What’s in a Video Game Genre? – Making Sense of Video Game Genres

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The other day, while I was driving back home from work, I reminisced on a discussion with a childhood friend. The topic was about video game genres, mainly if The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was considered an RPG or Role-Playing Game. He argued that it was, while I protested that it wasn’t. I remember the argument got heated and, in hindsight, was a silly thing as a whole to get angry over. Fast-forward to today; I started thinking about that argument since I do see people confirm that they believe the same thing. My mind then began thinking about video game genres and what qualifies them to a specific type. With that dear reader, I ask: What’s in a video game genre?

What qualifies a game to a genre?

Some people might be thinking: “This is idiotic! It’s obvious what game goes in which genre!” While it is true that if I were to claim that Super Mario Bros. 2, for example, was a platformer, I doubt that I would get much push-back. There are games, however, that are less obvious than one might think. Let’s take the aforementioned Ocarina of Time. I’m a firm believer that, except for Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link, The Legend of Zelda games are adventure games since the whole point of the game is to roam around the world in search of dungeons, secrets, and powerful items. Where I previously had umbrage with the claim that they were all RPGs was the fact that the Zelda games are, for the most part, devoid of significant character building or statistic management (like Final Fantasy). 

However, if we look at RPG’s acronym, being Role-Playing Game, the player indeed takes on the role of Link on his quest to save Hyrule, thus fitting the literal definition of a Role-Playing game. This line of thinking brought me to the question of what qualifies a game to a genre and, coincidentally, the idea for this article.

Can some games be a genre?

On the topic of game genres, I started noticing that some people (myself especially) refer to some game genres by how similar they are to other games. If I were to take Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (SotN for short), it is known as a “Metroidvania.” It is a Castlevania game that took a lot of inspiration from the Metroid games. The player would explore Dracula’s castle for secrets, items, power-ups, get blocked off by unreachable platforms needing an item or skill, all in the same vein as Metroid, hence the name “Metroidvania”.

Where I found myself surprised is that some people have issues with the term “Metroidvania” claiming it isn’t a real genre because it’s just two games jumbled together into a word. In that case, I would like to pose a question. I referred to Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night as a “Metroidvania” (the director of SotN even spearheaded it). If we remove the term Metroidvania from the gaming lexicon, what genre do we place Bloodstained? We could qualify it as a platformer since there is a lot of platforming, but exploring the castle for things is the whole point of Bloodstained. So is Bloodstained a platforming-adventure game? I suppose we could, but character statistics and weapon choice also play a significant factor in Bloodstained, so is it an RPG? This, I believe, is why the term Metroidvania exists, since it adequately describes what to expect of Bloodstained.

Another example I can think of is the term “Souls-like”. I used this term to describe games like Dark Souls, Code Vein, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The best way I could explain what a Souls-like is would be an action-RPG whose difficulty borders on sadism. Say, for example, I was to class Code Vein as an action-RPG. One might expect something like Monster Hunter. I pity those poor souls as Code Vein takes its inspiration more from Dark Souls than Monster Hunter. If I said Code Vein is a Souls-like and then explain that a Souls-like is a game like Dark Souls, people know what kind of hell they are in for. 

Last but certainly not least, we have the roguelike. The name comes from the 80’s PC game Rogue. In it and other roguelikes, if the player dies once while trying to beat the game, they are sent back to the beginning of the game. Modern Rogue-likes will let the player keep some items/currency from their previous attempt to make their second one a little bit easier. What I find fascinating is that Rogue plays more like the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games. Now that I think about it, the mystery dungeon games take all of the player’s items away when they die/faint. The saving grace is that the player keeps their character the way they died (character levels, stats, and pokemon species). Would that make the Mystery Dungeon games real roguelikes?

My opinion on Zelda being an RPG.

While I did leave clues here and there on my opinion on this subject, I would like to give more direct thoughts. I don’t think the Zelda games (except for Zelda 2) are RPGs. To me, RPGs have always been about character building and beating the opponent through efficiency and strategy. I find the Zelda games lack the character-building aspect of RPGs. Link indeed gets stronger when he finds items, but by the end of the game, if my friend and I found everything, we would have the same character. Whereas in something like Monster Hunter, players have to plan their builds carefully to score the most damage and survive the fight against the giant monster, which is why I qualify it as an action-RPG. This is where my last point comes in.

The bottom line.

While I do think that some games have obvious genre classifications (like Mario Tennis Aces being a sports game), some games are more nuanced and may even be open for interpretation. While I might not personally qualify most Zelda games as RPGs, I know many people that do. That tells me they see the game and the RPG genre utterly different from what I do. Once I started implementing that line of thinking, I began looking at the game differently, possibly finding even more things to enjoy from it.


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