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Genres Are Messy and That's Fine

There are two main reasons that game genres are such a mess. The first, which seems to be slightly better known, is that categories are hard. But the second reason, which is both more important and less understood, is this:

A game’s genre label isn’t really about that game. It’s about every other game.

Genre labels are shorthand used for setting expectations. They convey what sort of experience a game provides by invoking a shared reference point. Claiming that a game belongs to a certain genre is a statement that the game is, in important ways, similar to other games in that genre and different from other games outside that genre. Therefore, the most useful genre label for a game depends completely on which other games do and do not have that label.

Suppose Apex Legends had come out in 1994. The exact same game, played the exact same way. It would have been called a “DOOM clone”. That would have been the most useful label at the time. But since it instead came out in 2019, into a world that had seen Team Fortress 2, Overwatch, Battleborn, and so on, it was more useful to call it a “hero shooter”. The only difference was which other games people were familiar with.

The best-known example of someone trying to push this in the other direction is of course Hideo Kojima referring to Death Stranding as the first “strand game” when nobody knows what that means. This completely fails to clarify what kind of experience the game provides. But who knows; maybe in a few years “strand” will be a widely-understood genre label.

It’s expected for the set of commonly-used genre labels and their meanings to shift over time, and for this to accelerate as more games are created more rapidly. And on top of that, the more games come out, the smaller the percentage of them that even the experts can possibly be familiar with.

I don’t really play shmups so it is not particularly useful to me to distinguish between their subtypes. For my purposes, a bullet hell game and a trance shooter game are in the same genre. I literally didn’t even know that “trance shooter” was considered a shmup subtype until I looked it up just now, even though one of the listed examples is Super Stardust HD which is one of my favorites! But of course, to people who care a lot about these particular types of games, the distinctions are significant and having the subgenre labels is quite useful.

Add this all together, and what we have is: genre labels are hard to define, shift over time, and mean different things to different people. This is fine. The goal of a genre label is to compare a game to the constantly-shifting reference points around it; of course it will also be constantly shifting. Trying to “fix” this by getting super-technical and specific with your definition is like trying to plant a flag in the ocean.

(Naturally all this applies to genres in all kinds of media, and a lot of other categories too.)


Star Ocean and Non-Person Characters

For me, the most important thing an RPG can do is make its setting feel like a real world inhabited by real people. Having recently played Star Ocean: The Divine Force and Star Ocean: The Second Story R back to back has provided me with a couple nicely illustrative examples to share. Minor/vague spoilers follow for both games.



Star Ocean: The Second Story R Ending Checklist

I’ve been playing Star Ocean: The Second Story R and loving it.

Among the many improvements in this remake are some that make it much easier to collect different endings (much appreciated since there are ninety-nine of them). I decided to make myself a checklist tool, and then I figured I might as well publish it. Pretty niche, but maybe someone out there will get some value from it. So here it is.

Star Ocean: The Second Story R Ending Checklist

Oh, and happy new year.


My Top Five Games of 2023

Based on how much joy they brought me, not on objective greatness.

  1. Star Ocean: The Second Story R
  2. Star Trek: Resurgence
  3. Sonic Frontiers
  4. Star Ocean: The Divine Force
  5. The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog

Again, this is most of what I actually played this year. I almost called this “My Five Games” instead of “My Top Five Games”.

Special award for joy that comes less from the game itself and more from the social experience the game enables:

  1. Guess The Game, which I play daily with Allie
  2. Farming Simulator 22, which I play with Senpai-chan

Games that came out this year that I didn’t get to but which are high on my wishlist:

  1. SteamWorld Build
  2. Dave the Diver
  3. Sea of Stars

Top games I’d like to see announced:

  1. A follow-up to Kirby and the Forgotten Land
  2. A follow-up to Star Trek: Resurgence

Minor design decisions and immersion in Star Trek: Resurgence

I finally played Star Trek: Resurgence, which I’d had my eye on for some time. It’s an interesting game in its own right, but also significant as the first game from Dramatic Labs (a studio formed by Telltale Games veterans) and as part of a new wave of licensed Star Trek games during an exciting time for that franchise.

So naturally I’m here to ignore all of that and instead discuss a specific design decision that most people would probably ignore instead of fixating on. (What can I say? You come to my house, you get my bullshit.)

