I wound up reviewing another adventure game recently. It’s an indie game for the PC called Deponia. I won’t speak at too much length about the game since you can read my thoughts on it on PopMatters (Deponia review. Aug 16 2012), but suffice it to say, as much as I liked it, I really dragged my heels with it at times. The reason I was so underwhelmed by it, in spite of it’s qualities, is because it’s an adventure game. I love adventure games, I think that they offer a great opportunity for excellent writing, they’re able to keep plotlines more tightly and logically connected, and they’re often great character studies but I just can’t play them. It’s a genre I just don’t get.
One of the interesting things about video games is that genre takes on a different meaning. Detective, science fiction and romance in short fiction and novels come from different backgrounds, they’re immediately distinct from one another and proper “literary” fiction, they hold their own tropes, writing styles and soforth. But they’re all read in more or less the same way. The reader fixes their eyes to the words and traces them to the end of the book. Genres in games are much different; playing a shooter means playing something completely different than playing a racing game or an adventure game. In all instances you hold a controller, but the goals and methods are completely different. An RPG is practically a different medium from an RTS in a way that poetry is different from prose, or a music video is different from a feature film. The entire means of engaging with the art is different.
So when I was reviewing Deponia (or for that matter, Resonance) I felt a little bit like an outsider. No matter how clever it got, eventually the very things I was resenting of the game were the things that others swooned over. I can tell that Deponia is a good game for someone else, but for me it was just a funny cartoon interrupted by way too many glances at a walkthrough. In the past I’ve written about how genre complicates games as a medium (“The Problem of Genre in Video Games.” PopMatters. Aug 15 2011.), but back then I think I was more optimistic about it: I saw games as moving together in to one type. Shooters and RPGs were coming closer together, the line between brawlers and platformers was blurring. And while some genres are more apt to get in bed with one another, pure adventure games, like Deponia and Resonance, have shown me that genre is more a concrete element to games.
Genre isn’t going away. The lines separating them are too hard and there will always be purists that will, successfully, resist generic merging. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but it’s made me acknowledge some of my own biases. Deponia is good, and if I could wrap my head around some of the puzzles I would probably be more willing to give it a full endorsement. At the same time, my latest retro love affair, Gladius, is fairly unremarkable. Nobody really cared much for it when it was released in 2003 and the gladitoral theme—while it feels fresh in 2012—was just following the trend set by Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in 2000. It’s a good but not great tactical RPG that should not warrant all the affection I’ve developed for it in the last few weeks. The only thing it really has going for it is that it’s a simple but working SRPG, which is a genre that I get.
I don’t believe that games, or any art really, can be broken down to subjective tastes. If that were true than every subject’s individual taste would lead them to their own specific work. Everybody would have their own piece of art and nothing would ever become popular. There is a reason why certain works are able to speak to a massive audience, there’s a reason why some works are remembered for centuries and there’s a reason why some don’t become relevant for centuries after they’re created. The joy of criticism is to postulate what those reasons are. Yet even while I hold to that, I’ve still been frustrated by a good game in Deponia and enthralled by a mediocre game in Gladius.
Genre preference isn’t by necessity something to avoid but it plays a larger factor in games than other media. It is impressive when a genre defying game erupts out of nowhere to speak for a generation (I’m looking at you, Portal), but this is the age of niche. A hard focus on a specific palette of tastes has made some incredible art (I’m looking at you, Breaking Bad). So what if I didn’t get Deponia? It wasn’t for me to get.
Further reading: Abbot, Michael. “Notes on Genre.” Brainy Gamer. May 31 2013.
Murray, D, Michael Abbot, Travis Megill & Roger Travis. “Critical Distance Confab Episode 4: Genre Bending Discourse.” Critical Distance. May 18 2009.
Bruno, Dan. “Transferable skill and genre.” Cruise Elroy. Nov 30 2009.