Concept Games and Genre Definitions

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Definitions are problematic.

I thought I understood this popular notion before but I hadn’t fully grasped how problematic they are before I began designing games. As a proponent of concept games, where the purpose of playing extends beyond mere entertainment and is meant to drive home a specific emotion or message, I grew increasingly aware of how restrictive our use of definitions was. Words meant to facilitate our grasp on the basic meaning behind concepts had evolved into a mask protecting the status quo behind it. In an industry where business already survives off the status quo, smaller indie developers like myself who have lesser strings binding them don’t need the creative side of game development to be restricted by the boundaries of words and their definitions.

But definitions do become restrictive, and it’s so subtly integrated into our way of thinking that we rarely notice it. Generally, it takes the form of genres where set characteristics defined by either the genre’s early precedents or its recent popular ones shape the boundaries of what the genre is. This is not an issue by default. Definitions and genres are an important thing in every medium and they encapsulate many aspects of the mediums into distinct groups that can be understood by everyone. Yet, when this same mentality starts seeping into the creative side especially during the conception of a game, it starts getting tricky.

“I want to make a Genre X game”  

Why not start with something you understand and move your way forward? 

This is how many indie developers begin the process of making a game. Why not start with something you understand and move your way forward? After all, it’s easier to navigate when you begin in the light of the known. However, the problem is that what may seem like the easier thing to do initially only gets harder – especially if your intentions are to do something unique and wrap it around a concept.

Over the years, I have found that safety is a highly valuable element in almost every field. But personally I find it regressive in a creative field. People working within the existing boundaries of a genre’s definitions trade a chance to potentially break new ground for ease in conceptualizing a new “genre” game.

Ambitious concepts that wish to convey a complex emotion may not be able to do so through existing genre conventions and their defined mechanics. That is not a failure of the concept, nor does it signify the immaturity of the medium. It merely calls for an alternate approach.

Contrary to what the society might say, confusion is a good thing; especially if you’re involved with conceptualizing a game where form takes precedence over structure and its motive over players’ objective entertainment.  Definitions weren’t simply discovered in a dictionary, but had to be created from confusion and chaos that reigned in the minds of those who tried grasping a concept or defining an experience no existing words could describe.

That doesn’t mean innovation cannot be achieved within the safe constraints of a genre. But I believe it is far more difficult to succeed when you’re constantly tempted to rest your idea in the space that’s understood by both you and your audience than venture into the uncertainty of the unknown and risk alienating everyone. We have a tendency to cling to known quantities, and creating a concept game meant to express something specific may not always fit within pre-existing frameworks.  

If you can think and apply, then the medium is sophisticated enough to accommodate such a concept.

When I brought up this topic with a few developers at a recent conference, they said they didn’t feel the need to consciously think about this, as games had still not reached that point of sophistication. This is another argument I often see—the fact that as a medium, games can only progress if we stick to the known and wait to explore the more “complex” concepts when the medium is more “sophisticated”. Personally, I cannot understand what it means to “wait” for a medium to become sophisticated. It may make sense from a market point of view to describe the maturity of the audiences but from a design point of view, it makes no sense to exclude such concepts until the medium magically becomes sophisticated . The way I see it, if you can think and apply, then the medium is sophisticated enough to accommodate such a concept.

Leave definitions to the marketers, academics and critics. This is generally true for many mediums particularly music where besides the base genres, most of them are mere buzzwords used by critics which are then latched onto by the barrage of fans creating a movement which then serves as the driving force behind a record labels’ PR effort.

No proponents of any genre consciously thought they were making something within the constraints. Dick Dale merely thought he was adding energy to guitar-driven rock with a heavy Arabic edge and never thought he was making surf rock before it was coined by the critics upon observing its cultural position.

Likewise, if you glance at any film description you’ll notice how almost all of them use the concept to describe themselves rather than what genre they belong to. When the medium matures beyond a certain point and the range of influences become more diverse, it becomes harder to pin the product to a single genre, no matter how innovative you may be in coming up with buzzwords.

I say this because many indie developers, myself included, approach game design, either consciously or subconsciously, in this manner—either by

  1. making a statement “I want to make a Genre X game

  2. starting with a story concept and then searching for a suitable genre that will complement it.

Part of that need is understandable as most indie developers have to self-promote, making genres and buzzwords necessary. However, you are already doing your game injustice if you’ve been thinking about molding it as a marketable product from the very outset.  

 With the medium being in such a formative stage, it’s more important to explore new ways to implement different concepts

When I was designing Exist, my current project, I began with an expansive concept centered on existentialism and societal prejudice but had a hard time binding aspects of that concept into existing gameplay mechanics. I realized I had been compromising on the concept in order to fit it into a small defined space. Anything that didn’t exactly fit was cut out with the justification that “it’s not fit to be in a game”.

This seems wrong in a medium that’s so young that it’s still grappling with questions like “What is a game?” With the medium being in such a formative stage, it’s more important to explore new ways to implement different concepts; especially when there are conscious attempts to inherently ignore the “system-driven” nature of games. The Catamites’ Space Funeral and Goblet Grotto are particularly good examples of this.

This is not meant to be a design lesson. I’m not a guru who claims to have found a successful formula. I just wish that more developers with ambitious concepts would stop trying to sacrifice them in order to fit their games into a defined box that is already brimming with enough “me-too” games. While it seems we’re headed more in the direction of genre-driven games, the more designers who avoid falling into the trap of the known, the faster we will reach the eventual destination—one where games are defined by their concepts first and not their genre.

  • Richard Worsley

    For someone like yourself who prefers to do experimental, thought-provoking material in a relatively infantile medium, I can see how genres or style definitions can feel confining. But make no mistake, they can be a galvanizing tool for any creator in any creative field.

    For example, when someone loses motivation for their own work, good advice I’ve heard is the person should think about what sort of style or genre they’re contributing to. I can think of a couple of reasons for this: one is to use a genre/sub-genre as directional guide, and the other is have the privilege to contribute towards something bigger than themselves and the game–the warm umbrella of genre. It’s putting your (contemporary) interpretation or response to a certain style/genre and its wider implications, and to a lot of people, that’s super cool.

    If people take genre as a unquestioning ‘how to’ or ‘fallback’, it’s more fault with the creator’s attitude or interpretation, not necessarily with the definition itself. Genre can just as easily be an excellent springboard for new ideas, a way to compare notes of your own thoughts with a product of someone else’s.

    Anyway, this was a well-put post.