Why Do We Need Genre Labels?

on February 6, 2010 11:00 AM

As many of you may know from reading my past articles, I’m a huge advocate of Japanese RPGs. I’m quick to defend the genre, but I’m also not unreasonable about its flaws, even though what constitutes a “flaw” is widely subjective. In fact, I’m a huge fan of RPGs in general, regardless of origin. While other genres may be fairly black and white as to what is and what isn’t considered to be part of it, RPGs tend to have more gray areas than most, simply because it can be argued that nearly every game we play we take on the role of someone or something – from sports games to military shooters to platformers with a rolly-polly ball-type creature bouncing around the screen. Perhaps it can be argued that games like Dragon Age: Origins and Final Fantasy XIII are “real” RPGs because you have nearly full control over an individual character’s stats, leveling path, abilities and overall direction in a game, you aren’t just controlling a character through a story. However, is that all that sets those titles apart from, let’s say, Metal Gear Solid, God of War or Modern Warfare? Those games have a mix of RPG-like elements, as well, while not necessarily concentrating completely on the depth of individual character stats that straight RPGs may.

Needless to say, the gaming industry as a whole has taken a rather liberal stance toward what is considered an RPG and what is not. It seems to come down mostly to personal opinion. Do you consider Borderlands an RPG? It has more shooter elements than RPG elements, yet the loot whoring and character progression are of RPG origin. What about Mass Effect 2? The second title in the series seems to have progressed to a straight shooter with an amazing, engrossing story and intriguing character development, stripping away the game mechanics that brought about the first title’s classification. I can name a dozen other genre mash-ups that could be considered either/or when you confine them to a certain genre.

borderlands01When we have these combinations of genres, we tend to create all new genres, just pulling names out of thin air to describe a game. The developer may coin the “new” genre and claim they’re the first to conceive of a game like that (in most cases they aren’t) or it may be labeled by the industry or consumer to best describe exactly what a title is. “Stealth action third-person shooter” is the genre MGS4 apparently belongs to, yet you never see any other title described in such a way (although Splinter Cell: Conviction might end up falling into this “genre”, perhaps?). Does it stand in a genre all by itself? Are the developers really that arrogant? It’s a third-person action game, make no mistake.

So, my inquiry is this: Do we really need a genre label to tell us what a game is? A game is supposed to be fun over everything else and, if it is indeed fun, who cares what abstract naming conventions we place on it. Does the fact that Konami came up with some random new genre off the top of their heads to describe the Metal Gear Solid franchise matter when the games are enjoyed by millions? Do those millions care about what genre their game is labeled when they’re having such a good time playing it?

Bioware stripped nearly everything that could be used to label Mass Effect 2 an RPG out of the game. It is basically now a third-person shooter driven heavily by story and character development. Most people consider “story” and “shooter” in the same sentence to be an oxymoron, because the “story” in shooters typically falls flat. People play shooters for the multi-player aspect usually, and the story is nothing more than a quick undertaking to pass the time when you have no one else to play with. I did consider the first Mass Effect an RPG, but I would have to admit that I don’t consider the second one the same. It’s a third-person shooter, straight up. Does that make the game any less fun for me? Should it? No, on both accounts. The game is quite possibly one of the best games I’ve ever played and, like I said, I’m typically more of a JRPG junkie than anything, and Mass Effect 2 is just about as far from that genre as you can get. To use a couple other examples, does the fact that Fallout 3 and Borderlands are, for all intents and purposes, first-person shooters, bother people who really enjoy the game and their deeper RPG elements? Doubtful. Who cares? Those games are fun!

masseffect01I’ll admit that I have fallen under the group of people who balk at games like Borderlands being considered for “RPG of the Year” awards, because I don’t really consider it an RPG in the truest sense of the label, as applied to video games. (PnP RPG fans back off, we’re not talking about the origin of RPGs or anything outside the realm of the term as it is applied to modern video games.) Yet, the more I think about it, the more I realize that genre labels don’t really matter, to be quite honest. It would be nice if, on some level, the industry as a whole recognizes this fact. Perhaps it is the need to categorize things, to have some vague sense of organization. After all, during award shows like the shoddy Spike TV Video Game Awards, we wouldn’t have as many categories to waste time with if we didn’t specifically categorize titles into genres. It’s getting to the point I think Modern Warfare (or a similar title) will show up in the “RPG of the Year” category one of these days.

Although, I will have to say, one thing genre mash-ups do, at least for me, is interest me in widening out in my game playing. Perhaps I’ll try more shooters because of Mass Effect 2. Perhaps a shooter fan will try more story-driven RPGs because of it, as well.

So, I’ll turn this question over to our readers – does a game’s genre matter to you if the game itself is fun? As I discussed above, I’m getting to the point myself where it doesn’t matter. Some games I will like, others I won’t. It isn’t because of the genre necessarily, it is about what hooks me, what is fun for me, what just “works” for me. Naturally, it is all personal opinion and choice. That being said, let’s hear what you have to say on the matter, I can’t have the only opinion out there.

 /  Reviews Editor / PR
Chad joined the DualShockers staff in mid 2009 and since then has put much of his time into covering RPGs, with a focus on the Japanese side of the genre, from the obscure to the mainstream. He's a huge fan of iconic games like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI and Persona 4 yet enjoys the smaller niche titles, as well. In his spare time he enjoys experiencing new beer, new foods and keeping up with just about every sci-fi show on television. He's married to an intelligent, beautiful Southern Belle who keeps his life interesting with witty banter and spicy Cajun cooking.
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