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Andrew Kauz avatar 1:30 PM on 05.13.2009  (server time)
Storytelling: The Problem of Genres

[This is the fourth part of my storytelling series. Iíll keep this one short, unlike the typical massive articles that I tend to post. Iíll try, at least.]

Genres are an expected and arguably important part of every entertainment medium, from television to movies to literature to video games. In fact, one of the first things that we as gamers tend to do with a new game is place it into a certain genre or subgenre: itís a sandbox game, or an FPS, or a JRPG. For the most part, I donít think this is harmful behavior: if a game is from Japan and is a role-playing game, it is, for all intents and purposes, a JRPG.

I played the hell out of Star Ocean 4, but give me a break with this shit. (At least it was set in space)

However, itís an entirely different story when a game's plot falls into a specific genre. JRPGs especially tend to have JRPG plots: some young hero is suddenly forced to leave the comfort of home and save the world from utter destruction with the help of an unlikely band of friends. Thereís almost always a certain degree of self-discovery, shoulder-crying, ugly-monster-fighting, and reaffirmations that the hero just wonít give up no matter what. I donít think anyoneís going to argue that, by now, this shit hasnít gotten really, really old.

The problem is that developers seem to believe that certain plot types naturally fit in with certain gameplay genres, and theyíre either not comfortable or creative enough to stray from the established genre formula. Itís easy to harp on JRPGs in this situation, but I think there are plenty of genres that are guilty of this; how many generic FPS stories have we had to suffer through?

Fixing this issue is going to require a complete reevaluation of the meaning of a genre. Many games have successfully done this: Folkloreís blend of mystery, RPG and action elements defied genre categorization (though I greatly disagree with how the story was told), and Shadow Hearts: Covenant (which I sadly never finished) successfully set a somewhat traditional RPG during World War I. These were games that surprised and pleased simply because of what they did differently, and thereís truly no limit to the value of offering an experience that catches the player off guard.

The engaging setting of Shadow Hearts: Covenant largely carried the game.

Genre stories have always been unacceptable in many literary circles (depending on who you talk to, of course), and I think this feeling needs to carry over to video games. Sure, itís easy to write a story thatís similar thematically or structurally to almost every other story from that genre, but itís time for this practice to become unacceptable, both to the players and developers. Everyone involved deserves better than the easy route.

To close, enjoy a predictable and entirely overused quotation.

ďTwo roads diverged in a wood, and Ió I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.Ē ĖRobert Frost

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