Why “action” and “adventure” are bad titles for video-game genres?

ZeldaGenres are important for video-games, just as important as they are to novels and movies. Unfortunately a genre is not always as clearly defined by in video-games as they are with books and films. The main issue is that there is no authoritative body within the video-gaming community who defines what is a platform game, a role-playing game or a puzzle game. Literature and film do, they are the critics and individuals who write about them, review them and make extensive bodies of text that get referenced back to by the next wave of critics and individuals. Video-games simply don’t have that. Books have been written on them, but they are not well-known, widely translated or referenced enough to attract the attention of a layman-gamer.

And yet, genres are important. Why? Because in order to make any sort of comprehensive evaluation of a game (be it an essay, article or review) one needs a common frame of reference. It would be ludicrous to make a statement such as “Sonic the Hedgehog is much better a game than Tetris” simply because Sonic is a platformer and Tetris is a puzzle game, and there simply aren’t any comparable elements between the two. I find it even more funny (though not surprising) that the most clueless people of all when it comes to genre definition are gamers themselves. Sure, the inattentive and biased game critic may slip up every now and again, but gamers are consistently confused. And not just the proverbial “casual crowd”, that “true” and “hardcore” gamers are always blathering on about.

Too many people don’t appear to know, appreciate or care about the subtle differences between genres, even though the attributes for them might be pretty obvious. Just ask yourself if you really know the difference between an adventure game, an RPG or a puzzle game? Do you know the difference between an FPS, third-person shooter or survival horror title? Or just plain horror and survival horror? The major issue here is that unlike with films or novels, a video-game genre is not defined simply by the milieu and story/plot of the game but also by what the gamer is actually doing when he plays the game. Another issue is that for all games it’s simply not that clear-cut. A platformer may have a driving stage in it, yet no-one in their right mind would call it a driving game. Doom 3 had monsters hiding in dark corridors, waiting to jump at an unsuspecting player character. Is it a survival horror title? No. A horror title? Yes – but clearly a First Person Shooter when you look at the gameplay.

What about a game that combines running around, driving, flying, boating, shooting and a cinematically represented storyline. In 2000 no-one could give me an answer for what genre the Grand Theft Auto games were supposed to represent. The closest I would have dared was to guess was “action”, but a few years down the line they (meaning gamers and critics) came up with a name: Sandbox. Works for me I guess.

The most classic example of genre confusion can be found when discussing Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda franchise. Even though it’s been denounced by fans of the games for many years now, people still get confused and think that Zelda is a role-playing game. Now to be fair, the fantasy milieu of the Zelda games may be the main cause for the confusion – but it’s not like there are no fantasy games out there that aren’t RPGs. Another reason for the confusion is that Zelda originated around the time when computer and console RPGs were first emerging and definitely Nintendo has borrowed elements from those games – but Zelda is still so many steps removed to be even considered a light RPG, nevermind a full-fledged one, that it’s hard for me to believe that people still make the mistake.

The game unfortunately falls into a niche between genres by not having enough attributes to classify into any one specific genre but instead relying on its own and (somewhat) unique set of attributes to stand out. What Zelda is, specifically, is a plot-driven, fantasy-oriented combat-heavy action game with elements of puzzle solving. Now the only genre name that Zelda would comfortably fit under is action since the only requirement is that the game features the player character engaging in “action of some kind”. But it’s definitely a bad classification since action is just an umbrella term which includes all and more of the following: platformers, shoot-em-ups (both side-scroller and “schmups”), beat-em-ups, fighting games etc. Therefore we come to the conclusion that Zelda classifies as action simply because it’s a vague enough a term to encompass anything within the Zelda games.

Alternatively I find people making another mistake by assuming “adventure games” is a generic term when in fact it’s a specific term. This one gets thrown around a lot because the main-problem here is that 90% of the people who use it have never actually played an adventure game. What an adventure game actually is: “A plot-driven game where the player advances through the use of dialogue and puzzle solving without the requirement of the game to have any action-sequences in it.” Games like LucasArts’ Monkey Island titles, Revolution Software’s Broken Sword games, Sierra-Online’s Quest-titles, Larrys and Gabriel Knights are all universally recognised as representing this particular genre.

