Ludus Novus 012: Genre Fiction

In this podcast, I discuss digital games genres and how I think they’re silly. They’re arbitrary niches based on a few popular games, and using them to describe games limits the way we think about making and playing games. I discuss the evolution of our genre system, from Crawford in 1984 to the modern overstuffed action adventure, and explain how Madden ’08 and Rainbow Six are in the same genre.


The music for this episode is “Unforgiven” by spinmeister and featuring TheJoe & Kaer Trouz, and is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 license.

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8 thoughts on “Ludus Novus 012: Genre Fiction

  1. I think, even disagreeing with your overall approach (emphasis on story and whatnot), I can show you to be in the wrong here. First, a couple concessions:

    1) In popular usage, genre lables are often inaccurately applied, usually poorly defined (“puzzle games”), and occasionally idiotic (“RPG”).
    2) It is impossible to draw a clear dividing line between genres. The very idea of taxonomy requires some amount of oversimplification (similarly, you can never draw a clear dividing line between one biological species and its evolutionary ancestor). So yes, of course they are artificial.

    That said, the proper response is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater but to use genre labels correctly and show how useful they can be with a little rigor.

    Genres are important because they allow us to compare similar games, and comparison is necessary for evaluation and criticism. But what are we comparing? It is as you say:

    “Action? Sure, that’s a perfectly valid way to describe a game, if you’re describing its gameplay. Action-style gameplay is gameplay that depends upon, reflexes, hand-eye coordination, and perception skills.”

    Excellent. No problem here. This is what genres are all about. But then you almost IMMEDIATELY follow this with:

    “These categories are not really based on anything that is immediately apparent in the play of the game.”

    Wrong! Genre is determined by how the game plays (i.e., the game’s mechanics). Action (reflex tests), puzzle, strategy, and RPG (plot interaction). These are the four broad categories that all subgenres fall into, and they serve as useful shorthand to help us decide how games are similar. When it comes to similarity, you make a couple of mistakes:

    1) Though you’re obviously aware of the distinction, you conflate genre characteristics/definitions with genre conventions/tropes. Conventions can be defied, but not the genres themselves. For example, you can easily avoid D&D-style stats in your dungeon crawlers, if you’re sick of seeing them in other games. But, an FPS cannot “defy” the first-person perspective–if it does, it is simply no longer an FPS.

    2) This is your biggest error, and it all has to do with your statements about Serious Sam vs. Smash TV and Halo vs. Geometry Wars:

    “You run around large open areas … fighting very large numbers of enemies… They’re really very similar.”

    “The basic gameplay is still ‘let’s strategically avoid bullets and deliver our bullets to the enemies,’your main verb is the same, you’re still shooting most of the time, you’re still dealing with prioritization of which enemies to take care of… The gameplay is pretty much identical.

    This is a colossal mistake, and it undermines your entire position. You are saying that because we use the same sorts of phrases when talking about these games, then what is happening in the games must be the same. But you can’t remove the context and still be lazy with your words. You must say, “In Smash TV, you control a small spite on a 2D grid, avoiding other sprites and the small colored dots they shoot towards you. Joysticks are used to move the sprite and to shoot dots back at the other sprites.” “In Serious Sam, you move a virtual camera through a 3D space, aiming the camera to fire at 3D creatures and controlling your camera’s position with the keyboard to dodge attacks.”

    Here’s an even more absurd example:
    Call of Duty 4 is pretty much identical to Rome: Total War because in both games you’re controlling soldiers.”

    Or, how about a real-life analogy:
    “Playing with squirtguns is pretty much identical to dogfighting in a fighter jet. You’re targeting enemies, you’re dodging attacks, you’re moving around.”

    Do you see the problem with this kind of equivalence? All it shows is that casual language is often imprecise and relies on context; it does not support your argument. Imagine that all the graphics in the games mentioned were replaced with gray blobs, and you can see that the actual experience of playing Smash TV is far removed from Serious Sam. The “shooting” and “prioritization” skills do not transfer from one game to another any more than the the muscle memory does. Mechanically, they are quite dissimilar, and the genre labels do an excellent job of concisely stating this.

    The rule systems–the mechanics–of games is what games are all about, and in the end is really the only useful way to describe them. So there should be nothing at all confusing about combining genres, or subgenres, or describing a game as belonging mainly to one one genre but with a borrowed mechanic here or there. But there is no subversion or going “beyond genre.” You simply look at the elements and evaluate them independently. Is the shooting in Deus Ex better than Doom? Is the roleplaying better than Fallout? These are the sorts of comparisons that will lead to fruitful analysis.

