Game Boy Advance re-releases, Friend's Copies, and (cough) Emulation. Being able to go back and recapture so many of those older childhood wishes was both empowering and delightful.
Much, much, much later and fully satiated on my JRPG feast; I found myself remembering the commercials I'd seen a few years before for Kingdom Hearts. Now having been a human child during the late 80's and early 90's, I saw and loved just about every animated release that Disney unleashed on the unsuspecting public. Aladdin, of course, being the best. I even picked up the pretty awful direct to video sequels. This game that seemed to combine my newly found love of Final Fantasy games with my childhood and nostalgia-ridden love of Disney movies into a unique, action-RPG universe seemed to good to be true. In some ways it is.
I went out and snagged a copy from the local EB games (to give you some dating). Upon loading it up, I found the opening video to be quite catchy and was quickly immersed in a simultaneously new and familiar universe. However, as I played, I found myself painfully aware of something. While the gameplay was fun and fast paced with outstanding voice acting from a lot of the classic Disney contributors, the story was kind of stupid. Kind of really stupid. I mean, believe in the light to save your heart from the darkness? This is a universe that operates in the same way and with the same level of subtlety as the Care Bear universe. The power of love defeating the power of darkness, the incredibly 'emo' characters, and the bombastic and heavy handed themes are all things that I really quite loathe. It's the stuff that Twilight-reading/Hot Topic shopping tweens' (no offense) dreams are made of. However, more horrifying than this realization is the fact that, in this case, I love it. I eat it up. I want to know all about the darkness and what's going to happen to Sora and his friends. I want to know who Ansem is and what his reports say. I keep playing just a little bit longer because as much as it pains me, I NEED to know if I can redeem Riku and free Kairi's heart. Why does the Organization wear those robes?! They're totally lame but I want one! I've realized that it is to me, what my grandmother's soap operas are to her. Having gone on to purchase and enjoy several other games in the series, I keep waffling back and forth between pure unadulterated enjoyment and utter self-loathing.
However, let's not pretend that the gameplay is perfect while the only problem with the series is the story. The Gummi Ship mechanic in the first game, the card based gameplay of Chain of Memories, and certain aspects of the grid system in 358 Days (also the title of 358 Days), are all systems that have some merits but all suffer heavy flaws. But the horror of these components is that like many gamers do, I find myself pushing through these unsatisfactory systems because I want to continue and advance the story. The same story that I hate but secretly love and hate myself for loving! Returning to my original statement that the series is a lot of something and a lot of nothing, I truly feel that there are so many wonderful things happening with the material being sourced and the voice acting, and simultaneously so many terrible things happening with the over the top and frequently vapid story.
Though it may be different for some others out there, because of my history of repressed Final Fantasy gameplay coupled with a perpetual love of Disney, whenever I play these games it always feels like my inner child is getting away with something. I know that I am capable of enjoying more mature and sophisticated gameplay and story ideas. There are many games out there that are better written, designed, and played than any of the Kingdom Hearts games; but I know that once Birth By Sleep hits the shelves, I'll put on my hoodie and shades and covertly grab a copy like a user buys his fix. It's because of this relationship of true love for a series that combines Final Fantasy and Disney coupled with pure hate for the ridiculousness of it's story and of myself for loving it, that Kingdom Hearts truly occupies a Love/Hate niche within this gamer's heart. I have a feeling I'm not the only one.