What is the square root of cheese?

Impossible to answer? How about something easier… What genre is my video game?

This one is a question that often trips me up in my education. I am constantly confronted with genres, like the self-inflicted stereotypes of the video game world. They are a necessary evil and I understand this, but like all stereotypical generalizations, they are sometimes hard to pin down.

The Genres

Let’s start by giving off some broad genres for the video game world: Action, Action-Adventure, Adventure, RPG, Simulation, Strategy. Well, that’s already a bit confusing. We seem to have overlapping definitions and we’ve just started. Let me crack open my copy of Wikipedia here…

Action: “requires players to use quick reflexes, accuracy, and timing to overcome obstacles… tends to have gameplay with emphasis on combat.” It goes on to say subgenres are fighting games, shooters, hack and slash… but also maze games, pinball games, and platform games.

Action-Adventure: “combine elements of their two component genres… tend to focus on exploration and usually involve item gathering, simple puzzle solving, and combat.” Subgenres include stealth games and survival horror games.

Adventure: “requires the player to solve various puzzles by interacting with people or the environment, most often in a non-confrontational way.” Some examples include graphical adventures, visual novels, and interactive movies.

Role-playing: “casts the player in the role of one or more ‘adventurers’ who specialize in specific skill sets… maneuvering these character(s) through an overworld, usually populated with monsters, that allows access to more important game locations, such as towns, dungeons, and castles… statistical character development through the acquisition of experience points.” Types include sandbox rpgs, action role-playing games (oh here we go again with the overlapping), MMORPGs, dungeon crawls, and tactical games.

Simulation: “a diverse super-category of games, generally designed to closely simulate aspects of a real or fictional reality.” Build your own world, live a second life, drive a fake car, etc. Virtual reality would be an appropriate term.

Strategy: “focus on gameplay requiring careful and skillful thinking and planning in order to achieve victory.” You can find them in 4X games (this is a clever one… eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate), artillery, real-time strategy/tactics, tower defense, turn-based strategy/tactics, and wargames.

Impressive array… If you wanted to go further you could describe music games, party games, programming games, puzzle games, sports games, trivia, and digital versions of board games or card games. Sub-genres would get us even deeper…

So what genre is a given video game, and why is genre so important? Let’s do an example, shall we?

Mass Effect

Well, lots of combat there, quick reflexes and action. That makes it an action game… But, there is exploring and item gathering, so maybe it’s action-adventure… There are quests which are merely links to cut scenes, playing out a scene of diplomatic intrigue, that’s adventure gaming… You’ve got an overworld, cities and planets, stats you can modify. So it’s a role-playing game… Not really much in the way of simulation, and there may be strategy to how you fight, but it’s not a strategy game in the real sense of the genre.

So is it an Action-Adventure Role-playing game? Is it even WORTH assigning a genre at this point? What good does that classification do for someone wanting to buy the game? Wait… hold on there just a moment… why do we use genres? Is it really an effort to classify a game? I think maybe the more useful reason for having genres can be taken from the comparison I used in the beginning of this rant. Genres are stereotypes. A person can acquire multiple stereotypes throughout their life, and when that person is referred to by others they do not necessarily wear all those stereotypes at once. Video games can have elements of multiple genres, and the important thing is what genre the player is looking for.

Back to Mass Effect

Mass Effect speaks to my love of role-playing games. I get to build up my character with my choices in the game and travel between planets and cities at will doing my little quests. My son, on the other hand, loves his first person shooters. He skips most of the quests and zips through the storyline, looking for fights. Sometimes, I admit, I get a little help on the fighting scenes from him.

To me, the game is a role-playing game with a few bits of difficult combat. To him, it’s a shooter game with a few bits of annoying storyline. That is the beauty of a game that crosses genres, as it also crosses audiences. Imagine the marketing of a game similar to this…The first ad features the beautiful backdrops, the rich characters and storylines, ranking up in your butt-kissing skill and saving the prince that you’ve chased half-way across the known galaxy. The second ad is an explosion of laser-fire, multitudes of aliens cut down and left in your wake as you strike out across the galaxy to the final confrontation with your arch nemesis. The first ad features a role-playing game, the second an action-adventure game.

Applying a Genre Label

So back to video games in general… How can I go to the store in search of the next awesome role-playing game, when some of them are labeled as shooters? Must I wade through machine gun shells and blood to find that diamond in the rough that provides me with a story that feeds my addiction?

Genre is not so much what the packaging tells you about the game, it’s more of a personal viewpoint on the aspects of the game that the player (you) find valuable. Genre is in the holder of the controller.

Multiple Choice

A good friend of mine (David Turner), when confronted with the draft of this post, went a-ranting about how genres are like a feature checklist. Does it include action? Check. Does it include role-playing? Check. Does it include strategy? Not-so-much.Would this provide us with a more detailed view of the game itself? It would certainly make more sense than saying “It’s an action-adventure game! With elements of strategy portrayed in a role-playingesque manner simulating real reality!”

Do we need a bar chart telling us how much action there is compared to role-playing? At what point are we going into way too much detail, as opposed to not taking enough time to describe our gameplay? What use is genre at that point if every game contains a percentage of every genre? What does this have to do with cheese?

Almost Done, I Promise

Today’s ideas of genre and marketing are so convoluted and dependant on the player that there are no real answers to many of the questions I’ve asked. Sometimes things refuse to be shuffled into pigeon holes. Instead I present you with this:Genre is not a classification, it’s a taste. It’s a palette of flavor that game designers try to combine to create the awesome content players demand. Just like some people prefer sharp cheeses and some prefer sweet, there are a broad range of combinations and choices. So next time you’re shopping for a good game, check out the ingredients and don’t just rely on the broad generalizations.

Also, I was told the square root of cheese is, in fact, milk.