Genre is such a weird thing. Don’t get me wrong, I totally get why we need it: sometimes things need to be classified so we have an idea of what we’re getting into, and it helps. Knowing that Halo is a first-person shooter lets you know you’re not playing a role-playing game and calling Portal one lets its twist on the nature of the shooting device be its own fun. Calling Brick a mystery/noir elevates the irony of its high school setting. Like punk rock? You’ll like The Clash. Prefer pop punk? Avril Lavigne’s your jam. Genres help you find things, help you know what to expect.
But genres change. The rock music of Jerry Lee Lewis is a far cry from Foo Fighters — to the point where it sometimes feels odd to describe the former as part of the genre as we know it today. Video game genres are almost liquid; a game like Fallout 4 is ostensibly an RPG, with its skill systems and focus on decision-making, but it plays more like a first-person shooter. The adventure genre once made text-based games like Zork and action games meant Pac-Man, but then action-adventure became a genre that encompasses The Legend of Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, and Grand Theft Auto. Marvel’s superhero movies are all superhero movies, but calling Guardians of The Galaxy, Shang-Chi, and Spider-Man: No Way Home the same genre certainly doesn’t feel quite right. Olivia Rodrigo is ostensibly pop music, but her album Sour would feel at home alongside Phoebe Bridger’s Punisher, even though the latter has become something of an indie rock stalwart.
Genre is malleable, both in what counts as what and what each thing means. In an article for the New Yorker about the death of genre, Amanda Petrusich describes genre as “…not a static, immovable idea but a reflection of an audience’s assumptions and wants…” And well it is; if I’m after a rock song I’m after something closer to “Everlong” than “Great Balls of Fire.” If I’m looking for a new adventure game I’m probably thinking of the new Jedi: Survivor and not King’s Quest. It’s not that those older pieces didn’t belong to their old genres, but rather, as Petrusich writes: “As an audience’s assumptions about a genre change, so does the genre itself.”
Yesterday’s shooter game (Space Invaders) is not today’s (Destiny 2). It’s not that Space Invaders was never that genre, but rather that genre has changed and evolved. Linkin Park put rapping in rock music and now that’s allowed. Sergio Leone broke down the Western and now the idea of a happy-go-lucky cowboy feels antithetical.
But genre does still serve a purpose. If a band shows up calling themselves a punk-pop revival I know they just might be worth a listen. An action-adventure roguelike gives me an idea of what to expect when I’m starting a game. Tell me there’s a new space opera romance and I’ll be in the theater. Genres serve as a starting point about what you’re in for, and when we start getting picky about them (spaghetti westerns, open-world third-person shooter rpg, riot grrrl), we know more and more what we’re starting with. Genre means nothing, but genre means everything.