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As I delved deep insight a dwemer (dwarves in The Elder Scrolls games) ruin in Skyrim, I remember how much I loved exploring the halls full of steam pipes, robots and weird techo-magical devices. Which is weird because the game I finished before that one, Dragon Age: Inquisition (the fourth installment in the Dragon Age series of video games) gave me a completely different vibe when I visited Val Royeaux and everything there clashed with my middle ages vision of the world of Thedas, from the dresses right out of an Elizabethan theater (Elizabeth I that is), to some contraptions that would not look out of place in the Victorian era. Why am I comfortable with the former but find the latter hard to accept?
It is because genre in media is a double edge sword.
For the consumer and the critic, genres help classify, clarify and catalog the media they consume. It is much easier to search for new things to consume based on our previous likes. Just ask Nextflix, or Amazon, or Google, or any other search algorithm/engine. It also tempers our expectations about the media we consume. Science fiction means things like lasers, space travel, psychic powers. Romance means chance encounters in parties, long glances across short distances and characters that simply can’t spit it out (when it comes to feelings, everything else depends on the “heat” level of the story).
But for authors genre can be a straight jacket, inhibiting their imaginations, constricting the possibilities of the plot and shrinking their settings. nf if you stick to genre conventions you risk being seen as someone who merely paints by numbers. So how do you breakout of genre conventions? It is all about foundations. Going back to the example above, I first met the steampunk loving dwarves in Morrowind, they were part of a very weird setting, with dark elves that rode giant floating bugs/crustaceans, lived in homes inspired by sea conchs and whose wizard grew giant hollowed mushrooms which they navigated through levitation spells. The universe of the Elder Scrolls was nothing like what I experience in other fantasy themed stories and therefore my suspension of disbelief did not suffer in the slightest when I plunged into those abandoned ruins. My introduction to Thedas (the setting for Dragon Age) was quite different. While it skewed some genre conventions established by Tolkien, it still showed Bioware’s deep roots in Dungeon & Dragons. It looked, sounded and felt like D&D with as many references to 12th-14th century England as they creators could cram into a single disk. When confronted with their version of fantasy France that looked like something out of the 17th century I half expected the Musketeers to ride past chased by troops loyal to the Cardinal. This did not make Inquisition a bad game, but the clash was there none the less.
Audiences will break out of the genre shoebox if given a fair chance. It is all about the setup.