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The Contract


by J. S. Majer
Jul 09,2002



There are two sorts of distinctions in this world; those that matter and those that don't. Of course, when a distinction matters can change depending on your circumstance. For example, the distinction between flower and mushroom matters when picking lovelies for your lovely, the distinction between poisonous and nutritious matters when making food. One distinction is between genre and style. In the big picture, the difference between genre and style does not matter. The terminology has evolved into the way we use it, yet the distinction is not entirely moot.

The concept of this distinction is one that I draw from dalliances with film theory, especially film noir. There are a good number of film theorists out there who will always point out that film noir is not a genre, but a style. It is not a thematic unity between a group of films; it is a way of making a film. To that extent, film noir was only made in a specific period of time. Use color, use the wrong type of camera or film, even failure to have studied under the correct people at the right time in history, and whatever similarities your film bears with film noir are only that, similarities. Perhaps the term neo-noir could be used, but it is not film noir.

Now, I count this sort of argument of the millennial ilk, that the new millennia started in 2001 and not 2000 because there was no year zero. It is a smart ass answer with a point, something that has validity but exists primarily to make the proponents feel intellectually superior because they understand the Real Way things are. In both cases it is a distinction primarily useful for egotism, but the concept still has an edge to it.

The difference between genre and style is the difference between thematic and elemental similarity. Style is the way things look and genre is what goes on. Star Wars is a movie that clearly has a style of science fiction. There are spaceships and aliens, an abundance of technology, and futurism in the sense of what could be. Then again, as the opening makes clear, it all took place a long time ago.

In terms of genre, it would be hard to label Star Wars as science fiction. Admittedly, one must decide on the exact definition of science fiction as a genre to clearly label it, but that primary lack of science involved should mean something. Let us give the tentative definition to Science Fiction as fiction that plays with the possibilities defined by science in its multifaceted forms. Star Wars may look like something that could be, but it is not about what could be, thus it is not Science Fiction.

Of course, when we say to our comrades, "let us play a sci-fi game," we do generally refer to style and not genre. In fact, most games belong to the pulp genre: a small band of super-human heroes, most tarnished or flawed in an interesting way, lead super-human lives in which so much happens, so many awful events mixed with great accomplishments, that they could hardly be called "ordinary."

Horror is the greatest exception to this rule, although it is not quite as much a deviation as it might seem. Horror is much more Aristotelian in concept, more about the pity and terror of bad things happening to average people. Yet I would forward that in role playing games the horror tends to be a rather pulpy version of horror: the individuals involved are set above normal humanity in knowledge or ability, and the corresponding thwack that much more severe. Of course, horror is a good example of the genre-style distinction in its own right, because horror thrives on different styles: science fiction, gangster, and so on. The best horror game is one that does not appear to be a horror game and has a thick enough style to pass off as something else. Then the bodies start to mount.

How does genre and style specifically alter the tone of role playing games? When we buy into a role playing game, that is to say when we enjoy the play of one particular session or campaign of a game over another, we are primarily buying into genre. It is not the look of things but the feel, the themes involved. Each game system is somewhat fixed in style. By having computer hackers and cybernetics a game like Cyberpunk firmly foots itself in a Cyberpunk style. That style can then be taken in different directions by who the characters are, how powerful they are and what sorts of things happen. It does not take the inclusion of vampires to make it a game of horror, but merely toning up the shadowy multi-nationals behind the scenes, making the characters helpless in a horror way (sooner or later, you're going to lose) as opposed to helpless in a cyberpunk way (you can't lose, you can't win, you can't break even, you can only try to get what's yours). A good game is one that gets to the genre the players want to be playing. The most frequent reason gaming groups fall apart (for reasons other than real life that is) is genre arguments, contests over what sort of game people are playing.

It also raises some interesting issues in terms of game design. The greatest thing any one designer can aspire to in order to craft a successful game is to somehow capture either a style or a genre better or more creatively than captured before. Yet Another Fantasy Game Syndrome is something that everyone in this hobby has suffered from once in a while. Who the hell cares if you work out another retooling of orcs and elves? If your style is superior enough, interesting enough, people will care.

The harder route is to try for genre. What makes genre harder is that it is always contextual.

Contextual? Let us look at film noir again (this time assuming that it is a genre). It does not come out of nowhere. It has a basis in other genres. But there are specific reasons why a story told in that fashion made sense for the time. It became popular because it told a story; it encompassed a theme, in a way that made the utmost sense for what was going on. There have been loose and dangerous women in stories before, there have been dark tales or supremely tarnished heroes appearing in tales throughout history. But some people told the right combinations of those elements at the right times to make them supremely relevant, at a time when people could not only enjoy them but needed to hear that sort of story.

Yes, to some extent every new story (or every good new story) is taking a stab at genre to the extent that every story is supposed to make sense and evoke feeling within the reader, listener, watcher, or participant. But a genre gets created when someone manages to nail a zeitgeist on the head, and frequently the way to there is through the redefinition of an older genre. Tolkien redefined the epic saga genre in his books, and this, when it proved to have relevance and meaning to the readers, was copied, forming the genre of fantasy. It was a way of telling a story that made sense to readers at that time.

The paradox here is that genre is founded on style. Neuromancer was written as Science Fiction, and fulfilled the requirements of that genre, but also had a distinctive style. That style became the genre of Cyberpunk. [This is probably where I count the Film Noir argument as wrong: style emulates genre]. So if you want to write a fantasy game, or any game really, you have two choices: either tell the tale in a way that is unsurpassed in beauty or tell it in a way that does not stop at telling the old story in a different way, but in a way that is somehow important to people now. Chances are all you can immediately accomplish is the former, while all you can do is try to accumulate enough vision to pull off the later.

On a playing level the jargon is so hopelessly interspliced as to be mostly irrelevant. However, the notion of particular rule systems has somewhat taken the role of genre. One of genre's main purposes - and I am speaking in general - is to set the rules, to establish what sorts of things do or do not happen. If the mysterious warrior wasn't the King's illegitimate son something would be wrong. Great stories are based upon knowing when to break and when to follow such things. On a more physical level, genre defines whether or when one shot will kill someone. Rule sets will do this as well, plus have a panoply of other alterations in tone and probability. A Hard Science game run with GUPRS is not one run with D20 or Storyteller. So in role playing games the distinction still exists, but has become divvied up in an alternate fashion.

Of course, the fun sorts of arguments come from whether games are true motions in genre, style or neither.

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What do you think?

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