A Rose By Any Other Name 1

What Are We On About Today

What I want to do today is to talk about gen­res and clas­si­fi­ca­tion, and to do so pri­mar­i­ly by eval­u­at­ing two claims: the first, that Portal 2 is a puz­zle game, and the sec­ond, that Dragon Age 2 is not an epic.  I intend to look at what these two sen­tences real­ly mean, why they have been said, and what sort of atti­tudes are revealed in their utter­ance.  Hopefully, by the end of this arti­cle, we’ll have a bet­ter under­stand­ing of what a genre or clas­si­fi­ca­tion is, and how and when it should be used.  Specifically, I hope to try to show why gen­res and clas­si­fi­ca­tions are immense­ly help­ful for describ­ing works to other peo­ple, and can fre­quent­ly offer trea­sure troves of good ideas to draw from in the cre­ation of new works.  Genres and clas­si­fi­ca­tions became dan­ger­ous, how­ev­er, when they became pro­scrip­tive, when a work is crit­i­cized for fail­ing to adhere to estab­lished con­ven­tions.

On Portals and Puzzles

My opin­ion of Valve’s Portal 2 is already a mat­ter of pub­lic record.  I think it’s the best com­plete game I’ve played in years.  Most of the Internet seems to agree with me, but short­ly after I played the game, I found myself con­front­ed by a recur­ring crit­i­cism.  Namely, peo­ple would accuse Portal 2 of not being enough of a puz­zle game, usu­al­ly with a sen­tence some­thing like “Portal 2 is a puz­zle game, there­fore it should/should not have done X.”

In other words, peo­ple would become irri­tat­ed at var­i­ous things the game did or did not do, all because of its genre, the clas­si­fi­ca­tion in which the game was placed.  These var­i­ous things (too many sprawl­ing envi­ron­ments, too much of an empha­sis on nar­ra­tive, too easy, etc.) osten­si­bly con­tra­dict its class, and make it less of a puz­zle game and more about other things.

On one level, this makes some sense.  If I sign up to go see a cello recital, and halfway through the cel­list puts down his cello, picks up an elec­tric gui­tar and starts flail­ing away at a ren­di­tion of Purple Haze, I sup­pose I might have some right to be a bit put out (I mean, I would­n’t be, but that’s more a func­tion of my love for Jimi Hendrix than any­thing nor­ma­tive).  Even if the Hendrix cover was truly fan­tas­tic, it prob­a­bly did­n’t have any place in a cello recital, and if the recital was labeled “cello recital” and not “mis­cel­la­neous music recital,” I might have some right to be irri­tat­ed.  If the musi­cian in ques­tion want­ed to play both the cello and the gui­tar, he should prob­a­bly have said so to begin with.

Similarly, it might make sense that if Portal 2 is fun­da­men­tal­ly a puz­zle game, but fre­quent­ly does non-puzzly things that take away from its effec­tive­ness as a puz­zle game, it might deserve crit­i­cism.

The prob­lem is that I’m not real­ly sure it makes that much sense to strict­ly refer to Portal 2 as a puz­zle game, and, more to the point, I’m not cer­tain that that label exists any­where except in our own heads.

See, rather than sit down and try to ham­mer out what, exact­ly, defines the cat­e­go­ry of “puz­zle game” and whether or not Portal 2 real­ly fits those qual­i­fi­ca­tions, I think it makes more sense to ana­lyze where that cat­e­go­ry came from, and whether or not it actu­al­ly makes any sense to crit­i­cize Portal 2 for fail­ing to live up to its stan­dards.

If you asked me to describe Portal 2 to you, I would prob­a­bly begin by say­ing “It’s a puz­zle game,” or some­thing sim­i­lar, because that cat­e­go­ry is help­ful for com­mu­ni­cat­ing a series of things about the game, and there are few other commonly-used cat­e­gories that fit it bet­ter.  It’s cer­tain­ly more of a puz­zle game than it is a role-playing game or a first per­son shoot­er (though it is played from the first per­son with a gun that shoots things).  But if I stopped describ­ing either Portal game at “puz­zle game,” I would not be com­mu­ni­cat­ing a very accu­rate pic­ture of the game.

Bejeweled is pure “puz­zle game,” but both Portals, and the sec­ond in par­tic­u­lar, are also strong­ly char­ac­ter­ized by a wicked sense of humor and very, very strong (if sub­tle) nar­ra­tive.  Portal with­out GLaDOS, cake, and the Weighted Companion Cube is not Portal at all, where­as Bejeweled might still be iden­ti­fi­ably itself with just a dif­fer­ent art style or sound­track.  These other, non-puzzle ele­ments make up a sub­stan­tial por­tion of both Portal games’ appeal and aes­thet­ic value.  Even though the first game has less of an empha­sis on nar­ra­tive and char­ac­ter than the sec­ond, it would not be near­ly as inter­est­ing or worth­while if the nar­ra­tive was removed.  The bril­liant humor is a sub­stan­tial por­tion of why the fran­chise caught on in the first place, and the creep­ing feel­ing of dread­ful real­iza­tion that the voice over the loud­speak­er is not mere­ly a quirky record­ing but is, in fact, an unfriend­ly and unpre­dictable con­scious­ness that has it out for you is an impor­tant part of the game.

