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How Interface Matters More than Genre in Video Games

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | July 18, 2013 | Comments ()


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I was trying to explain the differences between a couple of video games the other day to someone, and I made the connection that this someone probably would not like the Elder Scrolls games as they were an avowed loather of first-person shooters. This caused a beat of confusion since this conclusion was arrived at only after talking at length about the fantasy role-playing nuances of the game. How can it be a shooter if there are no guns?

Video games have a second dimension of genre, that is acknowledged implicitly by gamers talking about games, but I haven’t seen it made explicit. See, there’s the traditional definition of genre, the sort of rough box that a story fits into. Is it fantasy? Science fiction? Crime fiction? These are familiar from any number of other mediums, from film and literature, because they are entirely independent of medium. Oh sure, certain mediums might be more conducive to certain genres, but in general the medium is supposed to be transparent, a vehicle for story rather than a part of it.

But the simple agency of video games, the fact that we control what is happening, layers on a second dimension to our understanding of genre. For the most part, other mediums are immune to this. They have one form, they have one way of interacting with the art form. The medium and the interface are one and the same. But that’s not the case with games, which leads to otherwise strange comparisons, saying two games are in the category while being utterly different in any way that two movies or television shows might be compared to each other.

It leads to a unique sort of genre-bending. Where consumers of most forms of art will often have their favored genres, the given breed of paperback that lines their shelves for instance, gamers tend towards favored interfaces. Those who love role-playing games are more likely to play an RPG of any genre under the sun than they are to play anything so barbaric as a first-person shooter, a real-time strategy game, or gods forbid a Sims clone.

This also leads to an interesting conundrum for what types of stories are told in the medium of video games. There are certain genres that dominate: science fiction, fantasy, action, horror. That’s often the case for mediums, just take the dominance of comics by either humor or superheroes. But it’s important to also note that interface interacts differently with different traditional genres.

Most movies each year are comedies. Almost no video games are comedies. Oh they might have humorous elements, but the number of games with a primary category of “comedy” is essentially zero. There have been a few in the past, the old Space Quest video games were like something cobbled together from Douglas Adams, and there are a number of others, but their number has significantly waned in the last decade.

Part of this might simply be the difficulty. It’s easy to put a player in control of physical action to some degree. Controls for moving this way, shooting that way. Different interfaces for different types of control: control of one, control of many. But how does one create an interface for comedy other than giving a list of different dialog choices, letting the user select the punchline?

Some explanation might be that of novelty. Humor is the brain making a connection it didn’t expect, which is why neurologically we have the impulse to laugh when we figure something out for the first time, and why jokes lose their potency each time we hear the same one. Violent action can be repeated for something like the same original thrill, dropping off in novelty much slower than hearing the same joke for a second or third time. Comedy has less replay value.

The implications of interface are different for each sort of story, and if comedy is too broad of a brush, then consider this: without using the crutch of gender, explain why are there no romantic comedy video games.



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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • googergieger

    Da fuck are you talking about?

    Elder scrolls story genre is fantasy. It's gameplay is open world rpg that can switch between third person and first person.

    No games are comedy? Duke Nukem? Family Guy shit games? The upcoming South Park game that looks actually good? Armed and Dangerous? There have been plenty of games that are action comedy at the very least.

    I really don't know what to make of this post. I mean are you a casual gamer? Cause even then...

  • BlackRabbit

    Hell, Leisure Suit Larry for comedy. Not great comedy, but still....

  • googergieger

    Indeed. Even Naughty Bear was at least mostly a comedy.

  • Ryan Ambrose

    I believe the reason as to why comedy is a difficult genre to transpose into a game is due to the fact that the gameplay mechanic is bound by the constraints of repetition, which doesn't jibe well when you're trying to be funny.

    Which is why hearing Michael Biehn's Rex Power Colt say "I believe he got the point" when shooting an arrow through a cyber-commando enemy in Far Cry 3 is hilarious when you first hear it and then eventually becomes routine by the 23rd time.

    Portal succeeds in that regard because each scenario is presented differently and it had short length (albeit extremely well-paced) for a game,

  • I think the beautiful thing about video games is that you can turn nearly any game into a comedy, especially if you play with an audience. That's why Let's Play series are so popular. Some games try too hard to be funny (Saints Row: The Third comes to mind), but depending on your mood, something as terrifying as the Dunwich building in Fallout 3 can be hysterical.

  • fribbley

    The Ghostbusters game (2009) was not only hilarious, it is also basically a Ghostbusters 3 that is better than any potential Ghostbusters 3 that might ever hit film.

  • Yossarian

    I don't think comedy video games are as rare as you make them seem. Adventure games like Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island or Sam & Max were primarily dialogue and gag driven comedies with absurd storylines and wacky puzzles there to make things interactive. And lots of modern games use humor very effectively. It's rare to see big name studios develop games that are primarily comedies but plenty of indie games embrace it.

  • TCh

    Shooters are less risky, and comedies can be difficult though there are new entries into Monkey Island and Sam & Max.

  • Giroux IA

    Less risky in part because comedy is much more subjective then say action. Unless it's a monster hit, any comedic media seems to slide somewhere between a bit more than half the people liked it and a bit less than half didn't.

  • Yossarian

    I think that's a big part of the problem with comedy and with romance, too. Video games force you to not only identify with a character but to exert agency and actively control them. Obviously it is much easier to slip into a generic action hero blowing shit up and saving the world because you have to than it is to become a character attempting to be funny or romantic, since both of those things involve lots of personality very specifically calibrated.

  • TCH

    Actually I would say there is better dramatic heft with action than say romance or comedy. Double Fine is attempting some interesting non shooters.

  • Some if it comes down to labeling. FPS style really should be re-branded as simply FP. Not all First Person Shooters are shooters at all. Portal 1 and 2, Mirrors Edge, Elder Scrolls series, etc.,. are stories told from the first person perspective as a stylistic choice. However that choice tends to limit what can be done (again, Mirrors Edge) in the game by hampering the player. I play FP games, but I prefer 3rd person regardless of the genre. I like to see my characters on screen, and hear them talk. I tend to be much less invested in FP games then I am 3rd person. Which seems contradictory I know.

    I'm playing the FP game "Homefront" right now. I picked it up a while back cheap and decided to give it a shot. I was hoping it would be more like the last-gen game "Freedom Fighters" with the player controlling a growing number of resistance fighters in a series of missions. Instead it's a COD clone with a silent protagonist and largely on rails. I'm about half way through and despite liking the game ok, I'm already getting bored. It's not a problem with the FP interface, its that the developers chose to severely limit the player interaction using the FP interface.

  • TCH

    Say Mass Effect again! I dare you I triple dog Dare you!

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Mass Effect, Mass Effect, Mass Effect...

    No what?

  • TCH

    Where you from?

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I come from Thistletop near the town of Sandpoint, Varisia. Why?

  • TCH

    Actually I was making light of whenever Pajiba mentions video games it usually brings up Mass Effect, and this annoys me.

  • googergieger

    Well the only time they ever really tried to do an article on gaming as of that shit game. Suffice to say I was right and everyone else was wrong in regards to that shite. After reading this post though I can see why the dude liked ME3.

  • Cherith Quewtstorrie

    uh oh, shit's about to get real...

  • TCH

    Mass Effect ain't no country I ever heard of, the speak English in Mass Effect?

  • aroorda

    Never had thought about this but your absolutely right. Also I love the addition of game news to the site.

  • There are several very popular romantic comedy video games....in Japan.

    Figured I might as well say it, somebody was going to say it anyway.

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