Genre: a crutch that needs kicking away

As humans with our five senses we are in a constant state of activity, in our conscious hours, interpreting the world around us. Of course we do not ruminate on this every moment. Constantly, we are making quick glances, selectively hearing snippets of coherence in the cacophony of life, and generally ignoring a great deal of the world, taking it as read. In short – we cut corners. All the time.

The world makes sense (and often does not) because we compile our experience, and use it to fill in all the blind spots about any particular thing when we encounter it. It is by this that we form opinions, misguided or otherwise. It can be a good and bad thing – a movie trailer for Legally Blonde 2 showed me pretty much all I needed to know about that movie but the trailer for The Fountain criminally undersold it with the tagline “what if you could live forever?”, that brought with it the worst sci-fi and fantasy connotations to a film that bucked all of those respective genre traditions. Trailers are designed to make things marketable at any cost, it’s a whole argument about forced misrepresentation that I don’t want to get into – but what it highlights and that we can talk about in terms of games is the perpetuation of genre stereotypes that create a ludic and aesthetic vernacular that can be potentially detrimental to our work as designers. It’s a bit like saying if we only bother to learn English we’ll never know the joy of speaking and understanding French.

Or Swedish.

Oh yah, I got my trousers all in a bunch because of the trouble down at old Scoggin’s Eraser factory.

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent is clearly a puzzle game. It’s in his name. It’s also a bit of an adventure game, being developed by Telltale.  It is set in the Swedish migrant lands of Minnesota (cue funny Fargoisms), but it doesn’t really fit in the traditions of Sierra or Lucasarts. There is no death like in a Lucasarts game, but then there is no inventory really; you can wander freely like in a Lucasarts game, but it’s never hidden as to where to go next; and there are no dialogue trees to speak of. I could go on, but it’ll be much easier if I just say it’s lending heavily from Professor Layton in the manner of which its puzzles are presented, hidden, hinted, and scored.

The issue with genre in videogames has been an axe to grind with me for a while now. I wrote some time ago on a different site an almost evangelical call to arms to abandon our ties to genre. I’ll quote an edited portion here so you get the gist, these comments are in regard to Steve Gaynor’s thoughtful words on the subject:

[Publishers] are churning out the same stuff year after year and we’re moving forward in baby steps when we could be leaping. “Why is this a problem?” you may ask. It isn’t, if you don’t want games to be taken seriously as a medium as important as cinema or literature. But if, like me, you feel that we’re standing at the foot of an artistic mountain and settling there instead of trying to climb it then it is a problem. In games, where the medium truly is international we seem to be chasing a dragon of graphics, and presentation and we seem to be putting ludological experimentation second, at least in terms of the big budget titles. We’re making games for “core gamers” and maligned “casual gamers”. Why aren’t we making art for everyone!? Anyone? If this continues computer games will stall at a point in the cultural lexicon where they achieve irrelevance. Serving themselves and their creators, but offering nothing to anyone else. As sad as it is we will share an existence in the margins with comic books, and interpretive dance, rather than achieving our potential.

What has this got to do with Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent? Simple – it’s got a story, and it’s not boring as hell. It’s not just funny either; it’s a bit creepy and unsettling. It’s not what we usually get, and that is a great thing. I suppose there were a few games I could have brought this up with. Limbo could have been a contender. A sad puzzle-platformer with intense bleakness, cut with sharp black humour? Perhaps, but then it’s already too far gone into our collective consciousness of “art games”, that if we think of it in this context it loses some of its effect. Scribblenauts is a good example ludically, but Mr Tethers smacks us right from left-field. I mean fancy finding a not-adventure adventure game that’s not a cut and shut puzzle game right there in Sam, Max, and Guybrush’s back yard! If this had even come from Double Fine it may have been less effective (as it would carry the association of the superbly chilling yet darkly comedic Psychonauts), but as a brand new IP from a studio who have only developed with trusted licensed properties, it is a bold, brave, and endearing move (Graham Annable, the creator did work on The Secret of Monkey Island, it transpires – but then it shouldn’t be surprising that the best qualified people to change a genre are its veterans).

