Genre-Bending Isn’t Good For You
Brett Todd on The Firing Line:
Keep it simple, stupid
I knew that Star Trek: Elite Force II was in trouble as soon as the dialogue tree appeared. Where I’d loaded up the shooter to, y’know, shoot stuff, Ritual Interactive apparently labored under the mistaken impression that I wanted to engage in a duel of double entendres with a boobile alien scientist. The developer didn’t provide much in the way of action and cool sci-fi weapons, preferring to load me down with romance, hot-and-heavy tricorder analysis, and debriefing sessions with Jean-Luc Picard. In the end, what I got wasn’t a shooter so much as a first-person adventure, “adventure” being the new code word for genre-bending crap that messes up the design focus so much that games have no discernible identity.
And there’s a lot of that going around these days. Every game in every genre seeks to blend in elements of every other genre, apparently so buyers will be happy no matter if they prefer bloody DOOM-influenced shooters or something from the Mary-Kate and Ashley oeuvre.
Even the biggest games have fallen victim to these scattershot design principles. Elite Force II is crammed with so much unnecessary exposition that every two minutes spent battling alien bugs is bookended by five-minute cutscenes loaded with balderdash about diagnostics and sensor arrays. Multiplayer shooters now come with character classes and experience point options. Neverwinter Nights dumps the soap-opera stuff and traditional roleplaying for a highly stylized focus more about new technology than story development in the vein of the Baldur’s Gate games. Pirates of the Caribbean hits stores this week accompanied by blurbs that call it “a thrilling blend of RPG and action.”
Has any game actually accomplished this goal? Every “thrilling blend” that I’ve experienced either turned out to be complete garbage or was good despite the addition of cross-genre features. Most of these efforts embrace innovation for its own sake. Innovation has become a goal, rather than a means to provide a great gaming experience. We end up with games that are high on concept and low on playability. Perhaps it would make a difference if developers weren’t just picking and choosing done-to-death aspects of each traditional genre like some sort of game-design smorgasbord. But all they’re doing is cutting and pasting foreign content. So we get dialogue trees in the midst of shooters, arcade mini-games cluttering up roleplaying epics, and so on. It’s about as revolutionary as one of Andy Warhol’s color-by-numbers paintings of Marilyn Monroe, and as creative as daubing a moustache on Mona Lisa’s upper lip.
Genre-bending is limiting developers. Sprinkling traces of roleplaying games into shooters might seem freeing, in that players would no longer be stuck with all that tedious shooting, but in reality it puts both designers and gamers into a tight box. Too much effort is being expended on tarting things up. Rather than dedicate themselves to the core elements that make each gaming genre what it is, devs are branching out in an attempt to be all things to all players. Nobody’s got the time or the budget to add these elements properly, so we’ve been getting tacked-on junk that waters down the end product.