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Shock Genres: (Not) An Essay About Fortnite

Call me behind the curve, and that would be a fair accusation, but the other day I saw some gameplay footage of Fortnite for the first time. It’s a video game, for sure. A hundred of you go from being on a bus to being on a deserted, previously inhabited island, with the intention of killing each other off over time. To keep things moving forward, areas of the map are blocked off over time to limit the size of the arena. For people familiar with the 1999 Japanese novel Battle Royale, it’s easy to see why this type of video game is called a battle royale game.

The original Battle Royale holds a special place in my heart since I like it and it kickstarted a genre that contains many of my other favourite works. The Hunger Games, which is based on Battle Royale, was one of my favourite books in my early teens, because of how brutally it approached the idea of the stratification of society and how you are not immune to propaganda. I also love Danganronpa, which is about …. something. Hope or whatever. I’ve also written on this platform before about my thoughts on how to write killing games, and I had a lot more to say on the topic, which is how I ended up here.

The early works in the genre relied on the inherent shock value of killing games, which is also why they feature children so heavily. Battle Royale was deeply controversial when it came out in both book and movie form for its extreme depictions of violence and sexuality, especially in relation to children. By the time The Hunger Games achieved mainstream popularity in the west a few years later, the idea of a killing game with kids had lost a little of its punch, but was still an effective setup for conveying a message because of how disturbing and extreme the concept was. These stories portray a killing game as a fucked up and inherently traumatising event. The point I want to make is that by the time of the release of Fortnite, the genre had been diluted enough that participating in the killing game and having a bit of a romp while duking it out against dozens of other people was, by then, a desirable and fun thing. Contrast this with The Hunger Games, where the fact that the corrupt and authoritarian society views the killing game as a hardcore party is deeply disturbing.

This isn’t me trying to write an essay about how we live in a society. What I’m trying to say is that the genre began because the idea of children in a killing game started out as so shocking that the original work of fiction is still being censored or banned to this day, while the battle royale genre of video games is gleefully expanding by the minute. So, the genre went from shocking and unique, to not shocking, due to how commonplace it has become. I’m going to invent a name for a genre that goes from singular to common in this fashion: a shock genre. See, I used the word ‘shocking’ lots before in order to build to this.

Back in the day, this was peak controversy.

A shock genre is a genre of fiction that stems from a desire to subvert expectations of or shock on consumers of another genre. Shock genres exist in opposition to an already extant genre, to comment upon it or make a point. The battle royale genre started out by taking a lot of young adult tropes, including the type of character archetypes and interactions that were commonly seen in this genre, in order to make points about the way our society treats youngsters and views violence. The original Battle Royale was making a point about how the yearly cull of children was a tool used by an authoritarian government as a method of controlling their population through fear. It worked because the concept was so horrifying and unimaginable that this new genre had a substantial weight of shock behind it.

Over time, as the genre was expanded, the shock value wore off, and with it the sharp edge that could be used for commentary. The original works were commenting on another genre, like I said, but once enough works existed within the battle royale genre, it became a thing on its own rather than one that existed relative to another genre. I could argue that the mainstreaming of this genre, where it is no longer commenting on its own content (depicting violence but also using that violence within the story to make a political point) is the death of the significance of this genre. It’s now just some violent shit that only differs from other violent genres by structure, rather than by themes or content. Arena-style videogames in this genre are of course the peak example simply because they have no plot or overarching meaning and are basically the thing that the original stories were critiquing. 

The battle royale genre isn’t the only example of a shock genre I’ve thought of. Another good one is dark magical girl stories. Traditionally, magical girl stories were a peppy, upbeat genre intended for young girls, but the introduction of Puella Magi Madoka Magica represented a counterpoint, because this dark, analytical work of fiction featured heavy violence and bleak storylines to tear apart conventions existing in the magical girl genre. It was a shock genre because it ran counter to the existing literary conventions of the genre. However, many more works along the lines of dark magical girl plotlines followed it, many of which lacked the thoughtful edge of the original story. My example is Magical Girl Site – another magical girl show that came out in 2013 – which, to be honest, is just torture porn involving young women. I tried watching it and had to stop because it felt more like voyeurism of suffering than like a thoughtful story about what the kids of today are going through. In fact, it’s pretty rare these days to find a take on magical girls that doesn’t integrate edginess, since the proliferation of the shock genre has had a rippling effect on the original genre.

Look at them, all happy and having fun.

The last shock genre I’m going to talk about here is one that’s so redundant that producing works in this genre would be in poor taste. School shooting stories. The two works I would point to as being well-known examples of this genre are Heathers, released in 1988, and If…., released in 1968. Both stories feature outrageous and violent activity taking place at a school, and If…. is one of my favourite movies for how it dryly satirises British society. The original genre is high school stories, which have been popular pretty consistently since about halfway through the 20th century, when youth culture became a whole thing. The school shooting genres depict outlandish levels of violence occurring at a school because the idea of something like this actually happening was so unbelievable that it made a good tool for discussing how we live in a society. Today, obviously, it’s cruelly believable, and this genre doesn’t really exist. Stories about school shootings exist, but they’re about dealing with a fucked up reality, not about making a point using an absurd context, which is very depressing. 

So like I said, this is not an essay about Fortnite, or really about any specific work. This is an essay about how genres that intentionally cross a line in order to make a point or discuss a theme often become normalised and accepted. If people make a lot of content for a subversive genre, the genre runs the risk of escaping the bounds of subversion and just becoming a regular old genre. Not the hottest take, admittedly, but something worth thinking about for those who like to peruse the weird and edgy side of things. Shock genres are an interesting example of societal norms and expectations shifting over time, and they raise a lot of questions about the kind of effect that fiction can have on a culture. We went from horror and banning of Battle Royale to having them become fun games mostly populated by kids in a relatively short period of time. What other types of stories might make this shift in the future?

Food for thought.


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