    Instead, your “gameplay” comparisons above are really more like thematic flavors. This is the same problem we run into when we try to talk about “sports” as a genre. And you are quite right about Rainbox Six and football, when it comes to this. Yes, planning an assault in R6 is similar to planning a football play. They even share some terminology (e.g. “button hook”). We can imagine two purely strategic games, one for each theme, that only involve the planning stage and play very similarly. But your facetious conclusion (“Rainbow Six is a football game”) misses your own point, because you’ve gone back to theme (football) instead of saying “The planning stage of Rainbow Six is a strategy game, and so is football.” All you’ve shown is that there’s no way to consistently use “sports” or “football” as a genre label, and that thematic flavors are basically window dressing. Sure, they make games more enjoyable, but they’re not helpful categories when it comes to understanding the essence of the games.


    I suppose you would say that this is all very “ludic,” and doesn’t mesh with the apparent emphasis on story that I see on this site. But even when I look at your own words, you are all over the place in your use of “gameplay:”

    You say:
    “When you make a game, you should think about … what’s the sort of gameplay interaction I want.”
    But then:
    “It’s a mistake … to think of genre at any point in that process.”
    And also:
    “If you think of games in terms of these genres instead of how the gameplay works…”
    “The gameplay of [“sports” games] … they’re either going to be action-oriented… or they’re going to be a strategy game.”

    So maybe my misunderstanding hinges on your inclusion of the words “interaction” and “works,” but that’s either muddled terminology or willful obscurantism.

    In any case, genre is, as I said, all about mechanics. So, whenever you try to answer the question, “How will the player interact with my game?” you will be dealing with genres, whether you like it or not. It’s inevitable.

    On this note: there’s one simple thing you could do that would show genre lables to be confining, and that would be to describe a game that truly defies all known genres. Can you think of a mechanic that can’t be described as puzzle-solving, responding to reflex tests, strategizing, or interacting with the plot? I cannot, and I doubt you can either. These are the four main genres (puzzle, action, strategy, RPG) and all games will contain some combination of these elements.

    1. This podcast is over a year old, so I don’t remember exactly what I said in it, and I don’t feel like re-listening right now. That said, I think I have two main points. First, taxonomizing games into genres as we do is not useful for a game developer, game theorist, or game critic. It overlooks important similarities, like those between Serious Sam and Smash TV, and it overlooks important distinctions, like those between (say) Diablo and Planescape Torment, both of which are often called RPGs. Second, the genres typically used are arbitrary and based on the path of games’ evolution rather than useful features.

      On the topic of SS and Smash‘s gameplay, they are almost identical. The interface is different, but if you condense SS into 2D and hook joysticks up to it, it’d feel just like Smash. The added dimension doesn’t change the gameplay; it just complicates it slightly. The same strategies work for each game. There are still waves of enemies that must be eliminated in each area before moving on. And so on. You are conflating interface (how the game events are presented to the player graphically and which controls the player actuates to move the PC) with gameplay or game mechanics (what possible in-game verbs are used to act, and the effect that those verbs have on the simulation).

      “Mechanically, they are quite dissimilar, and the genre labels do an excellent job of concisely stating this.” Leaving aside the specifics of those two games, genre labels do not do a good job of this. Are No One Lives Forever and Half-Life 2 all that mechanically similar? No. NOLF rewards caution, stealth, and clever use of tools, while HL2 rewards reflexes, coordination, and crate-stacking. We say they’re both “FPSes” because the genre’s defined by perspective and the presence of guns. But it would be equally valid to say that NOLF is a “stealth” game like Thief and Beyond Good & Evil and that HL2 is an “action physics” game like Trine.

      Let me try to summarize your argument. You say “Genres are important because… comparison is necessary”, “Genre is determined by… the game’s mechanics”, “The rule systems of games is… really the only useful way to describe them.” First, I think you’re using “genre” to mean “category.” This is a mistake. Genre is, usually, a category defined by a set of conventions. See the Wikipedia article for details. You accuse me of muddled terminology, but you discard the commonly accepted genres — everything from “FPS” to “Action-Adventure” — in favor of four categories that don’t depend on conventions but rather on one specific aspect of games that ignores story, setting, structure, interface, and goals.