Okay, so. Resurgence is mostly a game about making choices. There are a few other flavors of gameplay including stealth/combat sequences, shuttlecraft piloting, walking around and investigating areas, a handful of minigames and QTEs, and so on. But the core is making dialog choices that have various effects on the characters and the relationships between them.

Correspondingly, those choices are the foundation of the game’s achievements/trophies. There aren’t any for, say, clearing a combat section without taking damage. None of them are skill-based (except inasmuch as you need to be able to complete all previous parts of the game to reach the particular decision the achievement is for) and I think that’s absolutely the right call. Those more-active parts of the game are for pacing and immersion; it’d be weird to turn them into things the player has to master for full completion.

What seems like a less-right call to me is that the achievements aren’t for passing decision points, but for making specific choices. Like at one point there’s a crisis, both your science officer and security officer have recommendations for getting through it, and you have to decide which one to follow. There isn’t a trophy for getting through the crisis: there’s one for following the science officer’s recommendation and one for following the security officer’s. Almost all the achievements are like that. (On PlayStation, there is additionally the Platinum trophy for getting all other trophies; on Xbox, there are additionally three progress trophies for getting through the three “acts” of the game.)

Now, that does mean that a player’s achievement list for the game becomes a reference for the choices they made, which is kind of a cool thing to have and to be able to share with other players (though the achievements have pretty explicit descriptions so the list is full of GIANT SPOILERS until you finish a playthrough). But the game’s website already provides a mechanism for this, and achievements are particularly poorly-suited to this goal.

By positioning all the alternative choices as items in a completion checklist, the game signals that you should see them all before you can consider yourself truly done. This isn’t as obnoxious as it was in Q.U.B.E. 2, because the game is at least about the choices and there is new stuff to see on a replay, though I still think it smacks of insecure design. But it does mean that anyone who replays the game to make other choices and get all the achievements renders their list useless as a reference for their “actual” choices–and it turns those choices from ones that allow the player to express something about their values to obligatory ones that are just checked off a list with no personal meaning. And the more effective the game has been at creating a real-feeling world and characters, the less interested I am in doing that.

(It’s the same reason I was so relieved to see that Resurgence didn’t have secrets or collectibles. Hunting through all corners of the map to find golden ships or research data would destroy immersion instantly; I was really happy I could just go where my character would go and not worry that I would be mechanically punished for it.)

Resurgence wasn’t a perfect game, but it did a better job than anything else ever has at making me feel like a Starfleet officer. I loved the scenarios it put me in and the opportunity to make decisions that best reflected Federation values and balanced protecting my crew with advancing our mission. I recognize that I’m more sensitive to this than others, but I resent feeling nudged to go back and make different decisions that will turn Resurgence from a world populated with people to a series of arbitrary levers to pull.


Convenience Features and Lazy Asceticism

It’s common for people to complain about a game getting convenience/difficulty/accessibility/approachability features they personally won’t use and which thus won’t directly affect their own experience. My mental model has been that this happens for several reasons. In no particular order:

  1. Status quo bias. If you already like something, change is scary.
  2. Status signaling. If more people can do something, that thing is less impressive.
  3. Gatekeeping. The more people enter a given fandom/community, the more the community changes to be like the mainstream, and the more the property will change to target mainstream tastes. (I haven’t written about this subject directly yet, though I’ve brushed up against it. My feelings are complicated and mixed: it frustrates me when something niche that I like reinvents itself to chase mass appeal, but there are also properties that I only fell in love with after they did that. Something to dig into another time.)
  4. Opportunity costs. If a developer spends time on these features, that will consume resources that could have gone elsewhere.
  5. The “intended experience”. I disagree with this one pretty strongly, but my attempt to frame it generously would be something like: Giving the player more ways to tweak the experience makes it more likely they will change it to a version significantly worse than what they could have had. (Sometimes this comes with half-hearted concessions for accessibility.)

For the first four of these, I can at least understand where people are coming from. I generally think they are not sufficient reasons to keep these kinds of features out of games (at least games that aren’t super-small and super-niche) but I can at least see the possible outcomes these people say they want to prevent. There’s something real going on there.

But for that last one, “intended experience,” I’ve always been a bit confused. I’ve usually chalked it up to a lack of empathy, with people not realizing these features are for someone else and just because you wouldn’t use or benefit from them doesn’t mean nobody would. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking - what if the problem is actually that people don’t want these features because they would use them?