And yet games that are absolutely not adventure games, even by the loosest definition of the term, get lumped in with them. Most frequently I see the term misappropriated for platform games that have opening cinematics of some kind (and often misleads people into thinking that it constitutes a plot or a storyline within the game) but the same happens with other genres from time to time. As mentioned above, the problem stems from the fact that “adventure” sounds generic when in fact its a specific genre. Proving further how clueless people are, actual adventure games frequently get classified as puzzle games, which without going into too much detail are titles like Tetris, Dr. Mario, Bejewelled, Panel de Pon, Puzzle Bubble etc.

The root of the problem is perhaps that so many genre titles aren’t descriptive or very accurate at all. There may be a need to come up with better terms for classifying various types of games. Those who think that genres don’t matter however, I’ll remind you of the aforementioned “Sonic is a better game than Tetris” statement because without a genre to tell those games apart we wouldn’t see how preposterously stupid that claim would be. Of course, I’m not denying there aren’t people out there who genuinely believe that – I’m merely pointing out that the comparison is pointless.

Some terminology

Adventure game = A game with a central narrative/story-line which the player advances through  as a character within the adventure. These types of games’ main attributes includes inventory collecting, solving puzzles where the player has to utilized collected items as well as talking to people within the game in order to get clues and key information that helps to advance the story.

Fighting games = Typically one-on-one games where two characters fight a predetermined set of rounds in order to knock each other out or kill them (Mortal Kombat). The characters typically have a health-bar which represents how much the character needs to be assaulted before he is knocked out. Fighting games can also be side-scrolling beat-em-ups where a single character takes on numerous opponents in order to advance to the end of a level.

First Person Shooter (FPS) = A game depicted from the view-point of the player character who must use a wide variety of weapons to destroy enemies to either advance to the end of a level or accomplish some other task within the game. First Person view-points are used in other games as well, FPSs are set apart from them by the explicit emphasis on shooting.

Platformer = An action game where the player controls a character who must pass levels by either reaching their end, collecting certain items or by accomplishing other goals within a level or a stage. The term comes from floating platforms that the player is required to jump with great accuracy in order to navigate through some but not all levels.

Puzzle Game = A game taking place within a single-screen where objects need to be manipulated in order to achieve certain specific goal and clear the screen of certain or all objects or material. Tetris is a classic example where the player manipulates shapes made of four squares to form rows that disappear upon completion – although the game has no goal beyond keeping the screen clear and from filling up with blocks all the way to the top.

Real Time Strategy (RTS) – A military game genre based around the strategic building of units that engage in automated combat with other armed groups. Often divided into scenarios where the player’s essential task is the annihilation of the opposing force’s buildings or head-quarter, but also potentially another goal. The genre name differentiates it from other tactical combat games with the actions occurring in real time as opposed to being turn based.

Role-playing game (RPG) – A game with or without a central storyline where the player creates or assumes a character who is developed through a statistics (stats) system where the individual attributes of the character improve upon completing certain tasks which accumulates experience points. The stats-system function differently according to certain choices within the game. Typically the player is free to explore the game world and take on assignments or quests that help build up experience and stats. RPGs with a central storyline often have primary quests which advance the story upon completion, leading to the coining of the term “side-quest” for all assignments that increase and improve player stats but don’t advance the story.

Shooters = A general term describing all and any games that involve shooting:

  • FPS = see above
  • Side-scolling shooter / Platform shooter = a game with an independent character who wields a fire-arm. Often considered a sub-genre of platformers
  • Shoot-em-ups (Schmups) = A game where the player controls a space-ship from a side-angle (to differentiate from flight games and simulators) in an automatically advancing level with the primary goal of destroying most if not all enemies encountered.
  • Third Person Shooter = a 3D game with an emphasis on shooting enemies, shown from an external viewpoint. Term is used to differentiate it from First Person Shooters.

Sports games = Games depicting actual or fictitious sports, mimicking the real life rules (and physics) of them to the best of the game’s or system’s capabilities. These include: football (both American and Associate) games, baseball games, ice hockey games, olympic games, driving/racing games etc.