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When most people think of the word "literature," their minds conjure up images of Shakespearean tragedy, of epic poetry, of large books about white whales and national revolutions, of the Romantics (Byron, Shelley), of the Victorians (Dickens, Eliot), and of modernists (Joyce, Hemingway, Woolf). Unfortunately, most also think of crippling boredom and tweed-clad professor types who talk ad nauseum about the cultural importance of these works and writers in front a group of people who would rather be somewhere else. I've been on all sides of the classroom--a rapt listener, an exhausted teacher, a bored student. This post, however, is not about the canon or instruction of English or American literature. Hell, it's not even about literature (that part is for context), but rather a discussion of genre and how it fits in with current video game trends.
Just as great artists like T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf were writing great works that would greatly influence and define early 20th century art, other writers churned out books as quickly as they could, forsaking linguistic complexity in favor of fast-paced plots, cheap laughs, or easy thrills. This tradition is called "genre writing," and it was often viewed as vulgar and amateurish by the high art literati--but it sold. The genres of mystery, adventure, vaudeville comedy, horror/gothic, and science fiction (still in its infancy) became established, and with them, so did the rules that governed each genre. For adventure, a group of men needed to explore a remote corner of the world, meet the natives, and reify the importance of civilization. In mysteries, the detective investigates his case with mathematical precision and dizzying intellect. A horror story worthy of H.P. Lovecraft needs a blend of psychological terror and supernatural influence. Genre fiction is comfortable, predictable, safe, and, above all else, profitable.
The influence of these generic formulas in the video game scene is more than evident. Gamers no exactly what they're getting into when they pre-order a science fiction, war epic, fantasy, adventure, or horror game. It's a brilliant marketing tool, and it's always effective. Just take a look at a few games' cover art juxtaposed with covers of novels from the same genre:
Here, both covers achieve more in atmosphere than they do in plot--a hallmark of the horror genre. The character on the front of the book cover (presumably the titular count) evokes a threatening, and intensely gothic, feel. The same could be said of the game cover, though a bit more modernized: the source of fear looks directly at the viewer, intensifying the threat of danger. We know what we're getting into when we buy either of these products.