“Gritty Action Movies.” “Suspenseful Morality Sci-Fi Movies from the 1930s.” “Whistleblower Steamy Psychological Animation Based on a Book Set in Biblical Times About Trucks, Trains, & Planes.” Genres can be weird, right?
(The examples above come from Alexis Madrigal and Ian Bogost’s Netflix-genre generator.) Game genres can be as simple as “driving “(DriveClub) or “FPS” (Battlefield 1) or as elaborately specific as “first-person stealth action-adventure role-playing games” (Uncharted 4: A Thief's End). Genres can be really helpful: when I find a game I like, say Dishonored 2, identifying aspects that appeal to me, like stealth, helps me find other games I’ll probably enjoy (like the Metal Gear Solid series or the latest Thief reboot). But genres can stifle creativity if developers or publishers choose to make an easily marketable game rather than taking genre-blurring risks—or when thinking using conventional genres leads developers to not even see some of the other possibilities out there.
Unlike other media, game genres often involve the concept of perspective. Gamers are familiar with terms like “first-person,” “third-person,” “over-the-shoulder,” “isometric,” “top-down,” “side-scrolling,” “2D,” “3D,” and “2.5D.” These terms tell us how a game shows us the player characters and their world. Because this is such a big part of a game experience, these terms have become genres in their own right, as in “first-person shooters.” But any genre gets boring after a while if developers don’t change things up.
There’s a lot of potential for keeping games fresh by switching between genres and perspectives, but also a lot of dangers. If successful, gamers get at least two distinctly different experiences within one game, with each being fun on their own as well as creating a new, fun experience through the combination. When such attempts fail, though, you have to wade through one broken experience to get to the other, fun one—or, worst-case scenario, by splitting their attention between two experiences, developers don’t do justice to either one.
Take the Valkyria Chronicles series (PS3, PSP) and The Call of Duty Series as examples of how to mix visual perspectives and genres right and wrong. Valkyria Chronicles is a game built around the mixture of top-down tactical planning, RPG-like character development (and tactical outfitting), and third-person battlefield action. These aspects are nicely balanced and each is done well. As a result, while beating a Valkyria Chronicles game takes at least 40 hours, I haven’t yet found myself bored by one – switching between top-down strategy and over-the-shoulder action provided enough diversity that things didn’t get stale. By contrast, in most RPGs, even really good ones, I usually reach a point where I find the level-grinding battles a bit soul-crushing and monotonous.
The developers of Call of Duty decided to take the risk of changing up several of the conventions that had become very familiar in the Call of Duty series, adding branching storylines and renewed attention to story in the campaign, league play in multiplayer – and semi-optional tactical Strike Force missions to complement the traditional FPS action. The Strike Force missions are, as far as I can tell, almost universally regarded as a flawed execution of an interesting idea. Players and critics liked the idea of adding a tactical element to occasionally break up the main FPS gameplay, but didn’t like the fact that the squad members’ AI hadn’t been robustly enough designed to make the missions work well. To succeed, most players had to leave tactical view and do most of the mission work with only one character (at a time) from the traditional first-person perspective.
A final example of a game that succeeds by giving players a mix of genres and perspectives are Sanctum and Sanctum 2, a hybrid tower defense/FPS series. Much like Valkyria Chronicles, the player strategizes (here via tower defense) from above before zooming in to manage the action from the field during battle, while Sanctum also offers both single-player and co-op experiences that can further mix things up.
I’ve focused here on strategy-action hybrids featuring perspectives shifts, but the same concept applies for almost any genre combinations (Puzzle Quest, anyone?). Many great games will (and should) continue to do one thing and do it well, but from time to time, it’s really fun to see genres collide, too! Which hybrid-genre games do you like best? Which fail miserably?