If your mom were to ask you if you wanted to watch a romantic drama with her for Mother’s Day, you would know what to expect. Two hours of relentless languor between two extremely beautiful people in ridiculous outfits, kept apart by a ridiculous social convention, at least one ridiculously sexy scene where one of the beautiful people falls into a lake, or gets shot and has to take off her top, then they get married at the end.
If your dad was asking for a movie night with a bunch of ’80s action flicks, then again, you already know quite a few tropes. Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone attempt to break into a German Mafia-led underground crime network to save their daughter, wife and best friend from a plane crash before the President finds out . And then, in the end, they’re all androids!
However, if your little brother were to ask you to play a first person shooter game with him, all you would know about the game would be the fact that he has guns and those guns are pointed at something. who should probably become dead. In addition, your face is the camera.
Granted, this is a bit of an unfair oversimplification. Genres, both in games and in movies, are used to let audiences know what to expect from something. Without having too many plot elements wasted, a genre can tell you what the goal is, whether it’s finding love, killing baddies, or being chased through a house by ghosts. .
Movie genres tell you how you’re doing to feel, like “horror” or “thriller”, the general setting, like “western” and “historical”, or they tell you what the main character will do, like “action” or “romance”. Video game genres, due to their interactivity, are broadly categorized by what you to do in them, like “platform”, “role play” and “shooter”. Of course, they differ from the way books, movies, and TV are portrayed, because the main difference is that you are the one who Make action in a game, so mechanics are used as the main descriptor.
But, over the decades of the video game industry’s existence, these labels have proven to be less than adequate. New labels have emerged, and some of them are extremely silly, like “metroidvania” and “roguelike”. The former refers to a game with a large map that you can access from the start, with new areas that you can unlock as you progress, and it comes from “Metroid” and “Castlevania”, two games that had systems like this. To clarify: Metroid and Castlevania are both action-adventure games, but their way of doing things was so unique that it became popular enough to warrant a brand new label.
The latter, “roguelike”, is similar: games that typically involve exploring dungeons through procedurally generated levels, progressing each time, but resuming once you die. It’s a label based on the game “Thug“, a 1980 game that pioneered mechanics. We know what roguelikes (and their bastard child, roguelites) are, because we had to learn what they are to find out if we like them. The label, just like “metroidvania”, doesn’t tell us anything per se, and expects some prior knowledge of the industry and its history.
I’m a games reporter, and I have to know all of these silly suitcases to do my job properly. But when I talk about my favorite games, I have absolutely no idea how to describe them because the lexicon of game genres is stunted. For example: I like games like Slay The Spire, with cards that have attacks on them … but I don’t like Foyer. So, solo deck builders? But Slay The Spire is also a roguelike, or maybe a roguelite, so they might just be the ones I like, even though I didn’t really get along with Rogue Legacy, Spelunky, or Dead Cells. So, maybe it’s the strategic elements of Slay The Spire that I enjoy … with the exception of games like Crossed kings and civilization take me out into hives of stress.
Oh, don’t worry. I realize how much of a first world problem that I I can’t quite categorize the games I like. Waaa. But, be honest: Has your brain ever melted a bit at the phrase “massively multiplayer online role-playing game”? Have you ever wrinkled your nose at people using “indie” to mean “cute game created by a small team”, even when that team has an editor? And, be honest now, do you somehow hate the word “healthy” to literally describe any game with dogs in it?
That’s precisely my point, you see. Genres are meant to be useful tools, both for sorting games into boxes for easier decision making, and for talking about games with other people. It’s a linguistic shorthand, just as “car” means “metal box with wheels to go fast” and “shoes” means “cloth box on foot to go slowly”. Cars and shoes come in many different shapes, colors and sizes, but we know what they are; if we need more distinction, we can get into the look, the purpose and even the brand: a red satin ballerina or a blue Toyota Corolla.
When genres are as messy as in games, especially when they are based on names other games, it becomes a tangle of references that don’t tell us much about the game itself. Imagine trying to tell your friend that your shoes were “Converse-likes” or that your car was a “Peugeot Fiat”, and how little that would help to describe these things.
Newer genre names like “indie” and “healthy” exist to convey something that part of the market has decided they like: personal little games, for example, that are relaxing, tender, and sweet, or that have more diversity than you would get in a mainstream game.
But there was a backlash about “healthy” as a label after the Healthy live games was announced this week because everyone wants their work to be subsumed in a label which implies only kindness and gentleness. Many creators, especially those under the LGBTQ + umbrella, felt the label was infantilizing, moralizing, or that he automatically assumed that any work that included themes of marginalization and representation was “healthy”, whatever their content. Other designers were happy to be considered “healthy”, in part because it helped their games get noticed under an attention-grabbing genre label.
The “healthy” debate is just one example of how genres fail for both gamers and developers. Right now, video game genres are a bit of a free market, and no one is quite sure how to navigate them.
The reason we have these labels, and why I constantly use the ugly phrase “Harvest Moon-likes”, is that there is no governing body to create new ones properly. Like all languages, these genre names are sort of bloop out of the brain of a journalist or marketer, and we use them gratefully because we’re so sick of having to describe games in fifteen words.
Oh, Ace Avocado? It’s a, uh, murder mystery supernatural detective fantasy legal drama visual novel adventure. Professor Layton, on the other hand, is an animated visual novel of sci-fi, storytelling adventures, and logic puzzles. Very different. Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright? It’s good, it’s complicated. Stop asking questions.
Imagine trying to build a bridge crossing it, laying planks, walking on them and hoping it will hold. It’s the kinds of games. We all try to make things work as we build them, desperately trying to find useful and descriptive ways to describe games, and because a lot of the people who try to do that are journalists and critics. like me, we end up saying “it’s a bit like this other game”, because our body of knowledge is other games. It’s beyond repair now. We’ve taken it too far, and now we have all these horrible mutant gender names that we have to use, or genre names that the creators either hate or outright reject.
There is no easy fix here, because what’s done is done. We could set up a regulator to crack down on new genres, but would that be fun? People will continue to create their own proprietary mixes of labels, descriptions, and compound words to try and categorize the games they love because humans really, really love to box things. It might just be a starting problem, and it will eventually straighten out. But can I make a request? Stop making me call games “metroidvanias”, please. I feel like a wally.