Adventure Means Nothing: Game Genre Definitions

Most digital game catalogs offer the option to filter the selection of games by genre, among other factors. That’s great – people have preferences about genres, and the filtering makes it that much easier to browse just the games any given individual is personally interested in. Some might skip the Strategy section altogether, and prefer to check out the Role-Playing section instead.

However, I find myself often ignoring the (alphabetically) first category, which is usually “Adventure” or “Action & Adventure”. It’s not because I don’t like adventure games; on the contrary, I love them. But the reason I don’t browse that list is because it contains every damn game available in that entire catalog. Why? Because no one seems to know what an adventure game exactly is, and that’s probably because “adventure” can really mean anything. So is an adventure game a game where you venture from one place to another? Or maybe it’s about discovering secrets? No matter what kind of a rule I try to come up with, it never seems to apply to all the games included in that category – I swear, I’ve seen fighting games included in an Adventure Games list somewhere. Those if anything are not adventure games.

As I said, it’s hard to define adventure games as a genre. Something like “Role-Playing Games” is much easier, because there are concrete gameplay features that are practically required for a game to resemble a role-playing game. The same goes for strategy games, puzzle games, platformers, shooters, fighting games, racing games… Really, pretty much any other genre. “Action” and “Adventure” are genres that initially must have been the dump for games that don’t quite fit any other definition, but have instead become the default genre checkbox for any game, whether or not they clearly have another type to define them.

I’ve pondered about this issue quite a bit, in my mind wishing that maybe at some point there can be a revision of these ubiquitous terms and they would receive actual definition that would mean something. The root of the problem probably lies in the words themselves – contrary to most of the other genres, “action” and “adventure” are such broad terms that regardless of how specific the genres itself are, the words don’t immediately paint a picture of a game type in a consumer’s mind. When you read “shooter”, the image in your mind is probably pretty close to what everyone else would think about. But “Adventure”? Or “Action”? That’s a different situation. That probably can’t be alleviated, but at least there could be an actual definition, so that those who actively browse these catalogs would know what they’ll be looking at under these categories.

Action Games

Action, I think, is the easier one of the two: not every game has action as a staple gameplay feature. It doesn’t have to mean violence, but it should include a certain pace or speed, therefore excluding turn-based games (yes, I’d leave games like XCOM out of the Action category), puzzle games with unlimited time, and so forth.

I would also consider it reasonable to mirror the word’s definition from the movie industry with games, therefore placing some kind of a visual requirement for the game’s content – if it doesn’t look like there’s a lot of action going on, it shouldn’t be called an action game. As an example, I wouldn’t consider the Unfinished Swan or something like that an action game.

Finally, I would exclude from this list all games that are clearly primarily of another genre, particularly a genre mostly enjoying the favor of a well-defined group of gamers – namely fighting games, racing games, and perhaps a number of role-playing games as well. This is where it gets a bit iffy, of course – who’s to say which genres are “dominant” enough in comparison with action games to justify this stipulation to become active? In that way, I’m sort of in the same predicament myself as the definitions in the first place.

Adventure Games

While the meaning of the word “adventure” might be harder to define in gaming terms, I think I have a more definitive solution for the rules of inclusion for this genre. I believe the key thing about adventure games is that beyond gameplay mechanics, characters and story, the environment should play some part in the game, in a way that actually makes a difference. These days almost any game makes use of environmental features in some way, but what I’m looking for is a feature or features that make the game world, map or terrain actually relevant in the bigger picture.

To be more specific, I would consider Metroidvania style games a cardinal type of adventure games. Here’s why: one of the key features – if not the key feature – is the map, where the player ventures back and forth, gradually unlocking new areas and burrowing deeper and deeper into the game world, which will then become more and more familiar to them. This definition would already include games such as the Legend of Zelda series in the adventure genre – and those, in my opinion, are some of the most definitive adventure games in existence (in addition to Castlevania and Metroid, which are already sort of mentioned in the term Metroidvania).

I recently realized that the first Resident Evil (as well as the Resident Evil 2 and 3, to a lesser extent) is a Metroidvania game, thus making it an adventure game. It’s also very action oriented – despite the tank controls and the fact that most of the time the pace isn’t all that hasty – so Resident Evil is actually an action-adventure game.

So as a rule of thumb, I would consider one word the key thing about adventure games and their definition: map. If the game features exploring a map of some sort, and if there is, as a gameplay feature, an actual map and the act of examining it, that game is likely an actual adventure game. And I’m not talking about a mini-map or a generic navigational aid that you may see in any type of game, but rather a map which might help you look for points of interest, or actually figure out which way to go out of several possible options.

Obviously, these are my subjective opinions, but I find my definitions to be better than anything I’ve come across in the gaming world; in fact, I’ve barely come across any definitions at all. I would love it if there was a deliberate revision of these genre definitions, so that you would actually know what you’ll find under the category “action & adventure”.


Thanks for reading! Next Sunday, I will write about some of my thoughts regarding the Kojima/Konami split, as well as the similar cases of Keiji Inafune and Koji Igarashi.

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