Genre evolution isn’t up to you

Let's be honest, it was not hard for a teenage boy to fall in love with a game that involved dual-wielding shotguns.

The graphics do not hold up all that well after all this time, but you can’t really expect that.

When I was younger, I played one of my favorite first-person shooters of all time: Marathon.  The game was atmospheric as heck, but more than that, it was a departure from what the genre had been up to that point.  Rather than being constrained by the claustrophobia of the first-person view, it explored it.  The entire game was about you seeing things through a narrow lens, trying to assemble a complete picture from snippets and pieces, and in between you were shooting at a whole lot of aliens who started shooting at you first.  It wasn’t even entirely clear who was on your side and who wasn’t at a glance.

I looked forward to the future of the first-person shooters as a result; I had enjoyed Doom despite the constrained viewport, and I thought Marathon was a look in the future.  Instead, that future was based on Quake and Unreal Tournament and now Call of Duty or Battlefield or whatever game you’d like to name in which a bunch of gray soldiers shoot another bunch of gray soldiers on a battlefield which is itself gray (and sometimes brown).

Is that a failing of the genre?  Nope.  That’s just how things go.

I admit that Ikaruga is not purely bullet hell.  It illustrates the point.

I mean, yes, I expect projectiles flying toward my inexplicably fragile ship from every direction, but we’re talking about a question of density here more than anything.

None of the genres of my youth are in the same place as they were back when I started playing.  Adventure games, once designed around fiendish puzzles, are now narrative vehicles that only break from the Japanese tradition of visual novels in the broadest possible sense.  Fighting games have evolved into complex systems of counters and blocks and throws and many more wrinkles than my old-school days of Street Fighter II would have suggested.  The bullet hell subgenre has overtaken SHMUPs.  Role-playing games rarely focus on slower turn-based outings, focusing instead on more active systems and being a bit closer to active games, while more active games have incorporated the idea of leveling up whole-cloth.

Some of these shifts are ones that I encourage, some of them are ones that I don’t care about, some of them are ones that I actively dislike.  (I’m not a fan of bullet hell, for instance.)  But the part that bothers me, far more than the idea that a genre I once enjoyed has changed, is the concept that somehow these games should be brought back to their roots.  As if the new developments are harmful or negative, that games used to be better than they are now.

I’ve talked in the past about how we tend to lionize the past, often to our long-term detriment.  We remember earlier experiences and we overlook the faults, and sometimes even going back and replaying what we once loved doesn’t make us sit up and say that perhaps we were giving credit where it wasn’t due.  But even more than that, when it comes to game, we tend to forget that whatever we’re playing right now was directly influenced by what we played before.

You know why the big group shoot-fest wound up being the dominant force instead of the slow, introspective science fiction experience in a claustrophobic setting?  Because most people liked that experience.

We have a very hard time accepting the idea that maybe the elements we loved about a genre at its inception were not, in fact, the most popular parts.  But games are a collection of many moving pieces, and a lot of people will keep playing through a broken system if they enjoy the other portions enough.  I loved Dragon Age: Origins a great deal, but the fact that my character was completely silent wasn’t why.  Nor was it because I could choose my race, or because the game featured slower (tedious) combat, or because I could spend hours micromanaging my team on the inventory screen.  Or any other number of problems I had with the game.

Not that this reduces my affection in the slightest; I think I have Stockholm Syndrome.

Yes, it’s the poster child for putting up with horrible stuff for the good parts.

Some people did like that.  Those were some of the fun parts for them.  But the sequel evolving past those facts wasn’t a failing on the part of the designers, it just means that what the designers saw as the core elements of the experience differed from what you did.  Even if you liked those aspects a lot.

And it doesn’t make the new direction bad just because it isn’t to your taste.  It means that you wanted something you didn’t get.  I had hoped the future for SHMUPs would involve more varied and intricate power-up schemes; instead, they involve more intricate pattern memorization and precision.  I stopped playing the genre.  Why would I?  A lot of people clearly enjoy things the way they are, the genre hasn’t somehow failed to live up to its potential.  It just went in a direction that emphasized an aspect of gameplay that was always there instead of the ones that I found most engaging.

Sometimes it even comes down to individual games.  Why did I stop playing Star Wars: The Old Republic?  Because the team kept emphasizing raids and heroic instances over story progression and solo experiences, which was what I found more enjoyable.  Do I feel like it was a bad choice?  Yes, mostly because you can find that in any number of other games.  But is it wrong?  Of course not.

There seems to be a general sense among gamers that if you loved a specific kind of game a decade ago, you should still love that kind of game now, no matter what has happened in between.  Just like you should always like sitcoms if you enjoyed Seinfeld or you should always enjoy romantic comedies if you enjoyed Annie Hall or whatever.  But genres change, they develop over time, and the tropes aren’t written in stone after a year or a decade or half a century.  Yes, the genre gets narrower in some ways, but a lot of creative things can happen even within those more narrow spaces.

Maybe you don’t like where a genre of games has gone, but that doesn’t mean it needs to get back to its roots, it means you need to step away from it.  What attracted you isn’t there any more.  Sure, there are probably projects that will appeal to you, but the genre as a whole has no obligation to go back to what you liked most.  It’s going to keep developing, and if you’re not having fun with it, you should smile, not, and accept that you’ve grown apart.

It’s really all right to say “I don’t like X any more.”  But not liking the motion of a genre doesn’t mean it’s not forward motion.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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