Creating Within a Genre

Shot from Curse of Monkey Island

In the past, I’ve railed against the uselessness of game genres. They’re restrictive and arbitrary categorizations of games, and lead to design decisions being made according to convention rather than the needs of the game. However, sometimes a game is produced that depends wholly on the genre, doing nothing innovative, yet succeeds at being a stellar game in its own right. One of these games is The Curse of Monkey Island.

The Curse of Monkey Island is the third game in the Monkey Island series of graphical adventure games. It uses the SCUMM engine, created for Maniac Mansion and steadily upgraded and streamlined throughout a wide array of LucasArts games. As far as the gameplay is concerned, Curse does nothing new. The interface is essentially identical to Full Throttle‘s with only a cursory reskinning, and the game’s setting, characters, and structure are cribbed directly from earlier Monkey Island games. The story is new, but not at all revolutionary, and the only slightly innovative thing in the game is the availability of multiple difficulty settings, uncommon in the graphical adventure genre.

Where Curse shines, however, is in its polish. The animated artwork is expressive, distinctive, and colorful, and the music is among the best you’ll find in digital games. The voice acting is top-notch, and the writing is quite funny if you like the LucasArts self-referential style. Even the puzzle design has some pleasantly clever surprises. It’s as if the amount of time the developers saved by using a tried-and-true game model was used to refine and perfect the game’s content.

This is what I expect from a genre game, really. There’s a lot of effort involved in ferreting out engaging gameplay and making a decent structure for the player’s progression. If a developer bypasses that by just imitating another game, then the rest of the game — the art direction, the world design, and the other bells and whistles that distinguish War of Attrition II from Overture of Battle: Normandy — should be top-notch.

There’s a lot of talk about innovation in games, and the games that get the most critical acclaim are usually those that are aggressively new and different. I’m sure that there are lots of games out there that are great, but not at all unique. What’s an example of a game you find excellent, but doesn’t do anything truly new beyond its genre conventions? Leave me a comment.

2 thoughts on “Creating Within a Genre

  1. It’s a pretty hard question…COMI is a very good example (probably because the genre of point-and-click adventure games can only really be ‘innovated’ so much, rather like IF engines).

    I think that ‘Metroid Prime 3: Corruption’ is a pretty good candidate in that it doesn’t bring anything new to the “Metroid” series that wasn’t already introduced in 1 and 2, aside from the different control input and the “corruption” bar (itself a refinement of a boss mechanic in the original Metroid Prime). The graphics are better, the story is fleshed out a little more, the pacing and level design of the game has clearly been better thought through (a minimum of long, long treks back and forth; plenty of areas which change as you advance though the game) and the layout is a lot more intuitive (I actually managed to get 100 % item completion without having to resort to an online guide, partly thanks to the map feature which tells you roughly where upgrades should be).

    I have to say, I really enjoyed it – and, after my experience with 2, I didn’t think that I was going to.

  2. I pretty much agree with you. Genres are a convention that people use to quickly categorize something. When I think in taxonomies, I often find myself feeling that it’s applying a reductionist label.

    However I don’t think the bulk of the problem with genres, lies in the genres themselves, but in some sort of western cultural imperative. Since the romanticism in late 18th century, overthrowing previous models and being orginal has gained focus in many of the human activities (science, art, entertainment, etc.). There’s this idea of “breakthrough” and “innovation” that generates an impressive amount of pressure among people.

    I’m not saying by any means that these ideas are wrong, but genres all in all are some kind of “average”. There’s so much innovation, if everybody designs portal, or braid, these two games wouldn’t be consider innovative at all. Not everyone will be a rock star developer so gifted that will create game after game blowing minds around the globe with their powerful and innovative gameplay mechanics or whatever.
    1) Innovation -or at least trying it- it’s good. Hell it’s excellent! Maybe an idea didn’t work, or a project fails to launch, or maybe it’s a hit but please, please…
    2) GAMEPLAY is what makes a game. Great games can still be done with no trace of innovation at all. Think La-Mulana; Cave Story isn’t all that original after all. Super Mario World is a refinement of existing mechanics.
    3) I can not stress this enough, innovation is good. But I’d -and maybe it’s me- rather play an average game that is fun, than some game that for some reason couldn’t pull it off and ended up broken. I remember reading somewhere in the net that innovation is what we call a new gameplay mechanic that actually works, and a gimmick is what we call it when it doesn’t.
    4) Finally, average is not mediocracy. COMI is an average game, just as Enclosure is. The same could be said about Starcraft 2. But the polish that went into these titles adds up to create an excellent and fun experience

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