      I’m also not sure of your definition of “mechanics.” You say a game’s mechanics can fall into four genres (for which I’ll substitute “categories): puzzle, action, strategy, and RPG. Action is “reflex tests.” That’s a good category of mechanics. Strategy is “strategizing,” which I’ll assume means making careful plans involving resource management. Chess, Starcraft, and so on. Also good. “Puzzle” is where things get fuzzy. You recursively define it as “puzzle-solving.” Is Tetris puzzle-solving ? Is Myst? Is Minesweeper? All of these have been called puzzle games, but the first is reflex-based, the second involves interacting with the plot, and the third has a heavy strategic element. Finally, I have to disagree with your use of the term RPG. You define it as based on “interacting with the plot.” Presumably you mean changing the course of the plot through player action? By this definition, Starfox is an RPG (you choose the path the story takes), Diablo is not (you can’t affect the plot). The Sims is, and Final Fantasy 6 is not. This doesn’t seem like a useful name for your category, and the category itself has nothing to do with mechanics and everything to do with story.

      Genres are empty taxonomy. They’re useful for people wanting to buy games that are similar to games they’ve already played, but not to people trying to discuss the nature of games or to developers trying to make a good game. Let’s compare games by actually comparing them. Discuss things like perspective, mechanics, structure, verbs, and so on, instead of using formulaic genres.

      1. As if the interface was not a very important part of how the game plays! As if you could just “condense” a 3D game into 2D and pretend that you haven’t changed anything significant! But I forgot–Space Invaders is the same as Freespace, because you’re just shooting stuff in space in both of them. An entire spatial dimension isn’t important! The same strategies work in both! Sigh.

        “Are No One Lives Forever and Half-Life 2 all that mechanically similar? No.”

        Are you insane? Most of the time, in both games, you aim at and shoot people via a first person perspective in a 3D environment. “FPS” immediately tells you that HL2 is more similar to NOLF than any other non-FPS game. As for vague labels like “stealth,” I explained very clearly why they are a terrible idea. Space Invaders is the same as Doom is the same as Blade Runner is the same as 100000 other games that have “shooting,” so hey, let’s lump them all together. That is wordplay and sophistry, not intelligent analysis. This is why talking about “verbs” is retarded, because you are using sloppy, imprecise English words like “shoot” that do nothing but obfuscate similarities. Games are a collection of extremely specific rules, not ambiguous English phrases.

        It should be blatantly obvious why playing HL2 and playing NOLF are more similar experiences than HL2 and Trine or whatever 2D physics puzzle game you want to name. Look at the patterns of button presses. Look at the player’s in-game actions. Look to see how quickly someone can pick one up after playing the other.

        And, look–every aspect of a game that is interactive is a mechanic, okay? “Mechanic” just means “the way that the game works.” It is essentially synonymous with “rule,” but since describing a game down to every rule would just be the actual code, we talk about broad mechanics like conversation trees, or grid-based inventories, or combos. “Mechanics” means “all the stuff that isn’t just atmosphere (music, graphical eye candy, backstory, cut scenes).” You can substitute whatever word you want, but it should be clear what I mean. So yes, although “RPG” is about affecting the story, RPG mechanics are things like conversation trees, good/evil story paths, and other “choice & consequences” RULES that tell you HOW the player can interact with the story.

        The four genres are just the ultra-broad categories (you can call them “categories,” if that makes you feel better, since they are obviously a subtype. I don’t know why you’re pointing me to Wikipedia, anyway, since it also says “video game genres are based on the way in which the player interacts with the game.”). It doesn’t stop there–I do not reject FPS or other well-defined subgenres like arena shooter, text adventure, etc. You are right to question the definition of things like “puzzle” and “RPG” (I could give my definition of puzzle, but I doubt you care), but the point is not to run to Wikipedia, for Christ’s sake! You obviously realize that the popular usage is a mess–so rise ABOVE the vapid chatter you find on GameFAQs, in magazines, or in the words of Chris Crawford! Reclaim the terminology and use it consistently.

        If you don’t use genres, you’re just going to end up saying stuff like “kinda like Doom, but…” which is exactly the symptom you think genres cause.

        (comments condensed by editor)

        Also, I would like to hear your response to the last paragraph in my first post.

        1. Do not call people or ideas “retarded” or ask if people are insane on my blog. It’s possible to disagree and discuss issues without using inflammatory or abusive language, or evoking dieties.

          Interface is an important part of a game. However, it is separate from mechanics. Mechanically, SS and Smash TV are very similar; you are moving to avoid hordes of enemies coming from all around you and killing them before they hurt you. SS tracks health and ammo, while Smash doesn’t (if I recall, it’s a one-hit-death), but their gameplay is similar. If you judge by interface, they’re in a different category; if you judge by gameplay, they are very similar.

