Breaking the Genre Contract

Genre is very much like advertising. We each like to believe that it doesn’t work on us, personally; that it’s not influential in our lives, and that our purchases aren’t based on whether the distributor says it’s a “horror,” or an “FPS,” or a “dom-fom-zom-rom-com.” We make our choices based on intellect, desire, need and research.

Don’t we?


Well, for the most part, yeah. Today’s consumer has been taught by the advertising industry to be suspicious and resistant, to approach capitalism with cynicism, and always be ready to kick its teeth in the moment it even looks like it might say something we don’t want to hear. But that doesn’t mean attention to genre isn’t still massively important when it comes to buying games.

Our choices are indeed formed by opinion, rather than coercion, but when we buy a new game or go see a movie, we’re buying into expectations set up during its promotion. A game’s genre is a contract between the developer and the player, a promise to deliver a particular experience and to meet established expectations. If that contract is broken, we, as seasoned capitalists, will resist that game, even if it boasts other excellent qualities.

A fine example of what genre-bending can do for a film’s promotion, irrespective of what that film is really about, can be seen in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Check out this trailer and see what kind of vibe it delivers. That vibe is the opening statement of its genre contract. I’ll wait here until you’ve finished watching it.

Looks sweet, eh? A dark and foreboding fantasy that promises creatures of epic imagination, and a fantastical world within a young girl’s tormented reality, where a troubled child can become a fairy princess. It’s mysterious, beckoning and lush with dark fantasy appeal.

And yet anyone who’s seen Pan’s Labyrinth will know this is, in fact, a historical war drama. Did anyone get a period war movie vibe from that trailer? Half an hour into the film and the audience fidgets in its seat, wanting to enjoy the admittedly high-quality drama, yet devoid of attention as they wait for the promised dark fantasy and world of strange creatures to appear. They never do, and the tangibility of their absence is enough to spoil what would otherwise have been a great movie, had it honored the contract set by its promotion.

Games are not safe from misleading marketing machines that fail to give an audience credit for the intelligence to make their own decisions. Mass Effect boasts a trailer that really has everything. It promises a game that’s full to bursting with action, intrigue, violence and a Star Wars-deep plot that spans a chaotic future. Critics loved it, but many players complained that the game left them sitting impotent, spending a lot more time watching a rambling space opera than blasting aliens.

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And yet, after plowing hours of their lives into Mass Effect, most weary critics and players emerged with positive things to say about the RPG storyline. With adequate preparation and promotional support from the developer, that initial resistance to chewing the fat with a universe of different characters would have been more readily accepted as a plus point, rather than an early obstacle.


Although BioWare clearly lavished a lot of time, money and effort on the game’s narrative development, when it came time to launch the marketing campaign, a smokescreen of nonstop run ‘n’ gun action and flashy graphics was thrown up to camouflage the plot-heavy gameplay.

Just as we might resist the notion that we’re guided by genre (rather than having our opinions reinforced by it), BioWare showed little faith in the strength of the game’s story. Where its narrative should have been celebrated as a gift to the plot-starved gamer, it was feared as a shooter-fan repellant. That the developer struggled to believe in the story clause of its genre contract is directly responsible for the audience’s resistance to those marathon conversations.

The faults of Mass Effect can’t be piled upon the inclusion of detailed storytelling, however. While its trailer attempted to camouflage the grandeur of its plot, and the depth of its telling through the characters’ varied journeys, SCE Studios reveled in God of War‘s plot and used the entire trailer to deliver Kratos’s impending journey through Greek mythology, which inherently carries a colossal weight of story baggage.

God of War‘s promo piece is all talk-talk-talk, just as Mass Effect‘s was, yet SCE stood by its contract. The developer refused to shy away from selling God of War as a story-driven game, despite the potential for a deep and demanding plot to repel ADD-addled fighting game fans.

That pervasive plot was offered as a grand prize, rather than a barrier, and all contractual promises were fulfilled as players relished the opportunity to run, kill and kill some more while still being fed a rich and complex mythology. The narrative elements of God of War are wielded like a savage weapon, which ultimately serves as a fitting metaphor for Kratos’s violent rampage through war-torn Greek legend.

Indeed, the trailer is built on such unshakably solid genre foundations it could even serve as a tutorial. Watch a one-minute-and-48-second video, and you’re ready to leap into the fray because you’re an experienced gamer: a gamer who’s been trained to know the expectations a genre carries, and what that genre demands for your part in the contract.

You don’t skip the story, because you learned a long time ago that a narrative-driven game delivers objectives through plot, and you don’t need to be told about combos because the fighting game fan in you knows what’s coming. All that’s left is to allow yourself to be immersed in a game you understood before you even bought it, undistracted by broken promises or undelivered expectations.

So, does this mean we must pay attention to genre, whether we want to or not? That the words “action”, “sports”, “puzzle” and “platformer” are all-important?


No. Genre isn’t something the player, viewer or audience needs to worry about. Used properly, it’s a valuable tool for the creators to give structure and theme to their products that are intrinsically understood by the consumers, which transcend explanation and become an instinctive perception.

Games enjoy (or possibly suffer from) a far greater blurring of genres than films or books, however. If there isn’t a genre for a new game, we just make one up. “Music/rhythm”, for example, or the overly nebulous “casual,” and the nondescript “arcade.” We’d hate to see gameplay compromised for want of being sledgehammered into a pigeonhole, but genre isn’t something that should restrict a game.

It’s a guiding definition, when properly embraced.

“This game has everything. It’s an RPG, action, fighter, shooter, and packs in puzzles and platformer exploration with online, team-based multiplayer downloadable content.”

A sales pitch like that appears to offer something for everyone, but actually says nothing. Unfocused and characterless, the consumer’s instincts about the game are never engaged, and a contract so vague is met with suspicion and derision.

Touting a game as “A violent psychological horror,” or “Sci-fi RPG trader” speaks volumes, because it doesn’t aim to explain to horror or RPG fans what they already know. A careful, subtle lilt on genre expectations is all it takes to seduce a demographic, but it requires commitment and courage on the developer’s part to sign a clear and unambiguous contract like that.

We resist being told what we like, and what we should buy next. For the modern consumer, the experienced gamer, and the seasoned viewer, genre is undeniably a sales pitch, but one that should be approached as an instinctual level of awareness. It’s the beginning of a gut reaction, and properly perceived it invokes our unconscious understanding and captures our partial attention.

We’ve been educated by trailers to accept genre with caution, and know better than to buy solely on the strength of a game’s category. Yet we crave method, particularly when it comes to selectively emptying our wallets, and we use genre, often unconsciously, to narrow our focus when we set out to shop. A game developer should write this into their contract early on in production, and ensure the creative team adheres to it, designing and building a game that consumers will be intuitively guided towards once it’s on the shelves.

This is no small task, but it provides an ethereal connection between player and developer that enriches the gaming experience, and makes both parties glad to be signees on the genre contract.

Of course, genre doesn’t promise that a game, film or book is going to be any good. A genre contract can still be fulfilled even if the end product turns out to be lame. But that same contract is capable of preventing a great product from being misinterpreted; from failing to meet expectations, and perceived as incomplete.

Yes. Spanner’s his real name, and he’s already heard that joke you just thought of. Although Spanner’s not very good, he’s quite fast, and that seems to be enough to keep him in a regular supply of free games and away from the depressing world of real work.

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