21 August, 2015
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?