Do we need more genres?

No, but let’s keep this going. Whoever claims to know genres in a clear cut manner when it comes to electronic games lies. This is because as technology evolved, game developers began to mix and match genres with each other to ever growing extent. It’s understandable that the genre count has grown and changed to stupid extents within the last two decades, considering the first two decades of video games were comparatively simpler times. Even then, games like Pac-Man still defy any classical genre definitions and you can still find people using Pac-man as a genre defining naming, because there really isn’t anything good that fits it well. It’s not exactly a puzzle game like Tetris or  exactly an action game like Mario Bros. However, the clever people journalists were in the 1980’s gave birth to maze genre, describing a game where the main play field and game play concentrates around a maze. Pac-Man and its derivatives certainly fit this description aptly, considering it was something new that could not be pulled from pre-existing media.

However, Pac-Man was lucky. Breakout was not as lucky. It has no official genre attached to it. Modern game industry tries to attach arcade as a genre, but that does little to it. Genre, as a term, should be descriptive of the contents. ‘Arcade’ does a poor job at this. There are certainly attempts at making it a convincing genre nowadays, supposedly referring to the shortness and easy to access type of game play, but that is selling actual arcade games short that should fall into this category. Street Fighter or even Tekken are rarely described as arcade anymore, despite them both of them still being very arcade at their roots.

Perhaps the most myriad of genres we got around nowadays is Metroidvania, which means jack shit nothing in terms of description. The user would need the context of the original Metroid games and certain era of Castelvania games to get the reference to. Considering both franchises are pretty much dead in the water, Metroid being thrown into the descriptive garbage bin for the occasional re-use by people who don’t get why Metroid sells in the West but not in Japan, and Castlevania being turned into low-end mobage and pachinko fodder, making the connection a bit dubious for anyone who is not in the know of the two franchises. For someone who has played games at least since the NES days and is familiar with both franchises probably gets the connection, but may also wonder why such a strenious connection is made, considering Castelvania is more about the linear action in its origin. The problem with Metroidvania is of course that is describes the action-adventure genre, but labelled it with a new name for some godforsaken reason, mudding the waters.

Naming genres is required at times, however. While Doom was not the first first-person shooter, it certainly can be argued to be most influential. In its wake we got Doom-clones, which either ran on Id’s engine or a modified version of it. The Dark Forces series started on Jedi Engine, which is said to be a reversed engineered and modified version of Id’s Doom engine. In general, people know what seeing in first person is and what is shooting more than what Doom is like, despite its popularity.

With the late 90’s, developing a new genre for your game was a PR move. Shenmue is, according to its developers, the first game in the F.R.E.E. genre,  Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment, and Mega Man Legends was Free Running RPG. This has continued in some peculiar ways, where the fans pitch new genres either in admiration or mockingly. Walking Simulator has become a thing to use for these adventure games that lack playable elements, though something like Life is Strange is continuation of those girls’ game from the 1990’s thematically and in fashion. That said, girls’ and boys’ games aren’t genres themselves. They’re more about the cultural scenario of the game and its contents, and about the directed audience. As a genre they could be anything.

Still, pitching a new genre or a genre name nowadays is nothing new. Some stick, some don’t. Metroidvania, the new and hot name to describe action-adventure games, has stuck to the extent that it’s slowly, but surely, becoming and industry standard for better or worse. Similarly, Lewis Gordon is trying to pitch a new genre named ‘ambient.’ A game with high ambience supposedly belongs in this genre, first being Breath of the Wild. The problem with this genre is that it describes nothing the game is like, as game genres describe the play, not the visuals or the like, i.e. the action the player engages in. Ambience has been in games since Ultima at latest and are a natural extension of the game’s world rather than the world of the game.

It’s almost as if a pitch like ambient is thrown out when games, or certain games, are tried to be “elevated” from their status as “just” games. The discussion whether or not games are art is tiresome after three decades, and we’re slowly entering a time where that is irrelevant due to the complete mainstream acceptance of the medium, but where we still need to showcase that they’re more than just “games.” As if there was anything wrong in that in the first place, but people have to justify their interests and choices to others still in almost sickly manner.

No, Gordon and his cohorts are missing why BotW was successful. It’s a good action-RPG and is closer to the original Zelda than most other games in the franchise. Unlike with films, music or books, mood, visuals, sounds or the like do not make a genre. As said, it’s the action of the player is required does. Ambience can be part of the game’s play, though that would completely exclude a game like BotW completely.

We don’t need new genres at this point in time. The Red Ocean already uses far too many genre names that it’s becoming a swampland. Just like how games’ core can be distilled back to pure gameplay where needed, genres need to follow the same path and be distilled what they mean atr their core. Simplicity can be complex, but it does not need be incoherent. That leads to things like “ambient.”

