Video Game Genres & Why They Matter
Of Roguelites, Soulslikes, & Metroidvanias
What Are Gaming Genres?
RPG, RTS, FPS, Tactics, Simulation, City-building. These are only a handful of video game genres and they all mean very specific things. What makes them so special that they deserve an article written about them? Well, they communicate a lot of information and it's almost impossible to talk about video games without them. They help us understand and appreciate games and a point of contention is also how people often disagree on which games should be classified in which genre. In this article we'll go through genre's origins, usefulness, conventions, and contentions.
I also mention and link to 22 different games in this article! They're all great, so check them out if you haven't already.
Genres in general are about the theme or setting. Fantasy, sci-fi, and horror are thematic genres that can be applied to any medium—books, movies, animé, and video games as well. We can say that a game has a steampunk setting, for example. Gameplay genres, however, are about game mechanics and are unique to gaming. Together, they can describe any game and paint a clear picture without even showing any gameplay footage or screenshots.
By just throwing some of the words together at random, you can almost picture a whole game. How about a 'Sci-fi RPG City-builder'? Or a 'Fantasy FPS Turn-based Tactics Game'? But what about more nuanced genres? What does it mean when a game is labelled as a 'roguelike' or a 'metroidvania'?
Unique Gaming Genres & Where They Come From
Before moving on to gaming genre arguments, let's have a look at some genres that aren't quite as straightforward as a real-time strategy (RTS) or first-person shooter (FPS).
Metroidvania, a combination of two game names, 1994's Super Metroid and 1984's Castlevania (now also an awesome animé on Netflix). Metroidvanias include exploring of large interconnected worlds, collection of items and improvements, secrets, and are almost always sidescrolling platformers. Movement, combat, and puzzle solving are three key elements and a metroidvania game often leans towards one or two of those three, typically still including all of them. Games that fall under this genre are Apotheon, Owlboy, and Ori and the Blind Forest.
The Roguelike & Roguelite
Roguelike/Roguelite, is a term that you're probably hearing a lot when shopping for new games. It all goes back to the original 1980 game, Rogue. Things that make a game a roguelike are dungeon crawling, procedurally generated levels, and permanent death for your character. These are games like FTL, Don't Starve, and Everspace.
Soulslike, a relatively new genre spawning from 2009's Demon Souls and popularised by the famously difficult Dark Souls. Being a kind of RPG, soulslike games are set apart by their careful and deliberate combat, high level of difficulty, losing of 'souls' on death, no map, no auto checkpoints, and tough bosses that require pattern learning. Games that are soulslike are Salt & Sanctuary, Nioh, and Bloodborne.
4X, the four Xs that stand for "eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate"... yes I know that's actually four Es but I suppose 4E doesn't sound quite as cool. Complex gameplay, economic development, advancement of technology, military and non-military paths to supremacy, and micromanagement to optimise your civilization or empire are what make a 4X. Games that typify the 4X are Civilization, Stellaris, and Total War, but the genre was coined by the creator of Master of Orion back in 1993.
Common Game Genre Arguments
There are a lot of arguments regarding video game genres out there and no one can seem to get everyone to agree. For example:
Do RPGs (Role-Playing Games) need to have choices where you actually 'role-play'? For example, Pillars of Eternity is a 'classic' RPG (or cRPG) where you play as a character and make important choices, essentially role-playing. However games like Dark Souls or Final Fantasy VII are often classified as RPGs too but has little to no character choices or role-playing but have 'RPG mechanics' like levelling, stats, equipment, and so on. So there seems to be two different 'RPGs' out there but games are often just labelled generically as 'RPG'.
What makes a 'Simulation Game' a Simulation Game? Racing, city-building, business management, and more are often types of games simply labelled as 'Simulation Games'. It's really vague and people always argue about it.
Games That Defy Genre Conventions
Despite the arguments regarding vagueness of game genres, there are 'gaming purists' out there who argue that the freeform mixing of genres is bad for video games, saying that it dilutes the games and makes them unfocused and messy. Here are a handful of critically and commercially successful games that prove that argument wrong.
Why This Is Important
So why do we need to know all this genre stuff? Well, as consumers of video games, it's helps us find what we actually want to play. For example, if you liked Ori and the Blind Forest (a Metroidvania) and want to find more games like it, understanding genres will mean that you'll know to look for Metroidvanias. Then you'll find a bunch of games that you'll love but maybe haven't heard of, like Hollow Knight, or even be able to think, 'hey, what about a roguelike metroidvania?', and find the game Rogue Legacy.
I also think it's important as gamers to be informed about the gaming industry, to be able to discuss issues and topics to deepen our understanding of video games and our appreciation for them. A horror film enthusiast would need to know all the different kinds of horror genres to really get into them. Similarly, to really appreciate a game we have to know what it is where properly understanding its genre and how it compares to other games like it (or unlike it) can help us see what really makes the game unique and special.
So should we REALLY care and argue about it?
Probably not as much as some people do. It can be a fun and interesting topic if you're into it like I am but, for the most part, I think understanding genres better is mainly about appreciating and enjoying games more along with finding more games that you want to play.
Hopefully through this article you've now been opened up to what genres are about and why they can be interesting and useful. Though regardless of that, I hope you found some interesting games you would love to play as many great games were mentioned. If you haven't already, go check them all out!