Dead Space 3 has made its presence known in my home. Or, rather, it’s made its presence known due to the intense expressions of concentration on the faces of the gamers here, along with the firmly-but-not-too-tensely-gripped controllers in their hands and head-hugging headphones cushioning their ears. There have been no audible gasps or screams from either of us, because Dead Space 3 is not a horror game. Much like last year’s Resident Evil 6, Dead Space 3 is gore-filled and gross, but it’s not scary.
I’d call Dead Space 3 a third-person action-shooter with critters, but I’d never call it a horror game.
Come to think of it, I can’t name the last true ‘horror’ game I played. Oh, I’ve played games that blend the genres of horror with third-person action and RPG elements, but pure horror? I watched someone played Slender. Does that count?
Genre is a tricky thing. I work with books in my professional life, and throughout more than ten years of this, I’ve learned that genre fiction – science-fiction, mystery, romance, thriller – is the kind of thing that can make people turn their noses up. You can also lure people into interesting new places with it, which is why I try to keep a copy of Dan Simmons’ The Terror on hand. It’s the perfect blend of literature and horror. It’s a fusion of genres, and it works; it converts people to a new way of looking at books. Books make up a cut throat world these days; you have to be on top of what your audience wants if you want to keep pushing ahead.
The same can be said for video games.
We separate our genres into a few different categories: RPGs, action-adventure, third- or first-person-shooters, horror, family, to name a few. By locking into a few set ideas of what makes a game fit into its respective genre, we automatically develop expectations about a game. As with all genres, though, we’ve got at least a half-dozen variations, and within that variable lies the real idea of what the game in your hands is. Still, expecting one thing can hurt or improve your experience as a player.
When looking at a squad-based tactical game like Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, I go into it expecting stealth, clever set ups, and not as big of an emphasis on action. What I’ve found playing this game is that this is true, up until the scripted moments of guns-ablazing action, which actually threaten to drag me out of the experience. The first few times it happened, I thought I’d done something wrong, and wasn’t being careful enough. Instead, the game created an action setpiece, thereby making me scratch my head and wonder if I was still playing a stealth game, or a third-person shooter. Ultimately, it’s a fusion of the genres, and it works. The action keeps the tension high and makes you want to keep tearing through the mission, gunning for the best possible score, while still making sure that you’re sneaking most of the time.
Other games like Dragon Age 2 look like RPGs on the surface; after all, Dragon Age: Origins was an RPG, so it’s sequel should be the same, right? Instead, I’d categorize Dragon Age 2 as an action game with RPG elements of leveling up, unlocking new abilities and prestige classes. Constantly hitting the attack button in combat, switching to a power, and then moving on to the next enemy is more the hallmark of action games. It’s not a play approach I associate with RPGs. That said, as a genre fusion of action and RPG, Dragon Age 2 works.
Where genre fusion runs into trouble is when it’s not obvious what audience a game is trying to appeal to. Take Mirror’s Edge, which tries to blend two wildly dissimilar genres into one, with mixed results. A first person game with platforming elements was an interesting idea, but its execution left a lot to be desired. Platforming is a game style that relies on perception and a full awareness of a player’s surroundings; constrained into a first-person perspective, platforming becomes awkward and unbalanced. As a gamer, you rely on your eyes to continue on in the game; when your eyes are used to perceiving a style of gameplay in one fashion, they don’t adapt as well to a new. First-person platforming is not to first-person shooting as third-person action is to third-person shooting.
Along the lines of first-person shooting, the Call of Duty: Black Ops games, from their name alone, seem like they should be one type of game, but are more of another. The Call of Duty franchise suggests action and intense combat, but the subtitle of Black Ops suggests stealth and a more careful approach. The games, of course, are Call of Duty games, which means first person shooters with full-blown action. While I still liked Black Ops 2, especially as I was easing into playing first person shooters, I had to keep my expectations in check.
Ideally, a game finds the happy medium between its dominant genre and its subgenre. Take Darksiders II for instance, an open world adventure game with an emphasis on RPG elements like leveling, sidequests, collection missions, and more. The same goes for games like Dragon Age 2 and Dead Space 3; a touch of RPG here, a sprinkling of action here, whip it together and you’ve got a nice balance.
Genre twists our perceptions of how a game should be. Fusion gives games a fighting chance in the current market, as well as allowing them to put their own spin on an established formula. Horror games are scary only as long as you feel helpless; action games are only engaging as long as you feel in control. Put them together and you get an interesting experience in gameplay.
At the beginning, I noted that Dead Space 3 is an action game with horror elements. That’s not to say that it hasn’t made me jump a couple of times, but I hear the monsters long before I see them, and by the time they show up, I’m ready for them. That’s what third-person action games have taught me to do: always be aware of your surroundings and listen. Horror games taught me to run away, or to fight smart, but when the creatures attacking me are weak to pinpoint dismemberment and the impressive stomp of my boot, they don’t make me want to run away.
It’s an action game; I’m fully in control and I’m not scared of the dark corridors or rooms, because I’ve got a flashlight and several cleverly assembled weapons. I’m fighting nightmarish creatures, but I’m in an action game that has no illusions of being a horror game. Which is why I think Dead Space 3’s monsters are more afraid of me than I will ever be of them.
About the Author:
Alexandra Geraets is an fan of story-driven video games. She's an even more avid fan of exploring how and why they resonate with all of us. Her essays have been found on Village Voice Media.
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