Do genres need to be absolutely accurate?

Adventure. That’s a term that encompasses a lot of ground. There are many forms of adventure, as many as there are people. Add action to it, and you have something that people want to hear, see and play.

As a genre, console action adventure games have always been about finding new ways to find your way around a vast map, spotting things you can’t just yet reach until you’ve done some more venturing and action. Without a doubt during that venturing you will face new spots that require you stray from your plan, because there may be something you want to check out or is required. It’s all part of the adventure.

Games like Contra, Mega Man or Castlevania are linear action games, there’s very little venturing done in them. Castlevania Lords of Shadow is in many ways just a direct 3D transition from the classic mould with little adventuring. Perhaps this linearity was that ultimately put people off. While one could argue that Mega Man Legends did the same, it is far more closer to Zelda’s Action RPG genre. The two are not interchangeable, but very close to each other to the extent people making assumptions that Zelda is an action adventure.

Action adventure as a term has been adapted to describe very different kind of games because people like to call their games as adventures. More often than not, the adventure part in this comes from the story they’ve written for the game, which of course is more or less incorrect and doubly so when it comes to console games. The PC adventure games have always been a genre that can easily be contrasted again console action adventures, where fighting is usually minimalistic or does not exist, but the emphasize is on scrounging the rooms and screens, solving puzzles and similar things that the genre is known for. If you’d add the action element there, you’d have a new kind of game, a game like The Legacy of the Wizard or Space Hunter.

The term Metroidvania has been coined by fans to describe two dimensional action adventure games, a term that needs to die out. It’s a term that describes nothing about the genre. In addition, this is largely used by the Western core gamers, who mostly have lost touch with the general public. Doomclone originally was used to describe games similar to Doom, but it soon became apparent that such naming is stupid and the term First Person Shooter, FPS for short, took its place. FPS is such a simple and effective name for a genre. It describes the very core of the gameplay idea, much like how survival horror does. What does a Metroidvania describe? Nothing. It’s a nonsense term from nonsense people.

Metroid was, and still is, one of the most influential action adventure games out there, but it wasn’t the only one developed at the time. While Space Hunter was released a year later, it was in development at the same time with Metroid, a reason why Metroid’s original title couldn’t be used. The original Mugen Senshi Valis was released in the same year as Metroid and while it was more linear than Metroid, it has an unmistakable adventure take on the stage build. Non-linearity is what separates action from action adventure at its core, and during the 80’s European platformers were known for their more non-linear approach than their Japanese and Western counterparts. While Metroid’s position as a game that made the genre a household name with the general public, the genre wasn’t born with it. When asked to describe what sort of game Metroid is, most people will drop the terms action and adventure in some form. Non-linear is another one, and while I personally would call them non-linear action adventure games, that is a bit mouthful to say, not to mention the amount of space it takes.

It’s rather amusing to note that Castlevania; Symphony of the Night was released in the US in 1997. The term Metroidvania was born only after this, and the first mentions of this term that I personally recall date to somewhere early 2000’s. For more than a decade the term action adventure had been used to describe a genre of certain kind of games this then new non-linear Castlevania games and Metroid belonged to. This is, in a way, a showcase of core gamers ignoring the history and rewriting it however they want. Remember how the PlayStation, Saturn and N64 era was called the Third Generation at one point? Both hardcore gamers and the gaming press acted like there existed no game industry before the NES. This is also reflected in people calling the late 90’s as the Golden Age of gaming, despite the term is already used for the era encompassing the from the late 1970’s after the first video game crash up until the second in 1983, when titles like Space Invaders and Pac-Man made immense impact not only on the gaming industry, but also on the culture at large. Atari became the biggest name in the home video game system market as well.

It may make me sound like an old grumpy guy when I’m saying that gamers need to stop for a moment and look at the past. Rewriting history with one’s own notions does not serve anybody. Just like in the sciences, historical accuracy is about speaking the true, not what we want to regard or find as true.

There has been little discussion how accurately video game genres should be noted. If we were to describe all genres as they are listed, then we’d have Shenmue games in the F.R.E.E. category and Mega Man Legends games belong in Free-Running RPG. These are of course nonsensical and should be largely ignored, much like the term Metroidvania should be. Genres in general encompass large scope of different kind of products, much like Horror movies have both comedies and exploitations under its banner, so does action adventure. Being unnecessarily nitpicky about how strictly we divide the genres will only lead to further division down the road, which will at some point end up in a game title becoming a genre. This has almost happened with Metroidvania, but it indeed already happened with Doomclone, from which we luckily got rid of.

Ultimately, genre is a descriptive way of categorising something, and as such we need to use descriptive names to tell customers what it is. To ignore this is nothing but stupidity.