I fear I haven’t made my case strong enough. Okay, think of an adventure game. Is it cartoony? No? Is it Myst or Return to Zork? No? Then it was probably some Infocom text based game and you’re going out of your way to be awkward. My point is we have an awareness as gamers of adventure games being either funny, cartoony things usually touched in some way by either Ron Gilbert or Tim Schafer, or as first person scenic tours around a boring place where nothing happens. The games that are in the in-between have either faded into obscurity or their IPs have been dragged uncomfortably into modernity. The Longest Journey became Dreamfall – and managed to lose a great deal of its charm in the process (though I like it for what it is, it has also hopped into a different sub-genre if we’re being nitpicky), while I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream has, thankfully for the sake of my sanity, never been repeated*. I’m sure a case for a rebuttal would come from the Adventure Games Studio site, if 98% of the submissions on there were not heavily influenced by Lucasarts or Sierra. It’s not a crime, they’re good sources of inspiration, but it is also enforcing our genre stereotype of the adventure/puzzle based game.

This isn’t just about adventure games, they’re just an example. For every genre we know in games we can subjectively name a handful of examples that we regarded as the peak of that genre for whatever reason (personal experience not always required). The RTS: Starcraft, the RPG: Oblivion, and in terms of the FPS, Half-Life 2. HL2 showed us one interpretation where your character wasn’t meant to talk, and the story was to be delivered from the environment as much as anything else. The men and women at Valve iterated on their ideas, and came up with a great many things in their development of the game to push the narrative and ludology together into one cohesive, beautiful, statement (if you have them, I recommend you go through all the developer commentaries for every Valve game you have). Then what occurred? Imitators. Why? I firmly believe no one sets out to make a bad game, and being inspired by something is by no means a bad thing, but surely the inspiration is coming from the fresh ideas, the new thinking that went into the design, rather than the finished product. Surely you’re inspired by the creators, not the creation? Our inspiration to create should honour them in spirit, not actual content. If I set out make a game it is because I want to describe a concept, theme, or emotion, in the interactive medium. I don’t want to “make a game like Half-Life 2”. If all we do is make cover versions of our favourite games then, regardless of their ability to keep us entertained, we’ve just went one step further into marginalizing design in the long-run. As my evangelical self noted above, while it may be naieve of him to do so, we need to make a change.

This is where Nelson Tethers comes in again. The key to cracking this issue is to look at the business models in game production. It’s been getting said for a little while now that the way games are budgeted just isn’t working as it should. Games sales have been falling year on year, and continued to do so into Q1 this year. The Christmas games rush still exists, despite it pushing a Q1 sales rush the years after in ’08 and ’09 but these sales aren’t enough to justify the lulls throughout the year. This year has felt different. I feel like this year, despite it’s Q1 rush with Final Fantasy XIII and Mass Effect 2, I’ve never been short on something new to play, and why is that? Downloadable games. Cheaper to purchase and make games that come out all through the year.

These smaller downloadable games avoid many of the issues that plague their triple-A counterparts. They don’t carry the burden to sell as well as they have had less fiscal investment, they don’t  have to actively change their design to be more marketable, they can try new things, and have more focused – shorter campaigns. These things make them ideal for adults with other commitments who can’t afford to pour 70 hours into a “core” over-long game.

What makes Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent such a good example is that it isn’t the product of a small indie studio – it is a game from a studio that handles some of the most loved licenses in gaming, and has been generating great success from their endeavours. Nelson Thethers: Puzzle Agent is a product of Telltale’s pilot scheme – in which they are bringing to market games in an episodic manner, with a “pilot” episode much like the broadcast industry does with new tv shows. This makes the investment into new IPs that would otherwise have been too risky more economically viable. This model needs to be applauded. If more studios took this approach there would be a higher turnover of ideas, and less “safe” repetition of the same genre conventions. Maybe we as gamers wouldn’t cut so many corners – and pay more attention.

Mike Dunbar (Follow me on Twitter at MikeDunbar and for Chronoludic updates click here)

* The game Sanitarium comes close to emulating the sense of unease that runs through I Have No Mouth… like the words in a stick of rock.

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