This essay is a bit late. I wrote it about three months ago, so it rehashes tons of things from the past months of posts as if they never occurred. Still, I think the example is nice. We’ve been thinking about genre and interpretation of literature. But if we take seriously the idea that games can be art, then the same methods of interpretation still apply.
Game critics jump at the opportunity to place games in the nice neat box of its genre. Still, there has been a growing trend to shrug off genre as useless due to the diversity of modern games that push boundaries. We will examine the idea that the utility of genre identification is not in its descriptive power, but its use for artistic interpretation.
It is true that no label will ever perfectly fit any given game. But if this were a viable argument to forgo genre as useless, then it would have caught hold in the world of literary criticism by now. Instead, we find that genre is still a useful means to understand literature. The idea is ancient and can be found in Aristotle’s Poetics, but the (post-Derrida) resurgence can be traced back to at least Gérard Genette’s famous 1979 essay The Architext: An Introduction.
Roughly, Genette defines poetics as the art and science of interpreting a text by situating it in the proper context of similar texts. The similarities come from stylistic and thematic concerns among other things. This group of similar texts is what we call a genre. Some narratologists, such as Genette, argue that one must establish the context to obtain a proper understanding and interpretation. In other words, if we want to interpret a work of art, then identifying its genre is not only useful, but necessary.
This might sound shocking to most people, because (American) high schools teach that great works of art stand on their own. There is no right or wrong way to interpret. I can read The Catcher in the Rye, be moved by it, and formulate my own opinions without ever considering the genre in which it resides. Great art should be universal and not dependent on surrounding works.
This viewpoint is valid, but limited in scope. Consider the following thought experiment. You read a book on Abraham Lincoln. You are not told the genre or author. I now reveal that the book was a collection of journal entries by a friend of Abraham Lincoln. This exposes a set of ways to interpret the book. If I told you it was a biography released by a reputable academic press last year, then I open a different set of interpretations. For example, both are trying to convey factual information, but we should be more skeptical of stories found in one person’s journal.
Now, if I told you it was a work of historical fiction, then a new set of possibilities arises. Major people, places, and events form a factual framework for the story, but the bulk of the plot will be fiction. We might expect to find other literary devices such as symbols and themes which put a particular spin on the events. Identifying the genre was enough to open and close various ways to interpret the book, because we are familiar with the genre’s conventions.
This example also shows us that the author’s intent is important, because we want to know whether we are reading true statements. Art isn’t always as egotistical as we want to believe: I felt this; I think it means that. David Foster Wallace often referred to experiencing great literature as building a relationship between author and reader. Art fails if one side tries to be selfish.
Communication is vital for a successful relationship. Understanding only comes if the reader is familiar with the genre in the same way that cultural context can change the meaning of oral communication. Familiarity with conventions and tropes allows the reader to see the manner in which it deviates. According to Genette, these deviations will have significance for interpretation. Only by putting a work in the context of its genre can we hear what the artist is saying.
By now you’ve guessed how this relates to games. Games serving as an artistic medium is a recent development. Sophisticated dialogue on interpreting games is in its infancy, and attempting to port established literary theory to the discussion is almost non-existent. The point is not that genre theory or poetics is the “right” way to frame these conversations, but that it gives us one established lens of interpretation from a multitude of literary theories.
It is futile to produce a full-scale analysis here (Genette took several books to analyze Proust), but let’s consider one familiar example: Braid. In this case, we have an unambiguous genre. Braid is a puzzle platformer in the sense that the player jumps between platforms and solves puzzles. The most significant innovation is that getting to platforms and solving puzzles requires time manipulation.
If we want to interpret the game, poetics tells us that we should give time special status. You might think at this point, “Duh! The game is about time manipulation, and we didn’t need to know the genre to come to that conclusion.” But you would be wrong, because you are biased and know that time manipulation is not a characteristic of the genre. If the genre typically used this mechanic, then we’d have no reason to give special status to time in our analysis. So identifying and understanding the genre gave us information to bring to our interpretation of the game.
We should not be hasty in our attempts to render genre useless merely because many recent games defy clean classification. Genette (and Hirsch) allowed for the definition of genres to change and grow over time. New ones can be constructed where no old ones fit. The Braid example may not have convinced you, but genre analysis can be a useful tool for interpretation of games in more subtle and abstract settings. We should move past the simplistic notion that genre is purely descriptive. It can also be interpretive.