This is dou­bly true for the sec­ond game.  If one sim­ply removed Wheatley and GLaDOS and Cave Johnson, and, instead, had only a series of intrigu­ing por­tal puz­zles, one would be miss­ing out on a great por­tion of Portal 2.  The game is found in the merg­ing of both the game­play and the nar­ra­tive.

I can think of no more appro­pri­ate part of Portal 2 to illus­trate this point than in the oft-discussed moments in the game when it leads you to believe you are about to solve a puz­zle and then quick­ly shunts you aside for a nar­ra­tive sequence.  Yahtzee’s review makes note of this when he talks about these “two sep­a­rate occa­sions with­in it when a puz­zle is inter­rupt­ed by a story sec­tion.”  Admittedly, he then does go on to state that Portal 2 is not real­ly a puz­zle game, but I think there’s some­thing curi­ous about that sen­ti­ment.

It seems to sug­gest that there did, in fact, exist a puz­zle which the story inter­rupt­ed, as though the two things were sep­a­rate ele­ments, as though if the story would just go away for a few moments, there exist anoth­er two puz­zles in the game that you could solve.

This is not true.  The puz­zle was not inter­rupt­ed by the story, although that’s cer­tain­ly how Chell might feel.  There never was a puz­zle to inter­rupt.  There was the illu­sion of a puz­zle cre­at­ed entire­ly for the pur­pose of inter­rup­tion, so that the story could con­tin­ue.  Further, the story and the puz­zles are not real­ly entire­ly sep­a­rate ele­ments.  The story is fre­quent­ly expressed through the puz­zles, the puz­zles advance the story, and the puz­zles gain value and inter­est from their con­tex­tu­al­iza­tion in the story.  It does not real­ly make sense to talk about the “story” inter­rupt­ing the “puz­zle,” because they aren’t real­ly sep­a­rate ele­ments.  There is just the game, which com­mu­ni­cates with the play­er in a mul­ti­tude of dif­fer­ent ways, includ­ing story ele­ments and puz­zle ele­ments.

In this way, I hope you see why sim­ply describ­ing Portal 2 as a “puz­zle game” does­n’t do it jus­tice, and why it’s real­ly very silly to eval­u­ate it against that cat­e­go­ry.  A pure puz­zle game is, indeed, some­thing like Bejeweled, or Plants Vs. Zombies or Tetris.  In this con­text, “puz­zle game” is a use­ful descrip­tor, a use­ful short­hand way of describ­ing sev­er­al of the game’s ele­ments, but it far from tells the whole story.  There is no prob­lem with refer­ring to Portal 2 as a puz­zle game in casu­al con­ver­sa­tion or at the begin­ning of a rec­om­men­da­tion.  The prob­lem comes when one attempts to judge it against that cat­e­go­ry rather than on its own mer­its.

The Epic Jar

Dragon Age 2 was a weird thing for a num­ber of rea­sons, many of which I have already dis­cussed at length.  But per­haps the biggest rea­son why it’s inter­est­ing from a soci­o­log­i­cal stand­point is the way the back­lash against it tend­ed to focus on its fun­da­men­tal design choic­es, rather than on its fre­quent laps­es in exe­cu­tion.  A dis­cus­sion of these points formed the back­bone of my arti­cle on the Problem of Expectation, but there is one spe­cif­ic sub­set of those crit­i­cisms that I only briefly men­tioned before, and which is par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant to this dis­cus­sion.

The crit­i­cism is that Dragon Age 2 was not an epic, which is an accu­rate enough state­ment.  It’s not.  I don’t take issue with the fac­tu­al accu­ra­cy of the point.  The prob­lem is that peo­ple will bandy that state­ment about as though it was a crit­i­cism instead of a sim­ple state­ment of fact.

The word “epic,” my friends, is a state­ment of genre.  Some things are epics, and some things are not, and this has absolute­ly noth­ing to do with their respec­tive qual­i­ty.  The Lord of the Rings is an epic, and it is fan­tas­tic.  Lolita is not an epic, and it is also fan­tas­tic.  Conversely, (and switch­ing media), Avatar is an epic, and it is awful, and When in Rome is not an epic, and is also awful.

To describe some­thing as an epic is to make a state­ment about its scope, not its qual­i­ty.  It is a clas­si­fi­ca­tion, a way of point­ing out the dif­fer­ences between a movie like Gone With The Wind and one like The Maltese Falcon.

