With appologies to Judith Butler, it seems that there is some genre trouble going on in the videogame world. The October issue of Edge magazine has a short column about the fact that there are a million Grand Theft Auto III clones coming out and “GTA Clone” isn’t exactly the best name for it. I’ll go ahead and commit copyright infringement by posting the fill text of it here since it doesn’t seem to be online (Insert here a rant about how expensive Edge magazine is in the USA and how they need an electronic version because I’m poor.):
Just Cause, Scarface, Crackdown, Dead Rising, Yakuza, Saints Row, Gangs Of London oh, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories. And that’s just in this month’s issue: there’s no question a genre has just come of age. Pity we still have no idea what to call it.
The ‘GTA-clone’ not that it was ever an elegant phrase just won’t cut it any more, not in the face of the extraordinary diversity listed above. And surely no one’s seriously suggesting that we wrap our tongues around ‘the free-roaming action adventure’ from here on in. Or we could take a tip from the Germans: if for them platform games are ‘run-and-jumps’, perhaps we could have the ‘drive-and-shoot’? Perhaps not.
But that last idea raises another problem. Possibly held back by the fact that we still don’t have a name for it, it’s still not really been agreed what the key components of the genre actually are. It needs to take place in a freely accessible world, but does that space need to be physically contiguous? It didn’t seem to need to be in Grand-Theft-Auto-meets-Mars-Attacks Destroy All Humans. Does it have to include combat? Surely yes, but its absence didn’t stop Grand-Theft-Auto-meets-The-Simpsons Hit’n’Run being widely claimed a clone. Does it even have to be driving and fighting?
There’s no question Dead Rising feels a little like it belongs, and yet it doesn’t really meet that requirement. Perhaps, appropriately, the only way to judge them is like suspected alcoholics. If a game can tick three of the following boxes, then it qualifies: freely accessible play area, story missions and side missions, hidden packages and/or detailed stats, a civilian population to torment, some form of combat, some form of driving. Does that about cover it?
Of course, genres have always been problematic, and they’ve always had awkward names, but perhaps the GTA-a-like issue is so acute because it’s the first true second-generation genre. The familiar roster (driving, shooting, platforming, strategy) are all built around the idea of a game focused on one type of interaction. But what we’re talking about is a genre built out of those genres: a genetic inheritance. It’s just unfortunate that it’s a child that seems to be forever stuck with a double-barelled surname.
Genres are only useful for movie stores… Ok, so that may be an exaggeration, but I think the point remains valid: there isn’t much point in coming up with genres.
Mark J. P. Wolf in Medium of the Video Game list a bunch of genres that are fairly useless such as listing demos as their own genre.
While I’m not a fan of applying film theory to videogames, I think that Rick Altman in Film/Genre makes the most interesting use of genre by syntax and semantics. (Actually, there isn’t a lot of need to read the entire book. He lays out syntax and semantics as a way of looking at genre in his article, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre” which is widely reprinted and is included as an index in the Film/Genre book).
Regarding the GTA-Clones, besides the obvious title of GTA-Clone, the phrase I seem to hear most is some variation on “urban action.” Which of course has problems of its own since there isn’t any reason why a GTA-Clone would have to be “urban” in nature.
In films, and other media, genres aren’t born fully formed like Athena leaping from the head of Zeus. They develope over time. We may think of The Great Train Robbery as the first Western, but it wasn’t instantly called that. Other films had to imitate it and take elements from it untill enough film were made that people could look back and retroactively determine what a “Western” was. The same thing will have to happen with GTA-Clones. In a few years, we will be able to look back and make up a name for them that is more descriptive than “GTA-Clone.”