An Algebra of Genres or: How I Discovered more Depth in the LD41 Theme
Disclaimer: this is just my opinion, and I'm not a philosopher nor a literature expert. I wrote this for amusement, and not (that much) for technical correctness.
I'm not sure how you experienced the beginning of Ludum Dare 41. For me, it wasn't a very smooth one. The theme didn't sit with me all that well. In fact, I was very much convinced that the theme was explicitly very one-dimensional. And with that I mean that most ideas that it gives you are not very original. That is, it wouldn't give me any ideas that I couldn't have on any other lazy saturday morning.
Another thing that I disliked about the theme was that it might lower the bar for unoriginal games. This is mostly speculation on my part, but I imagined that it would result in a lot of games that just combined two wacky genres and called it a day. In a sense I expected it to encourage participants to just find an odd combination of genres, and then turn it into whatever first came to mind mechanic-wise.
A quick note: I don't want to deprecate the concept that this theme introduces. That is, the concept of combining two genres that don't necessarily lead to an interesting game and leverage that to make a very interesting and unexpected game. Lots of very fun and succesful games have been made with that concept, which pretty much proves that it's a very viable game design strategy. I agree that games like that can be very novel and interesting.
While I was grumbling during breakfast and iterating over various combinations of genres (as probably most of you were doing as well) I noticed something. Game genres are almost "made" to be combined. That is, almost any game can have elements of genre A while also having elements of genre B. In other words, no genre really "excludes" any other genre. I tried to disprove this by finding a counter example, but I didn't succeed there.
A question struck me: do there actually exist game genres that exclude certain genres? After some thinking I concluded that this a very semantic question. It really does depend on what and what does not belong in a genre, and this can depend on someones personal tastes and beliefs. What's more, one can construct impractical genres (a game containing bunnies) and combine them with other impractical genres (a game not containing bunnies), thus gaining such an "impossible" pair. This satisifes what I was looking for, however for the purpose of this article I'm assuming we only consider widely accepted genres. I came to the conclusion that in the case of game genres these kinds of genres do not exist. Maybe I was (and still am) overlooking a few, but I haven't been able to think of one. In short, my first insight was: game genres combine very easily.
Why is this, I asked myself. I really expected there to be at least one or two game genres that are strict. Then I started looking at other kinds of genres, such as music and literature genres. Especially in literature it was a lot easier to find strict genres. One example I find really convincing is that of the combination of fiction and non-fiction. Given a fictive book with non-fiction elements, I would still classify it as fiction. Conversely, a non-fiction book with fiction elements I would also classify as fiction. So apparently the "combineability" of genres is not necessarily high for every category of genres! This was my second insight: categories of genres exist that contain restrictive genres.
Again, one could argue that this whole previous paragraph doesn't make sense and that there are actually books in the cross-section of fiction and non-fiction. Of course one would be right. This all depends on how one interprets the domain of genres and genre categories. The main point I want to make is that some genres are more specific or strict than other genres. That some genres lend themselves to combination more than others. For example, "fiction" feels a lot more strict than "first person shooter". Fiction needs to be a story with some imaginary elements, while an FPS just needs a few seconds of first person perspective and projectiles. This is "easily" added to any game; whether or not a game has imaginary elements can be a hard to change fact.
Continuing from my second insight, I started figuring out the insight that became the base reasoning for my own game. If restrictive genres do not exist in games, but exist in literature, the course of action is clear. One just needs to combine a game genre with a sufficiently restrictive literary genre. This will result in a restrictive game genre! And just like that, we have discovered what was my third insight: restrictive game genres can be constructed by combining game genres with genres from other categories. In more formal terms, elements of the space of game genres need to be combined with elements of the space of literature genres, music genres, etcetera.
Some examples I came up with that hold within the genres-as-categories framework:
- Non-fiction and unicorn farm simulator
- Graphic novel and text adventure
- The subject of my own game: Point-and-click adventure and still life!
In my opinion especially the last one I think is very interesting. Still life hinges on the fact that the scenery doesn't change. Point and click hinges on the fact that you can interact with the world that is depicted, that stuff changes when you interact with it. Combining them should result in a multi-screen still-life. Inherently paradoxical, implicitly useless. I took this idea as a basis: what if you try to make a game where nothing can ever change while looking at it? This resulted in a short but fun though experiment. You can check it out here!
However, that's not a very exhaustive list, and I have to confess that they aren't very convincing either (except for the last one. I'm particularly proud of that one). It seems that good combinations of truly incompatible genres are hard to find, and if you do they usually have to do with the distinction between fiction/non-fiction. (Also, I just realized text adventures can just contain pictures, so it's probably not the best example either.) I do think however that these combinations are more interesting than fps-meets-dating-sim in a genre-technical sense.
I guess that wraps it up for my quick and imprecise take on genres and their incompatibility.
The main point I want to make however is not that there must exist some algebra of genres for a certain semantic interpretation. Or, well, actually I do, but that's not very interesting to read about. The important lesson here is: _there can be a lot more to a theme than one might initially think!_ While I first thought the theme was lame, after some thinking I discovered the depth of the theme. It changed from being a one-dimensional restriction to an interesting qualitative statement about how genres can behave with respect to the view one has on the world!
In other words: whenever you get stuck on the theme, apply some freaking category theory to it and see where you end up!
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