© Written by Rob Ager July 2014




The dominance of genres in video games and especially movies raises some important questions. Each genre carries its own predictable clichés and formula plot structures, thus rendering the resulting stories as somewhat predictable. But is this predictability what gamers and viewers really want? Well, it probably depends upon the individual in the same respect that different gamers / viewers like and dislike particular genres.

Genres are emotional and conceptual ring fences. The action hero is generally not subject to embarrassment or humiliation that would compromise the audience’s tough guy impression of them. Love stories tend to play down in their central characters the selfishness, manipulative tendencies and one-upmanship that naturally form part of all intimate relationships. And sci-fi movies tend to always feature some leap of faith assumption about what science will be one day capable of, while not including many of the normal aspects of life that are not affected by the scientific assumptions of the story. And each story has its own unique musical cliches designed to push the viewer into feeling emotions the story may otherwise not make them feel.

Of course the testing ground for answering whether viewers would respond well to non-genre story telling is to look at how audiences have responded to existing genre-defying content. In an unusual example, The Robert Rodriguez / Quentin Tarantino film From Dusk ‘Til Dawn starts out as a dark humoured action thriller about a pair of outlaw bank robbing brothers on the run. Mid-way through the film they successfully make their escape to Mexico and end up in a night club with a family they’ve taken hostage. At this point the film suddenly shifts genre. The brothers and hostage family are locked in the bar and attacked by hordes of vampires. They spend the rest of the film battling evil and only two characters survive. There was no indication whatsoever in the first half of the film that there was going to be a switch of genre. However the cross over mid-film is made less jarring by the continued macho-action-humour style of dialogue and behaviour. The reception of From Dusk ‘Til Dawn was lukewarm and the film managed to break even financially, but was not a hit. Whether the genre switch factor hampered or aided the film’s reception is difficult to say.


A more successful example is Cabin In The Woods, a movie which takes the traditional horror trappings of slasher horrors like the first two Evil Dead films (the second of which successfully combined gore horror and comedy to became a cult film in its own right) and twists audience expectations by introducing sci-fi plot points. The film also alternates between comedic and serious styles. And in this instance reception was not only more positive than with From Dusk Til Dawn, but the genre mixing style became the film’s main appeal. Audiences were glad to see something unpredictable.


There are other good examples of genre defying movies – Punch Drunk Love (critically acclaimed, but not financially successful), The Big Lebowski (mixed critical reaction, but financially successful and now has a dedicated fanbase), An American Werewolf In London (mixed initial critical reaction, but financially successful and has achieved cult status), and Pan’s Labyrinth (critically acclaimed and financially successful). So it appears that genre-breaking in itself is something audiences generally can take or leave depending on how well executed it is, just as they do with movies that fall within specific genres.

Some genre combinations have also become popular enough that they are now widely accepted in their own right such as sci-fi / horror. And comedy seems to be a genre that interestingly mixes well with almost any other genre, but the kind of mid-film genre shift found in From Dusk Til Dawn is rare.

I believe that the reason comedy mixes well with most other genres is because humour is often derived from conceptual conflicts, or what is more commonly called "irony". Genres themselves are full of irony such as action heroes and superheroes who film makers try to depict "seriously". When the ironies are clearly on display viewers are not fooled and end up finding comedy where none was intended. Intentional humour, when mixed with a genre, serves as a remedial masking device - a way of nudging the audience and letting them know that the film makers are aware of the ironies in the story formula, but are asking the audience to go with it for the escapist enjoyment. This use of comedy to engage a correctly skeptical audience is known as "satire"and generally displays respect for audience intellect.

The reason I raise the issue of genres in this article is because life itself is an ongoing mix of all genres. Fear, excitement, love, confusion and all the other emotional variants can occur in just about any context, yet our fictional stories are most often designed to emphasize a specific emotion to the exclusion of the full spectrum of human experience. Genres are a severe distortion of reality and our individual preferences for them seem to be a reflection of our emotional values. People who enjoy fear will likely enjoy horror films. People who place great value on love and romance will be disinterested and go for love stories and romantic comedies. Would audiences be happy to watch movies that are as emotionally schizophrenic as real life is? Some of us would, including myself, but not all the time. Many people want the unrealistic genre experience in the same way that they choose music that conforms to their most desired emotional states.

As far as I can tell, this generalized attitude to genres also applies in video games, but is twofold. There are story structure genres in games, as in with movies, but there’s slightly more flexibility for game designers to play with story design, being that audiences are more geared toward gameplay genres such as shooters, platformers, sports simulations or puzzle games. But ironically, game narratives are usually not only genre-formula heavy, but are extremely unimaginative within those genres, and perhaps this is simply because stories are less important than gameplay. A game can have an absolutely bog standard predictable storyline, but if the gameplay is original, fun and interesting then gamers are very forgiving.

The predominance of narrative genres as a whole reveals that viewers and gamers do not desire increasing realism.