Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Genres vs. Descriptors – A Better Way?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 27, 2017

So in games, literature, film, and TV we often talk about genre (and subgenre). It’s an overused term with lots of different meanings. In programming, we call it “overloaded.” In a broad sense, it is a category for placing a product where people who are seeking similar products can find it. This is, on its face, a valuable role. If I just finished playing Pillars of Eternity and loved it and wanted to play another game like it, how would I find it? Well, a list of other games in the same genre is a good place to start.

The problem is pretty obvious to anyone involved in the Computer Role-Playing Game scene (the category / genre for Pillars of Eternity)… it still means you are drinking from the firehose. Same deal if I finally read Lord of the Rings and thought, “Wow, that was neat, I wonder if there are any other books like that out there…”

Yes, in either case, prepare to be buried.

In the past, I’ve tried to define the RPG “genre” and draw the defining boundaries around it… only to acknowledge that it still wasn’t perfect. There is no perfect. This was mainly in reaction to some sites categorizing games as RPGs that were nowhere in the neighborhood of RPGs, but they had elves and dragons in ’em. Well, that, and trying to categorize everything is my own little brand of craziness. (My other brand of craziness is deliberately trying to push those boundaries once they are defined, so maybe I really just want to watch the world burn.)

Our normal approach once a genre becomes overwhelmed is to break things down into sub-genres. But… that becomes problematic as well. Lois McMaster Bujold and others have done a terrific job of demonstrating how Science Fiction really isn’t a “genre,” it’s more of a setting. You can have a hard-boiled detective Science Fiction story, but it’s going to be a challenge because you have to do the SF worldbuilding at the same time as telling the detective story. But which box and sub-box does it belong? And while Torchlight II and Age of Decadence are both role-playing games, how alike are they, really? While a gamer can enjoy both, there’s a really different feel to both of them. And while The Martian (film) is in the same broad category of Science Fiction as Star Wars, it’s a lot closer in feel to the based-on-a-true-story drama Apollo 13.

Categories and sub-categories are a poor way to do things, but are better than nothing. It’s a benefit to marketers and to the audience, but it could and should be better. Is a book a romance novel with paranormal elements, or a paranormal book with heavy romance? Do you put it in both categories, thus increasing the size and decreasing the usability of the category? Back in the days of bookshelves, there may have been no other way. In the computer age… I dunno. It seems like we could do a better job of sifting through the related elements – descriptors rather than genres. But chances are, whatever alternative we discover will be proprietary and inconsistent. But Misha Burnett has a couple of ideas.

While there are some areas where as creators we’d want to tread lightly – or pick our battles with more focus – I do think that the indies have the advantage of being able to go out there and BREAK SOME RULES. So… let’s have more of that. In the meantime, here are some interesting discussions by some very indie-minded folks about the role of genre… what it should and shouldn’t be.

Tom Knighton – A Genre By Any Other Name

Sarah Hoyt – Romancing the Genre

Jasyn Jones – Genre Walls Will Destroy Your Story

Misha Burnett – Enough with this Genre Foolishness Already



Filed Under: General - Comments: Read the First Comment

  • Ayrik said,

    I think that’s why Steam added tags. It sure is nice to know that a game is open-world or turn-based and be able to filter accordingly.

    How do you define role-playing anyway? It seems to me that almost all games fall into that category except maybe sports or (most) RTS games.