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In this research paper, I wanted to find what genres to storytelling have been uniquely contributed by video games. However, I soon had an interesting realization: games don't so much give us a new genre, as teach us that genre isn't truly important.

Jonathan Wine, Blogger

November 26, 2013

11 Min Read

The Genres of Tomorrow?

 

            "What types of books do you read?" Although it appears to be a simple question, those six words can lead to a multitude of different answers for every person asked. Some will say suspense or mystery, some romance, some fantasy. Perhaps they enjoy autobiographies of war heroes, or non-fiction works describing the current political situations in Europe. Whatever the answer, it can usually be summarized under a particular genre. This identification system applies not only to books; anything that tells a story almost always follows a conventional genre or subgenre. Not all genres have been present since the beginnings of storytelling, however. Different mediums have allowed for the introduction of new genres as time has gone on. Comedy has its roots in ancient Greek theater, whereas modern horror blossomed out of 18th century literature thanks to masters like Edgar Allen Poe. More modern genres like action couldn't truly have come about without the special effects and camera tricks of cinema. But unfortunately, genres have disadvantages. People will often put up walls against stories simply because they aren’t of their preferred genre. This act of intentional segregation can keep people from experiencing a story they’ll actually love, and often the person will never find out. In studying what genres video games have introduced, I have discovered that games have not so much introduced new genres, but instead have reminded us that genres are not nearly as important as we make them out to be.

            Since their beginnings, video games have been associated with the "action" genre. As my writing for games professor, Seth Hudson, said in our interview: "...adventure and action were established pretty early on. When you create conflict in any story you have a desire, an obstacle, and then an outcome... I could argue [that action was established] from the outset" (Hudson Interview). So although it's branched out into its various subgenres over the years (fantasy, realistic, etc.), action has always been prevalent. The inclusion of other genres into the industry, however, has been slightly more laborious. Horror in particular has struggled for decades to find the right formula. And not unlike its movie/other medium counterparts, that formula can be accomplished through a few different methods.

            As Tristan Donovan said of older horror games in his book on game history, Replay: "the limited technology often made the task of scaring players difficult" (Donovan 274). Barring a few singular attempts, the first successful horror game was Alone in the Dark. The fear was driven in this game by the player's nervousness regarding what would be around every corner, particularly a fear of inevitable danger with every new room, obstacle, etc. After the success of Alone, other games had different approaches, the most successful perhaps being the Resident Evil franchise. Resident Evil was not shy about showing players where there was danger; instead the horror came from the fact that players had very limited resources to escape a dedicated wave of oncoming monsters. Throw in a few thin hallways and a highly creative sound team, and players were terrified constantly. Today there are a plethora of horror game genres available, everything from psychological titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent to "slasher" games like Bethesda Softwork's upcoming The Evil Within.

            A more unique genre of game storytelling that has arisen in the past few years is the "MMO" (Massive Multiplayer Online). In this genre, players create a unique avatar to represent them in the game, and then interact with (in some cases) millions of other players simultaneously in a virtual world. Some may argue this virtual self-representation is a storytelling genre unique to video games, but that isn't completely true. Old tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons and even simplistic childhood games of pretend and make-believe all used these same player self-empowering tactics. In Game Development Essentials, Jeannie Novak summarizes the storytelling elements of this genre: "The game's story can change based on who is playing the game" (Novak, 137). So while this genre is incredibly important to storytelling when discussing games, it is again, not unique to the medium.

            In their article "User Communities and Social Software in the Video Game Industry", Helmchen and Cohendet sum up nicely what goes into a video game: "... a video game is a complex mix of technology, art and interactive storytelling. Thus, managers in the video game industry must harness expression of artistic values, creative contents and technological virtuosity..." (Helmchen 317-318). So before delving specifically into how games will and have contributed to the genres of storytelling, I'll list a few of the unique storytelling traits that games possess. Foremost, like movies they appeal to both our visual and audible senses. Below are two examples of video games with unique art styles.

 

Ōkami -  http://www.abc.es/videojuegos/media/k2/galleries/1562/003.jpg (image URL)   

                

L.A. Noire -  http://media1.gameinformer.com/imagefeed/screenshots/LANoire/LA-Noire_screenshotsEX2.jpg (image URL)

Both these games, Ōkami (Capcom) and L.A. Noire (Rockstar), set the tone of their story through their visual representation. Ōkami is graphically-styled after Japanese ink illustrations to create a whimsical and magical setting, whereas L.A. Noire instead depends on its costumes, set-pieces, and lighting to evoke feelings akin to what we felt in the old noire films of previous decades. Through art styles and thematically placed art assets (costumes, buildings, etc.), games establish not only a unique tone, but create entire fictitious worlds. This allows game stories to flow very believably since players can often travel in-game wherever they want, not just where the book or camera takes them like in other mediums.

            Another advantage of video games (again, similar to film) is their use of music and sound effects to evoke different emotional responses. The score of Halo 4 by Neil Davidge is a powerful example of how music can truly define what the player is experiencing. If one listens to "Awakening" and "Arrival" from the Halo 4 Original Soundtrack (they can be found on YouTube), the music combined with the titles will almost assuredly convey the emotions being felt by the player. Sound development teams also work incredibly hard at making a world believable. An example, as we discussed previously, is how countless horror games use sound as a means to intensify the emotions of the player. It’s amazing how sometimes all it takes is one faint, creaking door to amplify a player’s adrenaline.

