Gaming Needs More Genre Busters

Brutal LegendI had a rather unique experience over the last week. Or at least, unique for me. These days, as I’ve lamented quite often and obnoxiously, I’m met with a schedule that doesn’t allow me to play and finish too many video games. However, in this last week, I’ve managed to complete two titles. And not just any two titles, but two fun and individual titles: Brutal Legend and Mass Effect 2.

While for the most part, these just seem like regular old video games on the surface, there’s something special about them. Something that struck me. You see, both of these games are genre busters. Games that come along and buck genre tropes, straddling the line between two or several different styles of play, combining them all in a way that doesn’t play awkwardly. Sure, there are several games that try to shove mechanics of multiple games together (Grand Theft Auto for one), but it’s more like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Very rarely do these games actually succeed at what they set out to do. Which makes it pretty cool when the developers actually pull it off.

Let me start with Mass Effect 2. Over the first few hours, I had mixed feelings about the amalgamation of it as a shooter and as an RPG, but as the game moved forward, I was marveling at the fact that Bioware had created something that I hadn’t really played before: an operatic sci-fi shooter with customizable RPG elements that told an engaging story. Sure, many have tried. But none with quite the sweeping victory that Bioware did in Mass Effect 2.

The end of the game, for one, had me completely on the edge of my seat. I’ve heard some complaints and criticisms about the way the game handles the final mission, namely that any of your characters can die in a way that at first seems rather arbitrary. However, when two of my characters (one of them my favorite character in the game) kicked the bucket early in the mission, suddenly I was worried about who else might go. Would all of them? None of them? Would Commander Shepherd eat it, too?

As I’m trying to finish most games, I teeter on the edge of impatience and satisfaction for knocking another game off the list. With Mass Effect 2, all I felt was nervous anticipation because I wanted to see how the tale wrapped up, and find out if my actions resulted in the survival of the characters I really cared about.

Likewise, Brutal Legend combines humor, music/rhythm, action/adventure, role-playing, sandbox and RTS elements into a huge gaming soup, and the result is something truly special. I know that some people don’t quite care for the RTS stuff in Brutal Legend, but I found it to be terribly fun, and made for one of the most unique games I’ve played in this generation. All of the things it mixed together sound like they wouldn’t work on the surface, but in practice were executed brilliantly. Had I played it a couple of months earlier, the game would have easily landed in my top 10 for 2009.

Playing these games made me wonder why we don’t see more unique mash-ups of genres the way both of these games attempted to do. I think that while this generation has shown some cool leaps forward in terms of technology, story-telling and immersion, it feels like we’ve seen a step back in terms of innovation and gameplay. We are over-genrefying (yes I made that word up) games rather than opening them up to multiple styles. Shooters are becoming more restricted. RPG’s are being thrown in one of two molds, Western or JRPG. Music games feel largely the same. And on top of that, we’re slapping motion control on the same old formulas and labeling it “innovation”.

However, maybe the path to better innovation in the titles we play is in the mixing of genres. Left 4 Dead, for instance, made its mark by making a shooter that focused almost solely on co-operative play, and dropped a bombshell on the whole history, leaving many copycats in its wake. Heavy Rain, which I played a demo of over the weekend, feels almost like nothing else I’ve played in the last few years, save for Indigo Prophecy, by the same studio. I hope that as this generation moves forward, we start to see this more and more, as studios push the boundaries of what genres can do, and find new creations that are more unique, more long-lasting, and ultimately more satisfying as video games.

What about you guys? What are some of the most unique experiences you’ve had with video games in the last few years? Where do you think innovation is going to come from in video games?

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I write about samurai girls and space marines. Writer for Smooth Few Films. Rooster Teeth Freelancer. Author of Red vs. Blue, The Ultimate Fan Guide, out NOW!

14 thoughts on “Gaming Needs More Genre Busters”

  1. I agree that the multi genre games are usually better, and more interesting, but I believe that focusing in on what makes a certain genre good and innovating on that would be another good step in the right direction. I sometimes dont want to play a fps mixed with bejeweled and starcraft. I also would like innovation in the standard genres to explore deeper into them, because I believe that there is still alot of untapped potential still there.

  2. Great article man! I was nervous about Brutal Legend, I’m glad to hear that you liked it and it worked well.

    “…why we don’t see more unique mash-ups of genres the way both of these games attempted to do.” – I think, like you said, it’s because most of the games that try, fail pretty hard. It’s a huge risk to make games like that that work. Nowaday’s it’s the copycats and sequels that seem to really sell.

    Oh, and PS – GTA is in a genre of it’s own, I don’t neccessarily see it as a mashup.

  3. But doing a “mash-up” isn’t genre busting, it’s just throwing multiple genres together. It does nothing to alter the way you play the game; you just think, “Oh, this is the part where I do platforming. Oh, this is the RTS section. Oh, this is the shooter segment.” There are about 5,000 games like this on the wii and every one of them gets blasted by critics and gamers alike. There’s nothing inherently innovative in putting different genres together into one game.

