Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Generic versus Niche

It's hard to be original in this day and age. Established tropes are so pervasive and all-encompassing that escaping their grasp is difficult for developers and writers, and many simply give up instead of trying. Whether it's the standard fantasy setup of humans, dwarves, and elves, or the standard sci-fi setup of humans, "warrior race", and "smart race", developers seem loathe to explore new options outside of familiar genres. Instead, they attempt to subvert or invert existing tropes - our dwarves are different, our elves have new traits, and so on. This ends up being less "original" and more "minor modification that still takes a basic pre-existing concept instead of creating something new".

This is an attempt to escape the idea of being "generic" by creating a setting that differs in some way from what people are used to and carves out a niche for itself. However, this approach is often done in a way that's far too small, failing to make the setting specifically stand out as being independent. The difference between a "generic setting" and a setting that fills a niche is that the former can be swapped and replaced easily, and the latter is absolutely connected to its concepts.

A Major Theme
To start off, a game needs to be designed around a consistent theme and tone, whether it's serious or silly, fantastic or realistic. There needs to be an immediate establishment of mood and an understanding of the way the universe works - whether the brave hero will soundly beat the foul villains and laugh about it, or whether it'll be a grim and gory fight that leaves him exhausted and wounded and them dead and bloodied. It affects the audience's understanding of what to expect and how the universe works in this setting.

However, another important aspect of "theme" is the setting's hook. What is it about the setting that sets it apart? What's the major difference that makes it worth exploring? Here's some examples: The Warp in Warhammer. The Force in Star Wars. Post-Scarcity in Star Trek. The Spice in Dune. Augmentation technology in Deus Ex. Element-bending in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The Immortals in Highlander. Mutants in X-Men. Airships in Skies of Arcadia. The Zone in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

While not all of these ideas are entirely unique in their own right, the way they affect the setting is key. It's not a disposable element. You cannot have the setting without that element. In many settings, on the other hand, the universe could easily exist without a key element. What's Mass Effect without the relays? It's still Space Opera, they'd find some other way to get around in their generic swooping spaceships. What's Halo without the Forerunners? Still basically "humans fighting aliens". What's any given fantasy setting without its primary threat? Basically a recycled view of Tolkien. They're important to the lore and background, but not to the series itself in a meta-sense.

Obviously, there's reasons this happens. Sometimes people just want to mess around with a theme similar to one they've see before and don't want it to be wholly different. Sometimes generic is good or comforting: I don't care to learn a new setting, I just want my elves and dwarves and halflings. On the other hand, these settings are hard to defend in their own right, because they borrow so much from other things. They provide basically the same "service" that a lot of other settings provide, and don't corner the market. You could go to any number of other settings and get the same thing. There has to be either (a) something about the setting that you can't get anywhere else, unless it's copied, or (b) something about the setting that makes it immediately definable and is absolutely essential to the setting.

Design & Style
The way a game's visuals are designed is more important than a lot of people give it credit for. I've discussed this in the past, but suffice to say a game's presentation largely affects the way the audience thinks about it. Design can be absolutely instrumental in making a world or setting more believable, or drawing the audience in with its fantastic nature. No matter what the intention is, artistic direction is a major, important aspect of how a world is perceived.

Of course, as much as people like to suggest that fantasy is basically "medieval Europe with magic", the truth is a bit further off than that. The "standard fantasy visual style" is less based on "actual designs" and more on a cannibalized, recycled concept that relies on fantastic stylization. Yet, despite this, the same "fantastic style" has been reused so many times that it's become generic itself. There's an underlying design that permeates most fantasy series and makes them essentially interchangable - from Warcraft to Dragon Age, from Neverwinter Nights to Oblivion, from D&D to LOTRO, from RIFT to Fable to Guild Wars. It's not realistic enough to take advantage of the benefits realism provides (feeling more tangible and weighty), but it's not really visually distinct or exciting either. It's just another round of "standard fantasy" - there's swords and plate armor and chain armor, but it's neither detailed nor creative.

Of course, standard design isn't limited to fantasy. Sci-Fi has plenty of standardized concepts, from spaceships to aliens to the ubiquitous space marines. Again, I could find plenty of pictures of grey-brick spaceships or sleek speeders or space marines, but the point is pretty clear: artists and designers take a lot of inspiration from each other and recycle these concepts. There's sort of an ongoing theme of "I could easily take stuff from one setting and dump it in another and it would work fine". There's nothing unique about the designs, they're just pre-existing patterns that are altered slightly for the specific universe.

