Are genre-free games better?

Do genre-defying games like Dishonored benefit from intentionally vague classification?

Some people see genres as a necessary evil. From a retail perspective, things need to be put into certain boxes. Not only does it make arranging the store easier, it also makes the paragraph of blurb on the back of the box, which is essentially a sales pitch to the punter, that much easier to write. Genres, in gaming circles at least, are a way of getting fast and pertinent information about a game, you know what to expect almost instantly when you hear the term FPS, or MMO, because they hold within them certain presupposed concepts about the product you’re picking up.

For a game to step outside the boundaries of genre, then, it’s a pretty dangerous move, but it’s a brave one too, and something that we as gamers should always get behind. It’s all fine and dandy creating games that are easily codified and placed in the correct bracket, but gamers are the first to complain about iterative sequels and the unimaginative annual output of the larger production houses. Dishonored is the first game in a while that wilfully blurs the lines between genres, playing fast and loose with its own description of itself, and coming up with an end product that doesn’t so much defy description as place it in the hands of the individual who’s playing the game.

In a way, a generic definition is both a blessing and a curse. Take a look at the shelves in your local videogame emporium, or peruse the digital options available to you, and you’ll see that rather than shaping player’s ideas of what a genre should mean, a lot of titles are happy to fit snugly into the confines that are set out for them. It’s rare that a military shooter will do anything out of the ordinary, happy instead to follow the rest of the pack and continue to reaffirm the shape of the genre. Because military shooters are popular, there’s no real incentive to rail against the mould. Gaming is a business after all, and it’s money that talks as much as artistic endeavour or entertainment value.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with generic shooters. Done well, they can be a hugely enjoyable romp. But there does come a point where you realise that you’re just doing the same thing over and over, funnelled from one thrilling set piece to the next with no real input when it comes to solving the problems you’re presented with: there’s a tank, but don’t worry, the game has provided you with a rocket launcher and a handy supply of ammo that will get rid of it no problem. The first step to getting away from the structure of a genre then is to offer up some freedom to the player, once we’re choosing what to do ourselves, we’re free to move outside the simplistic A to B routines that we’re often confronted with, adding in our own checkpoints and ways of doing things as we experiment with the tool set that a game has given us.

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The role you play within a game is also incredibly important to its definition. A terse infantryman has a very specific set of skills, given to you when the level loads up, and it’s rare that you’re going to deviate from those skills. Sure, there might be sniping or sneaking sections, but they’re self contained, only occurring when the game wants them to. You can’t hang back and pick targets off in this level, because you’re not playing the right character to do it. Letting the player define their own skill set, letting them pick the special moves and super powers that are going to guide them through the game, is a great way to let them define their own experience outside the usual strictures of genre. It’s another kind of freedom that allows players to take control of the game in a completely different way, confronting them with completely different choices to a game that’s more closely tied to a genre.

By the same token, breaking free from genre allows a player to express their own individuality within a game. Dishonored has goals that need to be reached, missions that have to be performed, but it lets you inhabit Corvo Attano as you see fit. A silent protagonist, he’s essentially a shell for the player to inhabit. That’s where the RPG elements of the game come into play. Corvo isn’t a ready formed killing machine (although he is pretty good at it), he’s a violent lump of clay ready to be moulded into an assassin that’s befitting of whatever kind of assassin the player wants to create with the options and choices the game presents them.

Breaking away from genre also means that the narrative of play, the stories that each gamer has to tell about their escapades within the story of the game, is going to be different from person to person. Rather than a narrative that’s strictly linear, video games give us the chance to write smaller stories within stories, about how we took down a particular character, or made it through a tough section without taking any damage or being discovered. That freedom of personal narrative is exacerbated when genre is stripped away, and so the stories we have to share become even wilder, the experiences that we can discuss with others become even more personal, even more our own.

Video games aren’t always about ticking the right boxes and making sure that it’s obvious exactly where you’re coming from. It’s a risk, and no mistake, to try something new, especially in a world where the big selling franchises tend to remain the same year on year. That’s why we should always get behind titles that offer us choices, let us express our own ways of playing, and let us weave our own stories from the threads they present us with. Dishonored is one of those games, and proves that triple A titles don’t need to be entangled within the strictures of genre if they want to succeed.

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