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.