The Container It Goes In

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-06-20 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

It’s Not the Genre, It’s The Originality - Steven Savage

Any game – or media – genre can be made interesting.  My game library has many a fantasy RPG and I delighted in the fantasy-isekai take of the anime The Faraway Paladin.  But these games and media are things that had an edge, a break, something unique.  Just like the razor-raw edges of punk caught the souls of people, I want something to catch me and you can’t do that with blandness.

Reading this made me think about why indie creators sometimes seem to refuse to take risks — why they settle for just creating off-brand versions of the same things that are available in more upscale forms. For lack of a better term, I'll call it the paradox of labeling: what we call something ends up dictating what it should be.

One thing I try to do is decouple how I feel about a genre as a creator vs. how I feel about it as a consumer. For me, when I make things, genres are something I think about after the fact. I come up with the thing first and then try to find a way to associate it with other things, even if that association is necessarily weak and tentative. The only time I said to myself "I'm going to write something in this genre" was when Flight Of The Vajra popped out (the putative label was "space opera"), and for all the fun I had with that story, it still felt guided more by the label than by the deeper impulses that should have been driving it. (Still: it was fun.)

One reason I tend to opt for an action/adventure framework for a lot of what I do is because it's one of the less restrictive labels you can put on something. Most people enjoy a fast-moving story with lots of color, and if you get them involved on the basic level of ooh-and-aah, you can get away with a lot more when they're not looking too hard. Get people to buy a ticket, and once the ticket is punched, they're yours.

Some time ago I poked around in Roger Ebert's Great Movies section, and noted how many of them are superficially genre pictures that claw their way out of their containers. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is nominally a Western, but it is only jacketed in the trappings of a Western; its real subjects are the ways societies grope their way towards civilization, and how the myths of how that happens can be more powerful than, but never a substitute for, the humble and painful truths. Blade Runner is nominally a noir story with dystopian SF trim, but like all the best noir stories it confronts existential questions about the meanings of our lives in a world that is manifestly not interested in such things. Groundhog Day is grandly funny from start to finish, but its greater ambition is to leave us feeling that what all of us deserve is a chance to look within and cultivate the best in us. Le Boucher is nominally a thriller about a cagey multiple murderer, but its real subject is the woman who is ostensibly groomed to be a partner in crime, and yet who seems to be welcoming the chance to feel all that she has never touched in her life. And so on.

We put things into genres to make them sellable, and the best way to do that is after the fact. First, make the thing. Then find out what label to put on it. Sometimes you have to cheat a little. Maybe someday we'll reach a point where we will no longer have to cheat at all.

Tags: Steven Savage creativity creators genres