            The last storytelling advantage of video games I’ll mention is the level of emotional connectivity the player establishes with the characters and game world itself. In their book The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design, Flint Dille and John Zuur Platten describe to game writers the endless opportunities for creativity in this medium: "... all storytelling methods that have come before are integrated, where worlds and characters can be manipulated in ways previously unimaginable, and where you are allowed to participate" (Dille 13). This element of personal interactivity causes the game world to tailor to you through your interactions and moral decisions. The game story becomes your story.

            "I think it's already happened... we wouldn't have Twitter if we didn't have games." When I asked Seth Hudson what he thought the genre that video games were going to introduce to the world would be, this was the first thing he said. Although it may not seem like a storytelling element, communication has become perhaps the game industry’s biggest contribution to storytelling, and society as a whole. Chris Totten, Assistant Professor of Mobile Game Design at GMU and an independent developer/author, also described similar elements of this personalized narrative in our interview: "If I say the Legend of Zelda in a room full of people, you're going to get lots of stories about engaging the same game." One of the first things players like to do when discussing games is share their own experiences with others. This allows them to not only tell their own stories, but have others immediately understand them and accurately visualize them due to having similar experiences. Imagine if five people took a fairy tale we are all familiar with and each tweaked one detail. Although the story would be fairly similar, that one detail would make each version uniquely interesting. This is the same logic behind players telling each other about their own in-game experiences.

            "20 years ago, if we said we would be playing multiplayer games online, if we had computers in our pockets with voice recorders and games on them... it was the Jetsons" (Seth Hudson interview). A point that both Totten and Hudson brought up was that the Greeks did not invent comedy and Hollywood did not invent action, they just showed us their existence. People trading stories with each other is nothing new, in fact it's the oldest method of storytelling in human history. Simultaneously, experiencing fictitious stories as a group is nothing new either, remember the tabletop Dungeons and Dragons crowd and the little kids playing pretend. The difference, however, is that video games have taken these two traits, combined them, and unleashed them upon billions of people, not just a small group.

            I’m in this field to tell stories, but growing up I was not much of a gamer. I was much more likely to be found outside fighting invisible aliens with my friends, or making up imaginary monsters in the basement that we would scare ourselves to death "running from." But, I think that's actually why now I love games so much. They don't only use the elements people normally associate with them like graphics and music. No, video games take the very core of what began storytelling millennia ago and redefine it: the experience of sharing stories with others.

            In no other medium can a person in a Virginia suburb simultaneously experience a story with a business-woman in Japan. In no other medium can someone write on a blog about a fictitious world they had an experience in, and have someone a million miles away, who doesn't even speak the same language, describe how they too, had a similar experience. Games have brought stories full circle. They've upgraded them and they've given them a shiny new coat of paint, but at their core games have taken storytelling back to its roots. They've turned the focus not on the special effects or the intensity of the scares, but instead reminded us how important it is to share them and experience them with others.

            If I had to put a label on what "genre" games have bestowed upon us, I would call it the "human" genre. Its subgenres encompass all others: action, romance, comedy, drama, horror... all types are under the umbrella of the human genre. Because as Hudson said when I asked him about what new “traditional” genres games have given us: "frankly... I'm not sure I care." It doesn’t matter if a story scares us, pumps us up, or is intended to make us laugh or cry. What matters is that we are able to share that experience with others, and those who can’t experience it with us can be told about it and understand it. We as a world for a time have become so focused on how the story presents itself that we've forgotten about what makes a story, a story: that it's meant to be shared with anyone willing to listen. Games remind us of this. They haven't given us a new genre of stories. Instead they’ve reminded us why genres aren’t the most important thing, about what is truly important in storytelling. Games remind us that the important question isn’t “what kind of books do you read?” The important question is “Oh, you haven’t heard this one? Okay, well once upon a time…”

 

 

Works Cited

Alone in the Dark. Paris: Infogrames, 1992. Video game.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Helsingborg: Frictional Games, 2010. Video game.

Davidge, Neil. Halo 4 Original Soundtrack.

Dille, Flint, and John Zuur Platten. The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design.  

     Ed. Skip Press. New York: Random House, Inc., 2007. Print

Donovan, Tristan. Replay: The History of Video Games. East Sussex: Yellow Ant, 2010. Print

Dungeons & Dragons. Lake Geneva: TSR, Inc., 1974. Tabletop game.

The Evil Within. Tokyo: Tango Gameworks, 2014. Video game.

Hudson, Seth. Personal interview. October 30, 2013.

L.A. Noire. Sydney: Team Bondi, 2011. Video game.

Novak, Jeannie. Game Development Essentials. 2nd ed. Clifton Park: Delmar Cengage  

     Learning, 2008. Print

Ōkami. Japan: Clover Studio, 2006. Video game

Resident Evil. Osaka: Capcom, 1996. Video game.

Thierry Burger-Helmchen, Patrick Cohendet, User Communities and Social Software in the   

     Video Game Industry, Long Range Planning, Volume 44, Issues 5–6, October–December

     2011, Pages 317-343, ISSN 0024-6301, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.lrp.2011.09.003.

     http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0024630111000446

Totten, Chris. Personal interview. October 30, 2013.

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