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How Interface Matters More than Genre in Video Games

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | July 18, 2013 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | July 18, 2013 |

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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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.