One of the rare fantasy series I can name that hasn't been wholly aped by copycats is Warhammer Fantasy, which is really weird because, in design terms, it's just Renaissance-era stuff combined with the usual mix of Tolkien fantasy. The nature of this design became apparent when Warhammer Online came out, and had a much more cartoonish and exaggerated style (while still using the same basic visual concepts). It didn't feel like Warhammer, because Warhammer is built on grit and tangibility. Even a slight artistic change to the setting made it "not the same". If fantasy was really based on medieval Europe, Warhammer's style would never be considered so distinct or important, and yet there are relatively few competitors in the genre of "Dark Fantasy" (Demon's Souls and Berserk both spring to mind, but lack the high fantasy elements), which makes it unique in some form or another.

A distinct art style can make or break a setting. People remember the "used future" of Star Wars and Aliens versus the "raygun gothic" of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Warhammer 40,000 is undeniably "space fantasy", in contrast to the flashier "space opera" of games like Mass Effect, Metroid, or Halo. The more an aesthetic stands out, the more likely it is that the setting will be visually memorable. It's about supply and demand - if people want power armor and chainsaw swords, they have a different set of options than if they want power armor and generic blaster weapons. It's something that groups the series into one style or another, and putting it in a style with less competitors makes it more memorable.

An Interweaved Setting
One problem that often arises when a new setting is developed is that elements are sort of haphazardly added to it. For example, here's a fantasy world, let's populate it with dwarves and elves and humans. Then let's assign some traits to those races so they're not boring or standard. This means that the same procedure could be done in any other setting - just drag-and-drop those "different dwarves" into a new fantasy setting, and they'd still work. Yes, you can have desert elves, but there's no reason that "desert elves" would be specifically unique to your universe. They're not intrinsically connected to the setting, they just sort of exist in it. There's no sense that they're the way they are because of the setting, but instead they're a fully developed culture dropped into a setting. They exist in their own sense and interact with the setting on the barest possible level.

When I looked at Warhammer 40,000, for example, I noted that the Imperium exists the way it does specifically because of the Warp. It causes the cultural divide between planets, it causes the fervent paranoia that dogs their society, and it necessitates its all-encompassing religious dogma and technological stagnation. Without the Warp, the Imperium doesn't exist. You cannot remove the Imperium from 40k because every single aspect of the Imperium is influenced by the Warp. The same goes for almost every other race in 40k, with the exception of the Tau (who largely ignore it). Along with their differing visual style, this has become a point of contention that makes the Tau one of the rare "easily transferred to another setting" factions in 40k.

Frank Herbert's Dune is a setting that specifically relies on a set of traits to establish its character: it's feudalism in space, people fight with swords because they have personal force fields, spice is used for space travel, and nobody uses computers because of a past uprising. These are the rules of the setting. They are what separates "Dune" from "generic sci-fi". If you took factions or events from Dune and set them in another universe, they wouldn't work, because the nature of the setting has influenced everything within that setting. Everything is interconnected - the universe works the way it does because it's been shaped by events, and everyone within the universe is affected by the way the universe works.

So what would happen if you introduced a faction that used guns and computers and was a reasonable space-democracy? What would that do to the setting? It wouldn't mesh at all, for one thing, and because it doesn't draw upon the background of the concept, it would undo the "unique" nature of the universe. Because it doesn't rely upon the nature of the setting, it would be easy to transfer this new faction into any other fictional universe, because it would be just as out-of-place there as it would be in Dune. It's not custom-tailored for anything, which makes it generic.

There's a few more examples I can think of. Star Trek is based around the idea of a post-scarcity society, so introducing a race like the Ferengi sort of messes with that premise (although they do fulfill the thematic Trek requirement of being a reflection of human nature, so they get a pass). Star Wars is based around a very black-and-white view of good and evil (Jedi and Sith), so taking that out would fundamentally change the nature of the setting. The issue is: "If you took out that concept, would the setting be the same? Would any faction be unchanged, or are they intrinsically connected to the nature of events?"

When something's accused of being "generic", that's generally what's meant: it can fit into any basic genre-standard setting without incident. There's nothing about it that makes it unique to the setting, because it doesn't interact with the setting. So is it impossible to have "new ideas"? No. You just need to work them down to the most basic level of the setting and intrinsically connect them to the history and development of the world. There are plenty of ways to make a race that fits anywhere, but it's actually much harder to make a race that doesn't.

So, To Sum Up:
1) Settings should have an identifiable hook and theme - something that affects every event and inhabitant of the setting and that majorly shapes the nature of the universe.
2) Production styles, whether art, music, or voice, are an important factor in making a setting stand out - far moreso than simply reversing tropes.
3) The important part is that the setting should be memorable and unmistakable. It shouldn't be possible to mistake one setting for another - the setting needs to exist on its own merits by being built from the ground up.
4) If your setting or its components could fit seamlessly into another setting without modifying anything, then it's not going to be memorable or unique for your setting.
5) It's okay to have a "generic" setting - just realize that what you're peddling is the kind of stuff that people can find in hundreds of other games, if that's what they're after.

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