The tough thing about really going at the fundamental components of gaming is that there are so many. Text is just one of the possible components, and it alone can be manifold with synergy. I fear, though, that as these many components coalesce, so, too does cynicism regarding any meaningful discourse on the form. It makes a certain amount of sense: younger forms are steeped in components; variables that make dissecting them a tall order. A visual image is a visual image, music is music, and text is text; they can each be negotiated with on their own terms. Forms like comics and gaming have struggled to be taken seriously since their inception, yet have more than proven their potential as forms that combine forms. A book can be written with simplicity (or accessibility) in mind; music, too. This doesn’t diminish the capability of the forms they occupy, and commercial viability has influenced many of our greatest writers over the years (like Dickens’s works penned for periodicals, or Shakespeare’s focus on pleasing a wide audience). You can see what I’m getting at.
But the problem remains; where do you start taking apart something that has so many layers, with no set sequence for interpretation? Genre has a role to play here, but as with every other form, this role can’t be over-stepped; just as any two pieces can belong to the same genre but vary spectacularly in content, so, too, do the two pieces share elements that denote their shared genre-space. This is important: if you’re ever tempted to make more boxes (see: genres) to put your stuff in, then remember that there’s plenty of room in the ones we already have. Nothing quite leaves a harsh idea in my head like hearing someone rattle off fifty sub-genres of, say, metal music; five-minutes looking into these ‘genres’ reveals the extent to which they overlap and contradict one another, and the end result is simply diminished faith in the ability of people to define genre. The genre classifications are revealed as nothing more than an excuse for people to minimalise the pool from which they will make their selection. Basically, it harms communication. A conversation about just ‘metal’ can go all over the place, but when you start finding smaller, indefinable boxes to put things in, you lessen the over-all experience of that kind of art.
Warcraft 3 and Starcraft 2 are both RTS games. I could split them up further; Warcraft is Fantasy, Starcraft Sci-fi. And once more; Warcraft houses RPG elements, focuses on inventory-augmentation, and small numbers of units; Starcraft aims for diversity, decisiveness, and high numbers of units. But I don’t want to go into a game shop and find them under different genre sections. They are still fundamentally of the same genre, and to try to sum up those fascinating differences with a couple of words on a label would be ignorant. Or, rather, would spread ignorance. You can tell just as much from knowing a game is a First-Person Shooter as from knowing a book is Fantasy; the finer distinctions needn’t be made apparent on a label.
Pinning down genre without succumbing to the possibility of innumerable sub-genres is made more difficult in gaming by the cut-off between design philosophy and thematic content. Both Castlevania and Megaman are side-scrollers; Half-life and Modern Warfare (CoD) are FPSs. But the elements that are brought together under those initially-similar bases vary wildly; a fan of one series isn’t necessarily a fan of the other, even though they occupy similar territory and, by rights, the same genre. But this is true of every form; just because you enjoy one Fantasy novel doesn’t mean that you would be likely to enjoy most of them. This is the way it needs to be, since it challenges people to look into the finer differences between individual pieces and authors, rather than succumbing to the idea that genre sections are there for you to simply know what you will like.
It bears reminding that some of the finest pieces of art are firmly stationed in a given genre. These works, though, are often removed from such labels, as they may be seen to be damaging in their inadequacy. Make no doubt though: Jane Eyre is Romance, Frankenstein Horror, though they both sit on the ‘literary’ shelf. In some ways, this approach is just as damaging as too many genres, but for precisely the opposite reason. The ‘literary’ are placed on an unattainable mantle, for which the sectioned, genre fiction must suffer the indignity of being presumed less from the out-set, simply for their use of a genre as a platform. This fact quietly ignores what I said earlier; that many classics do occupy a genre. And that it is in that genre that they achieve something spectacular.
I believe that genre is vital from the out-set in all forms; before you have the first bar of a song, the name of your first character in a novel, or a single concept for a game, you need to decide what the genre is, what kind of piece. When this comes to creation, an idea might not seem to occupy a single genre; it might handle themes not conventionally associated with a single kind, or even borrow elements from stories of multiple other genres. The end product, no matter how distinct in its composition, is likely to denote a single genre. And if genre is responsible for a wide array of demographic reception, it makes sense that reviews should initially focus on that aspect of the piece. After all, everything implemented depends upon the genre’s capabilities, nigh-limitless in their variations, and of the expectations that have been built up over the years in the audiences. And beyond this is design philosophy, which can harbour bizarre ideas on what a genre could/should be, and is maybe the juiciest of aspects to the individual piece.