          Most of the time in NOLF you are not aiming at and shooting people. Again, the interface is similar to HL2, but the gameplay, the game mechanics, are not. Most of the time in NOLF you are crouching in shadows, timing your movement to avoid detection, keeping an eye out for evidence to pick up. Shooting typically only happens as a failure state when you haven’t been sneaky enough. Or rather, that’s my experience. On reflection, I realize that NOLF is set up so that you can play it as a shooter, although I never did, and the other examples I can think of are third-person perspective, which usually get shoved into a different genre. So I don’t have a perfect example there.

          I disagree that mechanics is everything that isn’t just atmosphere (even allowing for our difference of opinion on the importance of story). Control scheme, for example, is not mechanics. Halo for the XBOX and for the PC have identical mechanics, even though they use different control schemes. Perspective is not mechanics. I could take Doom and turn it into a fully-2D top-down game without changing its mechanics.

          You are right that mechanics are about rules. They are only about rules. Mechanics (at least, with the definition I use and is typically used in game design) determine how the player’s actions (not button presses) affect the game world, how the game world changes over time, and how non-story goals are achieved (stay alive, kill enemies, etc.).

          Speed to pick up a game is not a matter of mechanics, in my experience; it’s one of control scheme and visual perspective. My friend was a big fan of Doom, but when FPSes became a bit more complex and added jumping and more verticality, she gave up on them until just recently because the controls were past a complexity threshhold. Even though Quake and Doom have near-identical mechanics, they have different presentations and levels of control complexity.

          Sometimes I use genre terms when they are appropriate, and especially when a game follows a formula closely. Sometimes, it’s more effective to quickly sketch out perspective and a few primary mechanics: side-view shooting platforming game, third-person open-world driving game, and so on.

          Regarding your last paragraph, I suspect you will dismiss some of these as not being games, but here goes. It’s tricky, because as I said before, your categories are not clearly defined. Games that are not reflex-based, puzzle-solving, strategy, or RPG: The Path, Knytt, “The Space Under the Window,” Noby Noby Boy, Katamari Damacy (although that’s borderline action), Passage, “Rameses.” There may be more, but that’s what I came up with off the top of my head. I have a special objection to your definition of “RPG,” which is interacting with the story; that is almost a tautology, as any game that allows a failure state lets you interact with the story. For that reason, I used a more conventional definition of RPG for the above list.

          1. Why are you focusing on my specific word choices instead of the IDEAS? Substitute “flighjlshf” for “mechanics,” if you want; I don’t care. I am talking about HOW THE GAME PLAYS. I am saying that THIS IS WHAT GENRES ARE ABOUT. I am giving you a VERY CLEAR taxonomy that categorizes WAYS THE PLAYER INTERACTS WITH THE GAME.

            This is why perspective, controls, and entire spatial dimensions cannot be ignored. They DEFINE the interaction. A very simple verb like “aiming” simply does not MEAN the same thing in 3D with a first-person camera as it does for 2D-top-down aiming. You say that “mechanics are only about rules,” yet you think you can change Doom to 2D without changing its rules (by the way, if “Quake and Doom have near-identical mechanics,” then you should have no problem smashing Quake down into 2D as well, right? Hope you pick flat levels.)?

            And what you are not getting with the whole “SS and Smash TV are very similar; you are moving to avoid hordes of enemies coming from all around you and killing them before they hurt you” thing is that my way is the ONLY way games can be analyzed.

            But let’s try your way. If I tell you, “In this game, you avoid enemies and kill them before they hurt you,” what have I described? I have given you almost NO useful information about the game. If I use casual language to talk about games like we talk about events in REAL LIFE, I am ignoring the fact that every game is its own little virtual universe into which our usual assumptions do not transfer.

            What does “avoid enemies” MEAN? It means nothing unless you know things like perspective, controls, real-time vs. turn-based, etc. etc. Otherwise your “avoid enemies and kill them” game could be a roguelike, or a 2D platformer, or a 3D flight sim, or freakin’ CHESS.

            Why do you not see how useless a description like that is? Why do you not see that is a bizarre reduction to treat games as collections of the words we might use to talk about them instead of their actual rules?

            Finally: Katamari Damacy is “borderline” action? How can you write that with a straight face. I have played all of those except “Rameses,” and if you want I can explain why none are problematic, but the above issue is too much a sticking point for now.

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