When someone asks you what genre the video game Firewatch is, what do you say in response?
‘Walking simulator’? ‘Narrative adventure’? ‘Indie exploration’? Most people would not start by calling it a ‘short interpersonal drama’.
If someone asks you what genre Mass Effect is you’d probably say ‘shooter’ or ‘RPG’ before you would describe it as a ‘Young Adult Sci-Fi Fantasy Adventure’.
As a rule of thumb, when it comes to video game genre classification we as an industry talk far more readily about mechanical classifications of genre rather than their narrative genre.
This, in many ways, makes sense when looking back at the history of video games as a medium. Where novels, movies and TV fiction all began with a focus on narrative at their core, games spent numerous years pushing interactive mechanics with their limited resources rather than stories. When you have highly limited resources available, it’s much easier to focus on presenting pong paddles or barrels to jump over than trying to tell compelling and cohesive tales.
Video games began as a mechanical genre. Stories being told in games came later, as an optional luxury developers added only when they had an excess of resources to hand. Narrative was not the core of video games as a medium, so it was not core to how we classified them. Genre distinctions never broke out from this mentality.
On paper, this might not seem like a big deal. We don’t focus on narrative genres when discussing games, but game narratives still exist. I suspect that if we made narrative genres an inherent part of how we talked about games, we would see their stories held to a higher standard and improve as a result. If we used comedy as a genre distinction for video games, it would become apparent very quickly how few interactive narratives make humor a core aspect of their design. We would likely see an increase in comedy game development, as the lack of competition in the space would be apparent.
Games like Gone Home and The Beginner’s Guide, which are both minimal on interactive elements, would no longer be lumped together as “walking sims”. The fact they are minimally interactive fails to highlight how different the experiences are, and classifying them also by narrative genre would help players better understand which of those games is a better fit for them. Life is Strange and Tales from the Borderlands are currently both described as “Episodic Adventure”, where they should probably be described as ‘teen drama’ and ‘fast paced action comedy’ respectively.
There is seemingly one exception to this trend in “survival horror”, which combines both a mechanical and narrative element into the same genre. While we usually classify games as horror or survival horror, maybe we could perhaps separate survival out as a gameplay genre, and horror as a narrative genre, to apply them separately to other games?
Limiting our classifications of games to mechanics lumps together games with very little in common, and fails to paint a proper picture of the experiences being offered to players.
Going forward, I’m going to try to discuss mechanic genres as well as narrative ones when describing a game. and I really want to see others do the same for the sake of games as a medium.