    I can see how Mass Effect 2 could be considered a “genre buster,” but doesn’t it just marry cinematic and interactive rpg elements to a shooter? I’d like to say that open world rpgs like Fallout and Oblivion are genre-busters, but they’re nothing more than next gen versions of 20 year old pc rpg game design combined with a modern fps physics engine.

    Genres exist for a reason; there are only so many ways of creating an interactive game experience. I think Heavy Rain could qualify as a “genre-buster” because its unlike anything I’ve ever played. But even with that game, you could argue that it’s the spiritual successor to the old Dragon’s Lair style laser disc arcade games (but there’s a SIGNIFICANT jump between the two; it’s like going from an old silver box SSI rpg on the C-64 straight to Dragon Age: Origins without any games coming between them).

    To be honest, I don’t think that “hardcore” gamers would be interested in something that’s truly “genre-busting.” You want a real “genre-buster?” Why not try Endless Ocean? How about The Sims? Or maybe you’d like to try Wii Fit?

    Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Our genres are fine; there’s plenty of innovation to be had within those parameters.

  4. Well, have you played either of the games in question?

    Judging from the way you’ve spoken about both, I’d hazard to guess the answer is no. The way Brutal Legend plays, it’s not just broken up into sections. The RTS and action elements work seamlessly, hand in hand. Likewise the same with Mass Effect 2, where the shooting mechanics and RPG mechanics work in unison.

    I’m not saying to throw out genres. I’m saying let’s go beyond what they’re doing and get some more truly unique experiences.

    Yes, the games you mentioned like Oblivion and Fallout 3 are just extensions of their 20 year old counterparts, but I’d argue that they are genre busters in the sense that they added another layer of immersion via first person that their counterparts didn’t.

    I’m not really seeing what your issue is here. You named great games and conceded they might all fit the parameters I discussed. I’m saying let’s see more innovation. Surely we all want more of that, correct?

  5. I was like you at ME2’s start too Eddy, with the shooter system. I wa thinking: “Oh god not this duck ansd cover shit.”

    Course it got better, especially since it was implemented on the fine line between needing to do it to survive, and just being awesome. I didn’t lose anyone my first time, but I was biting my nails worrying about if they’d all make it back until I’d heard they did.

    Plus, (spoilers)

    Did you see all those freaking Reapers? Holy crap I can’t wait for the ME3.

  6. Great article, I’m off out to get Mass effect in a few moments and now I’m eagerly anticipating the finale.

  7. I didn’t claim to have played either of them, nor am I suggesting that they don’t do interesting things. By all accounts, Mass Effect 2 is an amazing game and I have no reason to doubt that it is give Bioware’s track record (though, admittedly, this is the first time I’ve heard anyone accuse Brutal Legend of being innovative).

    All I’m suggesting is that we not fall all over ourselves saying that these games are remaking the wheel by incorporating elements from different genres.

    Oh, and just to play devil’s advocate and stir the pot some more, the first person perspectives of Oblivion and Fallout were actually nothing new. All of the Elder Scrolls games, going back to Arena in 1994, were 1st person and it was hardly the first pc series to do so.

  8. Oh yeah, duh. I forgot that about Morrowwind. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Also, I’m not “falling over myself”. Just played a great and would like to continue more. Nobody ever suggested that these games re-invented the wheel. I love genre busters that are done well, and want some more.

    Maybe it’s better to agree to disagree if you don’t want those same things?

  9. Sorry, I guess it was a bit of a knee jerk reaction on my part. I just took issue with the term “genre-buster” more than anything. For some reason, it just struck me as being one of those hyperbolic terms that gets flung around by game publishers and journalists who usually are trying to convince consumers that a particular game does, in fact, ‘remake the wheel.’ I can see now that you didn’t mean it that way, though, so I think we’re good.

    I agree that innovation is good, but I also think that we all have different ideas of what constitutes innovation. For example, I think one of the most innovative games I’ve played this generation is “da Blob” for the wii because I’ve never really played anything like it and it manages to make an incredibly simple concept super fun. I ran out to buy it as soon as it came out because I want to support games that take a chance at being something different. But I’d hazard a guess that not too many people here would agree with me about this game being innovative.

    As for “genre busting”, Anthony and I debated whether or not Borderlands qualified as innovative. I didn’t think so, because it’s basically a first person Diablo, but then again, there aren’t really any other games quite like that and if I’m going to praise Metroid Prime for bringing 2d platforming into 3d, then I guess I have to be consistent and praise Borderlands for taking the aesthetic of a particular genre and putting it into another one.

    So I guess that’s a long way of saying that I like genre busters after all?

  10. Woah, Borderlands is innovative? I didn’t think it was that game-changing, just another take on games like Castle Crashers.

  11. I agree, glebe, but I feel like I have to be consistent. Again, if I’m going to claim that Metroid Prime is an innovative game for translating the experience of playing a 2d platformer into 3d, I have to give credit to Borderlands for doing the same sort of thing.

    But that won’t stop me from declaring that Metroid Prime was MORE innovative for what it did than Borderlands. I’m fine with distinguishing between degrees of innovation, especially if it allows me to arbitrarily say that one game is better than another. That’s the best part of fandom, after all.

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