Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

21 August, 2015

Agreeing on genres
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 6:21 AM

Blaugust. day 21

Genres are an interesting thing in games. Really, games fall into two genres, one for the setting and one for the gameplay. Gameplay genres, like FPSes or RTSes, have a considerable amount of variation but at the core have a lot of shared aspects. Hard-core fans will argue over the the details of their favorite game of a certain gameplay genre they prefer, but to the more casual two different games might appear to have very similar gameplay, at least on the surface.

Setting genres are the same, but I would say that they have even less in common at the core. A term like “fantasy” covers a lot of ground, especially outside of games.

What flavor of cyberpunk?

You can perhaps see this most in the cyberpunk genre. In literature we have old-school cyberpunk like Shockwave Rider, canonical cyberpunk like Neuromancer and the rest of the sprawl trilogy, and even post-cyberpunk like Diamond Age.

Even in a specific sub-genre, you have quite a bit of diversity. The philosophical look at existence and society in Ghost in the Shell is a different type of post-cyberpunk than the slightly out-of-control world of Rainbows End or the adventures in space of Schismatrix Plus. These stories all share a common thread, a look at the world of the near future, but with different starting assumptions about what the future will look like and what technology will allow. Turns out, predicting the future is pretty difficult.

And then we get the splinter groups, some of which look to the past. Steampunk and Dieselpunk being the most notable versions here, where more primitive technology is used for more advanced and complex purposes than it was in our world’s history.

And then there are the mashups. The primary example being the tabletop game Shadowrun, which combines the fantasy elements common in tabletop RPGs with cyberpunk. It even includes a huge metaplot story about cycles of magic ebbing and flowing in the world that was also echoed in the game Earthdawn.

Which is the true version?

So, when you talk about “cyberpunk” you might be referring to a lot of different things. Although, I think for most people, the term “cyberpunk” probably conjures up images of neon and chrome most typified by William Gibson’s writing and the movie Bladerunner.

But, the true fans generally have their favorite, and will argue to the end of time about how their favorite is the true, canonical example of the genre. Or, at least, about how some specific example is not really an example of the genre.

When you get into gaming, things get even muddier since you have the player experience to consider. I was talking last night with a friend and he lamented how Shadowrun was really a pretty shallow treatment of cyberpunk. I argued that it wasn’t really Shadowrun at fault, because the cyberpunk feeling really does run deep in the game. The existence of incredibly powerful beings like dragons reinforce one of the tenets of the genre, were technology doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual is empowered. But, if players choose to play it like cybernetic superheroes in a high population city, the game isn’t necessarily to blame.

How it relates to gameplay

I think there are parallels here with role-playing in general, though. Different people have different definitions of role-playing. Some people see it as a shared storytelling experience as an excuse to hang out with friends. Other people treat it like amateur improv theater, where they act out stories as a troupe. Still others see it as a game where you try to maximize your mechanical potential in the game to overcome the bad guys. People in one group might sneer at another, but I don’t think any one group is “right”.

But, this is one reason why role-playing is hard to do in MMORPGs, because you have such a variety of opinions about what defines that type of gameplay. Unlike genres where a designer can just impose it on the game, role-playing is a fairly fragile thing that requires the active participation and cooperation of the players for it to succeed. And, there really is no efficient way to establish, let alone enforce, a definition of role-playing that will work.

Even for genres, if you go with a “dark fantasy” concept for your game, you might end up alienating people who really prefer high fantasy. Sometimes labels just aren’t enough.

What are your preference? Do you have a single version of “fantasy” or “cyberpunk” that you prefer? Or do you think you are more of a general fan of a genre and enjoy all the different forms? Are your opinions different for gameplay genres compared to setting genres in games?

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  1. Oh boy! Where do I even start?!

    I’m currently engaging (more than previously) with the local pen&paper community. Two things were of note here:

    1. The age old conflict between different types of role-playing is just as active as it was years ago, when I was forced by circumstance to abandon the scene for a while. System-wise, the storytellers seem to flock to FATE these days. GURPS still appears to be the gold standard for people who prefer crunchier game-play (don’t get me started on a definition of “crunchy” here; opinions differ wildly), and there’s a group who insist that the gold standard in RPG-ing is Call of Cthulhu. Why? Because it’s the hardest to “beat”.

    Overall, there appear to be at least two orthogonal axes along which to classify player interests. There are probably more, but I’m not trying to make this a scientific level review…

    On one axis, you have “gamemaster is the enemy” on one extreme, and “gamemaster exists to make me look awesome” on the other. You can map those to “win condition is survival” and “roleplaying is magic!” respectively, but that’d lose some subtleties. Yes, if the win condition of a game session is for your character to survive, it’s easy to treat the gamemaster as the (personification of) the in-game enemy. Similarly, focusing on awesome collaborative storytelling may mean conflict and survival don’t necessarily focus strongly in the game. But what I find fascinating is the player-gamemaster relationship on this axis, as it’s either antagonistic or sympathetic in nature.

