Semiotics of video game genres

Martin Hollis, developer of Goldeneye, recently Tweeted:

Accepted game genres are a bunch of things which don’t go together: world structure (platformer), camera angle (FPS), I don’t even (RPG)

I went to tweet a reply, but one thing led to another, and it turned into this article.

I think that the confused nature of video game genre terminology is because the genre names are largely indicative signs, not expressive signs. They are phrased in a way which seems to be denote function, structure or content, but they arise as codes to represent an artistic heritage tracing back to some original successful video game. That heritage may be expressed thematically or stylistically, not just in terms of gameplay. Hence the lack of commonality between genre terms.

Look at the earliest accepted game genre, the Adventure (as it was called for years). The original game was the Colossal Cave Adventure, which started with the words:


The game was ported everywhere, sold in commercialized versions, and known simply as “Adventure”. When people began to make other games that involved typing commands and reading text responses, they became known as adventure games. This was the case even when the subject matter had nothing in common with Adventure, apart from the typing in commands and reading text bit. The game could involve controlling six robots while you sit in suspended animation, and it would still get called an ‘adventure game’. Eventually, the semantic straitjacket of the word ‘adventure’, with its association with dwarves and magic and the literary heritage of J.R.R. Tolkien, came to be seen as limiting. The company Infocom popularized ‘interactive fiction’ as a more general replacement, and it has now become the preferred term.

But before ‘interactive fiction’ became popular as a term, ‘adventures’ had spawned ‘graphic adventures’. Sierra Online was founded to develop games inspired by “Adventure”, but with a more visual interface. Before long the mouse had become popular, and ‘point-and-click adventures’ were created. “Adventure” also inspired books published under the title “Choose Your Own Adventure”, and these in turn inspired computer games, often developed by the same companies that were creating conventional “type commands and read text responses” adventures. So the term ‘interactive fiction’ went from being a broader term than ‘adventure game’ to being a narrower one.

Interactive fiction goes get used as the term for ‘choose your own adventure’ games, which nowadays involve no typing. It’s also used for games like “The Hobbit” and “Zork Zero“, which involve pictures. It even gets used for Sierra and Lucasarts games, which came to involve little or no reading. Yet it’s not a term used to describe “Myst” and “Riven”, even though those games involve puzzles, wandering around a fantasy world, and reading lots of text. I think it comes back to heritage—Myst’s ancestor isn’t “Adventure” or D&D; it’s the children’s games “The Manhole” and “Cosmic Osmo“. So Sierra games are interactive fiction, but Myst isn’t.

(Of course, ancestry isn’t everything. “Return to Zork” and “Zork Nemesis” are too Myst-like to be interactive fiction, in spite of their clear ancestry. Though if Myst had never existed, perhaps Interactive Fiction would include “Return to Zork”?)

Moving away from the adventure genre, graphical games with colorful blobs you controlled using a joystick became colloquially known as “Atari”, even though they often had nothing in common as far as gameplay. Atari’s console was a big commercial success, so ‘Atari’ briefly became the sign to denote a particular kind of play style, just as ‘adventure’ had.

Another early genre to emerge was the ‘shoot-em-up’. This began with “Space Invaders” and “Galaxian“, both of which involved literal upwards shooting at hordes of alien invaders. Dozens of successful games imitated the formula, including “Galaga”, “Gorf”, and “Xevious”. Scrolling became a standard feature, and then game creators tried turning the action sideways and ended up with sideways shoot-em-up games like “Gradius” and “R-type”.

Shoot-em-ups were so popular that home computers had development tools dedicated to building your own, such as “Shoot-em-Up Construction Kit“. But at the same time, there were games which were literally shoot-em-up games, but which were not referred to as such. Western-themed games like “Gun.Smoke” and “Sheriff” involved shooting lots of enemies, but were not shoot-em-ups. “Space Wars” involved shooting and spacecraft, but also failed to be a shoot-em-up. “Robotron 2084“, however, was considered a shoot-em-up by many. This was partly because it featured a horde of aliens and frenetic action, but partly because its lineage went back to “Defender“, a more conventional sideways-scrolling shoot-em-up.

Because of the arrangement of video memory in most computers, scrolling the screen smoothly sideways was technically a lot more difficult than scrolling it vertically. Smooth sideways scrolling was hence regarded as a selling point. This led to one rather curious genre term, ‘side-scroller’. Games as disparate as “R-type”, “Double Dragon” and “Sonic The Hedgehog” were grouped under the ‘side-scroller’ category. However, it’s a genre you almost never hear about now—not because the games have ceased to exist, but because sideways scrolling is no longer technically difficult. Nobody calls “LittleBigPlanet” a sidescroller, because it’s not a noteworthy gameplay feature, and unlike other genres ‘sidescrollers’ had no shared history or style.

The term ‘sidescroller’ illustrates something else, too: as awareness of video games became more widespread, people learned from the early confusing mistakes and tried to coin terms which were more general. Hence the family of games derived from “Donkey Kong“, “Donkey Kong Junior” and clones such as “Crazy Kong” became known as ‘platformers’ rather than ‘Kong games’, even though I recall hearing the latter used on occasion.

The ingredients for a platformer were a (usually humanoid) protagonist, a two-dimensional world, floating platforms, jumping, and the collection of tokens for points or power-ups. Yet Donkey Kong itself doesn’t really feature platforms in the first two levels—the first level is made of long slanted girders, and doesn’t require any jumping from platform to platform, and the second level is mostly conveyor belts. The term came later, and is more descriptive of the derivatives which appeared on every video game system—games like “Chuckie Egg”, “Super Mario Bros”, or “Manic Miner”. It’s that chain of influence which links “Ratchet and Clank” to “Donkey Kong” and makes both of them platformers, rather than the gameplay or setting.

Similarly, the term ‘First Person Shooter’ is not used to literally denote all games which involve shooting at things and have a first person viewpoint; rather, it connotes a lineage of game style tracing back to “Wolfenstein 3D” and “Doom”. “Descent” was first person and shooty, but it wasn’t an FPS. I’ve had people tell me that “Team Fortress 2” isn’t really an FPS either, because even though it fits the term semantically, it is outside the FPS genre in terms of style: it’s too comedic, it requires team play, it has no boss fights, and so on.

All of which brings me to the following maxim:

If a game can be adequately described by an accepted genre term, it is probably not worth playing.

I’ve come to realize that because genre terms denote artistic derivation, a game which is adequately described by applying a genre is inherently going to be a retread of something you’ve already played. The Call of Duty games aren’t as dull as ditchwater to me because they’re FPSs; they’re dull as ditchwater because they are merely FPSs. “Bioshock” was interesting because although it was mechanically an FPS and built with an FPS engine, it had enough that was different that if you were describing it to someone, you couldn’t just say “It’s an FPS” and let them fill in the blanks themselves.

It’s “survival horror”? It’ll be badly lit, there will be blood everywhere, you won’t have enough ammo, and things will jump out at you. The few games in the genre worth playing are the ones that venture outside the template, like “Silent Hill” (fog rather than darkness), “Fatal Frame” (photographing ghosts rather than beating zombies away with sticks), and “Parasite Eve” (third person, pausable combat).

Likewise, it’s not hard to think of families of games which are becoming stale, but for which we don’t yet have a convenient genre term. The “urban crime sandbox” needs a catchy label, if only to shame developers into some innovation again.