What’s in a genre?
Here at The Escapist, we’ve gone around and around on the subject of genre classifications. Sure, they can often be an arbitrary label applied to a piece of art simply for the sake of knowing what shelf to put it on at the store, and, as such, kind of demeaning. We like to think that games are more than the sum of their parts, and therefore, to a large extent, hard to classify. Some of our favorite games can be considered a mélange of different classic game genres combined in such a way as to create a holistic experience that rises above its genre classification. In fact, some of our older favorites seem to have been created without any particular genre in mind at all.
And yet, when it comes right down to it, our brand of games journalism is largely aimed at helping you decide how to spend your hard-earned money. Our approach to reviews is, after all, not based on some self-indulgent “games are art” philosophy; it’s based on helping you decide what to buy. Although we do believe games are art, we also know they’re expensive and that having some experience of playing the game before you buy it (even if that experience is gleaned vicariously through our review) is a good thing.
Viewed in that light, genre classifications can be a useful tool. Sure they may be a label, but sometimes labels are a good thing. Without a label, a jar of water looks very similar to a jar of bleach. Knowing the difference is pretty important. If genre classifications help you get your head around what a game may bring to the table before you plop your money down and are stuck with it, then they’re a good thing. Period.
That’s why we’re proud to introduce The Escapist‘s very first official genre classification chart. In true The Escapist style, we weren’t quite content with taking what was already out there and calling it our own. The industry’s current genre definitions begin by focusing on the external form of a game. If a game has guns, for instance, it’s called a shooter. We wanted to get past these superficial impressions and discover what’s at the foundation of each gaming experience.
So we decided to start from the beginning and build our classification system from scratch, trusting that, if we were doing it right, we would eventually discover a more proper context for the existing genres (shooter, strategy, action). We decided to approach the process as if we were having to re-create it from the inside out, applying our own logic and reasoning and building a system we could be proud of and that we felt confident would say as much about us, as gamers, as it would about the games themselves.
The resulting chart is the product of months of internal debate, frequent revision and external research. We wanted to present a genre classification system that started with the basic fundamentals of play – how the games work, what they ask of you in playing them – and worked outward from there to the eventual classification of each game. We wanted to both be able to know for ourselves and point out to you why a game could be classified a certain way, and what it means when we put a collection of games, which may not appear to be similar at first glance, together in one lump.
We started with what we believe to be the two main types of play: Action and Strategy. (If you subscribe to the theory that all games are wargames, then you could call these divisions “tactical” and “strategic.”) What is the difference between Action and Strategy? Well, in an Action game, you are in direct control. In other words, you are your avatar and its success depends on your own abilities to respond to challenges and reach your goals. Your perspective and attention are tightly focused on your interactions with this one avatar. You are directly influencing what’s happening on the screen. You are attempting to solve a tactical problem: how to get your character from one end of the screen to the other, for example.
A Strategy game, on the other hand, calls for a more distant point of view. You may still be focused on a single avatar, but you don’t inhabit it the way you would in an Action game. Meeting the challenges of the game is based more on what the avatar or avatars can do than on any physical ability of the player. Success in strategy games depends more on your decisions and less on your reflexes. You frequently are attempting to juggle multiple inputs and are often indirectly influencing what happens on-screen..
Strategy games are large, cerebral, and academic. Action games are immediate, smaller in scale and more visceral. One is contemplative, the other reactionary. Utilizing these two divisions, we felt we could move forward and further classify the experience of play.
Yet if every game is either an Action or a Strategy game at its core, then what to make of both types frequently featuring similar modes of play? Combat, or “Conflict” features prominently in strategy games, many of which are in fact wargames, but Conflict is also a prominent feature of many games that would be considered Action games. Conflict here merely means that the primary challenge in a game is presented by other similarly powered avatars. We contrast that with games of “Exploration,” where the primary challenge is merely surviving or traversing the environment itself. Now the environment in this case may be defined as a physical space, as in a game like Sonic, or it may simply be a story, as in many adventure games.
Pondering this and many other seeming contradictions, we came to the conclusion that our genre classification system needed two axes: One for Action and Strategy and one for Exploration and Conflict. Which genre any one game would fit into would depend largely upon how far along any of these axes it fell; how much of each component, in other words, it contained. All games are either Action- or Strategy-based, and all games feature either a focus on Exploration or Conflict, or some combination thereof. By boiling an individual game down to its core components in this way, we were able to gain a better understanding of why some games feel similar to others and others feel radically different from one another.
You find, for instance, that this system places sports games between fighting and real-time strategy games. If you consider that football games combine reflex-oriented direct competition between avatars with the pre-planning of strategies for AI-controlled competitors, it makes sense that Madden offers common ground between otherwise unrelated games like Soul Calibur and StarCraft. Similarly, because games like Super Mario Bros. and Dance Dance Revolution each test a player’s physical reflexes and ability to navigate through obstacles, we’ve found they have more in common, at their foundation, than other games that might look more alike on the surface.
But our genre classification system goes a little further than that. In addition to allowing one to easily and consistently classify a game as belonging to a certain genre, it can also give gamers some level of insight into the kinds of games they might enjoy, and why. We’ve even found, in informal testing here at The Escapist, that our genre classification wheel presents a sort of complementary associative correlation, in that if one, say, is a fan of many Strategy/Conflict/Exploration games, then one will probably also enjoy Action/Conflict/Exploration games, as well. Similar to how colors on opposite sides of a color wheel are considered “complementary,” so, too, do the game genre classifications seem to be.
Let’s take an example. Games like Dragon Age and Grand Theft Auto may seem to be very dissimilar. Under our scheme, however, we find similarities in the way the player interacts with the games. Both feature strong conflict elements, where the player is in direct competition with other similar avatars, and they also each feature strong exploration elements, both for the physical space of the world and the story’s narrative content. Where they differ is that GTA has an action focus that puts the burden of achievement on the player’s own abilities and Dragon Age has a strategy focus that bases success on what the avatar is able to do. If you like Dragon Age primarily because of its synthesis of Conflict/Exploration, you probably would also like GTA. If, on the other hand, you like Dragon Age because of the strong Strategy element, you’d find yourself more likely to drift towards titles that share the strategy focus but shift away from the even balance of Conflict or Exploration.
As you can see, the end result is that our genre classification system contains many of the game genres with which you may already be familiar – even starting from square one, we felt it would have been pointless for us to radically change the commonly accepted labels for most genres. The point of having genres is to encourage understanding and clear communication, so we found it more useful to place those already familiar terms in their proper context. So while we’re using many of the same terms you may already know, the core of our system is something radically new: A genre classification wheel similar to those used by some of the most famous and widely-regarded personality tests. We have, in effect, broken down the seemingly vast ocean of possible game genres into eight basic game types. These are:
We hope this system is flexible enough to accommodate whatever new genres developers create for us in the future. We also hope it serves as a foundation for interpretation and discussion of what games mean, both to us as individual gamers and to the industry at large. So take a look at the wheel and see where your own tastes lie. Are you firmly committed to titles at one end of either axis? Or do you find yourself captivated by games that synthesize two competing play styles?
Feel free to let us know what you think in the comments section.
Russ Pitts is the Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist. Steve Butts is managing editor of The Escapist. His favorite genre is “games that are fun.”