    On the other axis, there’s definitely a spectrum of “fairness through system rules” all the way to “fairness through mutually agreed results”. One lot of players prefers to put down (or have pre-made) rules for every conceivable situation so that disagreements about the results don’t matter. The play style then tends towards exploiting the rules for maximum effect. That’s not quite the same as minmaxing, though that may play a role. It’s largely play characterised by opportunism in how the rules and story present a situation. On the “mutually agreed results” end of things, there are fewer rules to be exploited; the main rule is for every player to find the situation believable and compelling.

    You’ll find your co-op storytellers in the corner of “gamemaster exists to make me look awesome” + “mutually agreed results”, and your call of cthulhu fans in the “gamemaster is the enemy” + “fairness through system rules” corners, respectively.

    Beyond that, I haven’t really given this much thought… one day when I find some time, I’ll sit back and correlate this with Bartle’s player types and their motivations :)

    2. I tried to have a conversation about scifi genres with some folk there, and nope, there’s no way to please everyone. Give that up! :p

    Comment by unwesen — 21 August, 2015 @ 7:12 AM

  2. As much as I dislike whatever thought process that put the chocolate of fantasy into the peanut butter of cyberpunk and came up with Shadowrun, after my experiences with the Shadowrun PC games I have to say that what I consider to define cyberpunk is all there. My issue isn’t so much with the presence of fantasy in this tech genre, but WHY it was added. Was the core cyberpunk that received this treatment “not good enough”? Was it just an attempt to reach a broader market that was more familiar with fantasy tropes? Were the creators drunk at the time?

    Of course, last night in our 5E campaign, someone created a clockwork homing pigeon, so I guess the door can swing both ways. In some cases I guess merging genres like this serves to offer players a greater “excuse” for getting things done. In a pure cyberpunk game, getting into a locked room involves normal entry with a keycard, blowing open the door, or hacking the system. If you have a meld with fantasy, then maybe phasing into another dimension is an option. Or turning into smoke.

    And then comes the juxtaposition of “old school” shamanistic activities with “new school” cold, hard technology. How do they interact? What kind of issues arise when magic meets technology?

    Over the years I’ve really disliked Shadowrun for “sullying” an otherwise excellent cyberpunk setting, but from a storytelling perspective it really does give groups more to work with when it comes to RPing situations. While there may be rules governing how magic works with tech, it’s the players who have to “sell it” to themselves, one another, and the GM.

    We play our 5E game kind of loose, but mostly sticking to the tropes of the Forgotten Realms. We try very much to tell a collaborative story in between the silliness that interpersonal reaction seems to foster, but it’s kind of hard with a group that’s spent so many years having their narrative options limited by what MMOs are programmed to offer. We’ve lost the knack of having freedom to make decisions that don’t lead to a well defined reward. Over time, though, we’re slowly getting back into the swing of what it means to play a tabletop RPG, complete with individual personalities, learning from mistakes, and especially recognizing that there’s more than just one way to approach a situation, and guns blazing doesn’t have to be the default option. 

    Comment by Scopique — 21 August, 2015 @ 7:46 PM

  3. unwesen wrote:
    The play style then tends towards exploiting the rules for maximum effect.

    I immediately thought about the D&D adventure board games. There’s no DM exactly, but there is a set of rules for things like how monsters move, etc. Part of the fun of the game, for me at least, is choosing how to execute the rules in a way that helps the party. But, you could make a rule that makes the execution always the least favorable outcome to increase difficulty.

    Scopique wrote:
    Over the years I’ve really disliked Shadowrun for “sullying” an otherwise excellent cyberpunk setting, but from a storytelling perspective it really does give groups more to work with when it comes to RPing situations. While there may be rules governing how magic works with tech, it’s the players who have to “sell it” to themselves, one another, and the GM.

    Yeah, my friend I was talking to the other night felt the same way about it not really dealing with the deeper issues. As I said, my argument is that it’s the way the players were playing the game more than the rules or setting itself, I think.

    As for why Shadowrun exists, I think it was probably just “hey, wouldn’t this be cool?” Kinda like asking why does A cover of Lady Gaga’s Telephone on traditional Japanese instruments exist? Because someone out there thought it was cool, and it looks several hundred thousand other people agree. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 21 August, 2015 @ 7:59 PM

  4. With regards to Shadowrun, I think part of the appeal of the genre is the crime noir structure of your average adventure.

    The cyberpunk part of the setting reinforces the crime noir aspect of “disillusioned protagonist of largely average skillset”, and the fantasty part of the setting reinforces the aspect of “unfeeling world because everyone conspires against you” part, largely because every conspiracy theory turns out to be real, and has a super-human entity lurking in the shadows behind it.

    I tend to think of Shadowrun as crime noir pushed to extremes.

    Comment by unwesen — 22 August, 2015 @ 3:23 AM

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