Recently I’ve been enjoying Gungrave Overdose, which you might remember as being reviewed as a solid little action game with a ridiculous 15 dollar retail price. With a solid combat system and great presentation, you could do a lot worse in the genre.
The question is, what genre am I talking about? The obvious answer is that this is an “action game”. But even though you shoot many enemies, this isn’t Gears of War or Rainbow Six. Gungrave is all about racking up multiple kills in a row with successive attacks, and using your limited arsenal to create combos. Playing it as a simple run-and-gun makes it a far more mindless experience than it actually is. So to be more specific, I would classify this as a “Devil May Cry”- like, something that most reviews agree with. But in my travels, I have even seen the game described in the same sentence as Tomb Raider.
What the hell? Tomb Raider is a platform-heavy adventure game. The combat is minimal, and if you know the proper way to attack, it is nothing of great challenge. Gungrave and Tomb Raider share little more in common than dual pistols and a third person camera. Pretty much any gamer will be able to tell this as within five minutes of playing Gungrave. But we often rely on reviews to give us the good word before we buy a game, and when they make such silly comparisons, we may find out that a game doesn’t suit our tastes only after we have spent money on it.
Let us put it in another perspective; if you’ve ever heard complaints about Metroid Prime not being like Halo, or that Resident Evil 4 is not very good at survivor horror, then you have seen the problems that can arise from game classifications.
I thought a lot about this problem, and all I could think of was that I don’t want to get rid of genres and naming conventions. They can be immensely helpful for recommending games or simply figuring out our own tastes. All we really need to do understand what these classifications really are and how we use them.
I couldn’t for the life of me think of a good way of expressing this, but, as usual, one of my long time inspirations had already done so. The actionbutton.net review of Gears of War discusses the problem with classifying Gears of War with, say, Half Life 2, Tom Clancy games and Call of Duty. Yes, they are all “shooters”, and at their core they all have you do the same thing. But does Half Life have the cover system of Gears? Does Gears have the same playful environments as Half Life? Do Call of Duty and Rainbow Six play alike because they both have squads? Each one of these games aims for a quality experience (regardless of whether you believe they deliver), but each has its own way of getting there. Because of this, there is no guarantee that you will like them all, despite all being “shooters”.
As a history buff, I gobble up each Call of Duty so I can to study their portrayals of famous battles and scrutinize whether the Germans would actually outload that many troops with FG42’s. I also think Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter is one of the biggest single player jokes on the 360. It should be classified as a comedy instead of an action game.
As actionbutton points out, there is a difference between a genre and a format. And as they so well argue, Third and First Person Shooters are more of a format than a genre. You can fit a lot of games under the umbrella of a format, and that becomes a problem when using them in something as specific as a review. This has likely been said somewhere else, but telling a reader that they will like a game if they are a fan of first person shooters is starting to sound an awful lot like telling them that they will love Dickens if they are a fan of novels. It just isn’t always true, and it sounds preposterous.
The other side of the coin is that if we establish that a genre is something more specific, no one will ever agree on new terminology. Say that Halo and Metroid Prime are actually in different genres. Which genres would those be? Action and Adventure? Sounds good to me, but that means we can lump Halo in with Devil May Cry, and Prime in with Full Throttle. Some fans of said games might have an issue.
Hell, if things were my way, a lot of jRPG fans would hate me for labeling their entire world as “Interactive Fiction”. Once we start getting picky with names and classifications, we can come up with things like “Narrative based, first person puzzle game”, and if that doesn’t sound pretentious, I don’t know what does.
The solution, at least for now, is simple. For one, we can just be a little more careful with our classifications, and realize when we are dealing with a format. You can call Gears of War a “shooter” instead of “third person destroyed beauty simulator”. However, I don’t want to hear you whine that Half Life 2 should have branching text options because Deus Ex does, and “OMG Deus Ex is an FPS too!” I have seen this behavior before, and all I can say is that you are doing a disservice to two of the best games ever, and maybe, just maybe, the problem is with your classifications and not the game. In the end, most of the comparisons we make are drawn from our own experiences and conclusions. Never are they set in stone.
Finally, I think reviewers are often grasping for straws as they continue to be the Gaming equivalent of Consumer Reports. The aforementioned Gungrave review could and should have made comparisons to Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden and left it at that. If they wanted to get real fancy, they could mention up a ‘schmup that involves combos and chaining of attacks. The Tomb Raider analogy just screams of “I need more comparisons in this review so that the consumer knows whether this is a worthy spending of their hard earned money”.
Here’s a thought; just tell us what the game is similar to as best you can. From there, maybe we consumers can actually put some effort into researching a $60 entertainment purchase instead of having others think for us. Film reviewers will compare a work like Hostel to Saw because it makes sense. They aren’t going to mention Friday the 13th just to drop another name in there. When products made by design stop being evaluated by design, maybe we’ll be able to look at them the way we really should.