If this is true, there is no shame in not being an epic.  This has­n’t stopped peo­ple from crit­i­ciz­ing Dragon Age 2 for its reduced scope, how­ev­er.  I could­n’t fig­ure out why this was such a prob­lem until I watched Yahtzee’s review of the game, where­in he states that “The only point any­thing resem­bling a world-threatening fan­ta­sy adven­ture story occurs is right at the end, for the sequel hook.”

That made me under­stand.  Fantasy games are usu­al­ly epics.  Fantasy any­things are usu­al­ly epics, because most authors want to show off the mas­sive world they have cre­at­ed.  They usu­al­ly involve world or at least country-threatening events, mas­sive adven­tures across col­or­ful and exot­ic places.  Thus, when peo­ple learned that DA2 was a fan­ta­sy game, they auto­mat­i­cal­ly assumed it was an epic, and were thus dis­ap­point­ed by a game which is fun­da­men­tal­ly about one per­son­’s rise to power.

But this kind of mas­sive scope is not nec­es­sary for a good fan­ta­sy story: try Neverwhere for an excel­lent small-scope fan­ta­sy novel, or Planescape: Torment for an excel­lent small-scope fan­ta­sy game.  The fact that The Lord of the Rings was epic in scope does not carry as a corol­lary the fact that all other fan­ta­sy things must be sim­i­lar­ly huge.  DA2 con­tains a myr­i­ad of prob­lems, large and small, but among them is not its scope.

So Why Is This A Problem?

At this point, you may be won­der­ing why this all mat­ters.  Sure, maybe peo­ple were mad at Dragon Age 2 for the wrong rea­sons, or crit­i­cize Portal 2 for silly rea­sons.  So what?  Further, it’s not exact­ly news that peo­ple like to com­part­men­tal­ize things.

I’m bring­ing this up not just because I’m enough of a pedant to get mad at peo­ple for being wrong (though, admit­ted­ly, that’s prob­a­bly part of it.)  There are two big rea­sons why this focus on genre con­ven­tion is bad:

1. By hold­ing an incor­rect pic­ture of what a game is in your head, you can miss its value.  I’ve men­tioned before that the first time I tried to play Assassin’s Creed I insist­ed on try­ing to play it as though it was a straight stealth game.  This was­n’t wrong because of the cat­e­go­ry mis­take alone, or sim­ply because it might hurt some devel­op­er’s feel­ings some­where, but because I missed the fun and value of the game by doing so.  Once I quit let­ting my pre­con­cep­tions get in the way of what it was, I enjoyed myself immense­ly.  Similarly, some­one who insists Portal 2 ought to be a pure puz­zle game might miss the value of the won­der­ful nar­ra­tive and char­ac­ters while he or she is grous­ing.  It’s thus impor­tant not to get too hung up on genre because doing so leads to the Problem of Expectation.

2. More impor­tant­ly, using gen­res and clas­si­fi­ca­tions as pre­scrip­tive rather than descrip­tive stag­nates the medi­um.  One should not crit­i­cize a game for devi­at­ing from genre con­ven­tion unless it is explic­it­ly try­ing to be a pure exam­ple of a given genre.  You undoubt­ed­ly remem­ber read­ing about or hear­ing about the sorts of stuffy folks that were mad at Beethoven or Hemingway or Picasso or any of a bil­lion other peo­ple for break­ing the rules, right?  This is no bet­ter.  Whining at Portal 2 for not fit­ting neat­ly into the clas­si­fi­ca­tions we have in mind for “puz­zle games” is the same sort of thing as whin­ing at Beethoven’s Fifth for not fit­ting neat­ly into the pre-existing struc­ture of a sym­pho­ny.

If devel­op­ers are con­tin­u­al­ly stymied by this kind of point­less crit­i­cism, they are like­ly to be more hes­i­tant to try again.  I bet you a ton of money that Dragon Age 3 will be much larg­er in scope than its pre­de­ces­sor, and it may be a while before EA con­sid­ers pub­lish­ing a fan­ta­sy game with small­er stakes than the whole world.  Video games are pre­pos­ter­ous­ly expen­sive to make, and if we keep telling pub­lish­ers that we don’t want to play games that chal­lenge us or push out of our estab­lished gen­res, they will lis­ten.

So remem­ber, folks: gen­res are use­ful as descrip­tors, as ways of telling your friends what kind of game you’re play­ing.  But as soon as they become pro­scrip­tive or nor­ma­tive, they lose their use­ful­ness and instead become active­ly harm­ful.

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and groundskeeper of The Ontological Geek, now that it has shifted over to archive mode. If something on the site isn't working, please shoot a DM to @ontologicalgeek on Twitter!

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