The term 'genre' eventually becomes pejorative because you're referring to something that's so codified and ritualized it ceases to have the power and meaning it had when it first started. --Christopher Nolan
Here's what we think we know about genre: it limits creativity. It binds artists to tried-and-true formulas and encourages derivative work. A creator must be free to follow her muse, unhindered by prescriptive rules. An artist working on a genre-bound project is like a caged bird. She can sing pretty songs, but don't expect her to go anywhere interesting.
Genres are agents of ideological closure; they limit the meaning-potential of a given text. --John Hartley, A Short History of Cultural Studies, 2003.
Artists aren't the only victims. As Hartley notes, genre may even limit our ability to interpret and respond as readers and viewers. We're constricted by formal conventions we're conditioned to ignore. When you can't see the walls anymore, you forget how small the room you're in actually is.
Some artists try hard to avoid genre influences on their work. Filmmaker and 5-time Oscar nominee Paul Mazursky once noted, "One thing I know is that I don't want to be a director for hire, making genre films. That would be death." Mazursky believed genre implied servitude, limiting personal vision and fomenting homogenized, focus-grouped entertainment.
So it's worth asking: what artist worth his salt would self-impose such constraints? Well, lots of artists, actually. Great ones.
My name is John Ford, and I make Westerns. --John Ford, 1950
Lots of gifted artists have been drawn to genre because of its formulaic nature, and many of our greatest artistic treasures are clear expressions of genre inspiration. In fact, many artists routinely hailed as pioneers in their fields - Shakespeare, Cézanne, Virginia Woolf, Miles Davis, Akira Kurosawa - each demonstrated a keen awareness of genre and produced extraordinary work situated well within genre or other formal boundaries. These artists didn't steer clear of genre "limits." They embraced them.
Artists crave freedom, but most quickly learn that limits, even apparently harsh ones, can be more friend than enemy. In 1922, the great Russian director Stanislavski was invited to stage a production in America. He was asked how much rehearsal time he would require. "Six months," was Stanislavski's reply. Startled, the American producer informed him that it would be impossible to host (and pay) a visiting theater company to rehearse for that length of time. "Not a problem," replied Stanislavski, "Give me three weeks." The production was a triumph.
Sometimes a blank slate can be less inviting than a rough outline, especially to an artist who sees opportunity in an apparently moribund genre. When John Ford made Stagecoach in 1939, the Western was seen as a lifeless form mostly aimed at juvenile audiences. The lineage of post-Ford writers and directors drawn to the Western as a template for self-expression - Anthony Mann, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, David Milch - suggests the "dead" Western springs back to life every decade or so whenever an artist comes along to imprint the form with his own personal vision.
Film Noir? I don't know. When I make a picture, I never classify it. I say 'this is a comedy' and I wait until the preview. If they laugh a lot, I say this is comedy ... A 'serious picture' or 'film noir,' I never heard that expression in those days. I just made pictures that I would have liked to see. --Billy Wilder
Sometimes an artist operates within the framework of genre without purposefully doing so. In the case of film noir - a genre with easily recognizable stylistic traits - it's worth noting that the term "film noir" was coined by critics years after these films were made. Noir progenitors like John Huston, Otto Preminger, and Raoul Walsh never arrived on a movie set to "make a noir picture." Rather, their work was inspired by a moral ambiguity brought on by a post-war malaise that found expression in noir form. Genre born from collective artistry, rather than a framework to contain it.
You put funny people in funny costumes and paint them green and we could talk about anything we wanted to, because that was the only thing that fascinated Gene (Roddenberry) about this particular genre. --Majel Barrett, actress/producer, Star Trek
A great paradox of creativity is that a wide-open possibility space can feel paralyzing, while a fixed set of constraints can liberate an artist to make inspired choices. Creative projects that succeed ask the right questions at their formative stages, and often these questions pertain to genre.
That's where video games come in. We read and hear a lot of talk lately about "broken" or "worn-out" genres. At this year's GDC, speaker after speaker bemoaned the state of an industry mired in me-too shooters devoid of new ideas. I don't disagree with that assessment, but the solution often proposed (stop making so many shooters) strikes me as similar to asking an impressionist to stop painting so many blurry trees. The problem isn't the form, but a lack of vision infusing the form with energy and life.
Portal is a landmark game for several important reasons, but perhaps the most overlooked is that it repurposed FPS tropes and mechanics in service of its own cunning aesthetic. The player's "weapon" is a puzzle-solving tool essential for survival, but incapable of killing. Portal redefines the shooter while preserving most of its familiar attributes. Players with FPS skills will feel instantly at home playing Portal, but they will be reoriented to consider their experience differently than previous shooters. That's precisely what great artists do with genre. We see something familiar, but with a new set of eyes.
So why should we care about genre? Because it's a way for creators to communally explore an idea and a shorthand for the audience to help make sense of those new ideas. It's something that stretches across all matter of art forms, from impressionism in painting, to art deco in architecture to neoclassicism in sculpture. Simply, genre is one way design can explore and evolve ideas/styles rapidly. I'm certainly not going to prescribe that it's the only way, but it can be a tremendously effective one. --Nels Anderson, Lead Designer, Mark of the Ninja.
One recent game beautifully illustrates the power of genre to provoke shrewd thinking and artful design: Mark of the Ninja. Better than any game I can think of, MotN distilled the essence of its core genre (stealth), refined its best elements, jettisoned the superficials, and built a devilishly stylish player-centric world.
One (among many) seemingly simple design choice - limiting the consequences for failure - opened possibilities for the designers to be more playful with difficulty and offered players more enticements for experimentation...which led to greater replay value...which provoked more discussion among players...which added a competitive dimension to a solo-play game (especially in my house!). Big results from a deceptively small decision.
I suppose the best thing we can say about Mark of the Ninja is that it's perfectly situated in a tried-and-true game genre, AND that there is no game at all like Mark of the Ninja. Proof, it seems to me, of genre's best nature: boundaries that contain inspiration.
Note: If you'd like to know more about the story behind Mark of the Ninja's design, Nels has graciously shared the transcript and slides from his recent GDC talk. Chris Plante also wrote a feature piece on Klei Games (the studio behind MotN) for Polygon this week, and I highly recommend it.