Genre Eats Design

The more I explore MMOs and video games in general, the more I’m struck by how many huge decisions are determined by genre.

Most significantly: most superhero stories actually start in the 2nd act. Don’t get me wrong origin stories are there but a lot of superhero films do it in flashback. The superhero first act is written: hero has traumatic experience that changes him fundamentally, hero decides to use outcome to fight crime, second act begins. The thing I love about CoH is the first act happens in chargen, and the game starts with the 2nd act. The moment chargen is done, you are out there, busting heads and fighting crime as a fully-fledged, back-story complete hero. Partly by game design, partly by genre assumptions. Superheroes don’t need to level, because that’s not part of their genre (much).

Fantasy, in games and literature, has been hoist on the petard of character arc and the Hero’s Journey. It starts with a boy in a village being sent on a quest. This means most fantasy games begin with an old man telling you a story. A cut scene of a bad guy giving you motivation. Even pulp classics like Conan were given backstories in the films. I get it for stories; it makes a familiar arc, but games don’t work that way. We need a backstory for killing shit the same way we need a backstory for Pacman eating white balls. He is the white ball eater. That’s his thing. He is the best at what he does and what he does is EAT WHITE BALLS AND KILL GHOSTS. And he’s all out of white balls.

(This doesn’t have to be dull. Compare the opening scene of Mass Effect 1 to Mass Effect 2. 1 is a briefing about a promotion. 2 is HOLY SHIT THE SHIP IS ON FIRE GET A GUN AND FIGHT TO LIVE.)

In roleplaying, kickers are one way to jump into the action – giving every character SOMETHING HE NEEDS TO DEAL WITH the moment the game starts, but you can achieve the same effect by actually hard-wiring the first act into chargen, and/or the mission into the game’s assumptions. Warhammer, for example, lets you roll the “career you had before you decided to become a psycho for hire”. The career roll provides you with backstory and stats in one fell swoop. This isn’t quite the same as just have a lifepath, of course – because the lifepath is often random and isn’t about an actual first act, but a biography. Those things are different. A first act ends with “and then we fight crime”. And the games I tend to least enjoy are ones where the question arises of “what do we DO?” – because they don’t have a fight crime.

Nobody ever asks what Batman does. Patrol. One of – if not THE – first superhero RPG, Superhero 44, had tables to roll your Patrolling on, kind of like Random Monster Encounters. I think maybe Marvel might have had something similar (old Marvel I mean)? Seems these days we forget that in our RPGs – to their detriment. Mutants and Masterminds is a great system for making a superhero – but it doesn’t encode patrolling into the text ANYWHERE. And yet its default assumptions are comic-book heroes. It’s not like Aberrant where you could make a campaign about being celebrities singers or wrestlers. So there’s no excuse.

I’ll pause here while 99% of gamers have a rant about the bit in the Aberrant Player’s Guide. If you don’t know what I mean, you don’t want to know.

And indeed, a lot of games aren’t about fighting crime. And that’s okay. I just won’t be playing them. I like games like Leverage and Cthulhu instead, where the entire game is written around eating white balls, and there is literally nothing else the system supports. That doesn’t mean it has to be indie or limited, like just about five guys fighting one witch (Mountain Witch) or dealing with one pirate ship (Poison’d); it just means I like certain genres with strong vectors – heists, mysteries, police procedurals. And I like RPGs that learn from those things.

But be careful you don’t learn too much! To bring us full circle, just because fantasy begins with the first act in literature is no reason it should in all games. Likewise, it could be fun to play a Star Wars game that runs on totally different narrative rules to the movies, and an RPG can support that. Some of the best RPGs have that as their virtue – taking a fenced-in narrative world and asking “what happens if we wander around it like it is real?”. And some of the best stories ever come from telling old narratives in new settings or vice versa.

Best example is of course Blade Runner: a classic noir in an SF setting. And I like the title, because it has a clear vector. What does he do? He runs blades. Well, he hunts androids. He’s Buffy the Android Hunter, and it’s RIGHT IN THE TITLE.  We don’t need to know how he became an android hunter.

Skip the first act: it’s not just a good idea for stories, it’s vital for games. And the day fantasy computer games realise this is the day I will actually play them.

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