The Supergenres of Action, RPGs and Adventure Games

I wrote a piece for Gameranx asking the question, ‘What is action/adventure?‘ This is part of the larger question about game genres, one that’s been discussed at length over twitter and several posts have come up as well with regards of what certain genres are. As much as the genre debate is generally one of semantics, or in the case of Action/Adventure pigeonholing, I feel there is a necessary undercurrent of philosophy and focus behind the question of what they are that is generally lacking in the current discussion.

In all four of those above pieces I cited focus on what RPGs and Adventure games have done rather than look at the fundamentals behind what was done. In the olden, severely technological limited days it was easy to tell genres apart. Action games were arcade like measured in button presses per second (Contra). Adventure games favored exploration and puzzle solving (Zork). Action/Adventure games were button based affairs that has an element of exploration rather than being on a linear path. While RPGs were stat heavy turn based affairs (Final Fantasy).

I think part of the problem is that in the scheme of things, genre labeling is focused on very small distinctive minutia of what a game can do rather than what a game is about. Or rather, we use the same genre labels interchangeable between their two meanings. We look at genre being different, but many have fundamental similarities that they end up being more alike than any natural distinction. We think of genres when before categorizing them down to that level we should look at wider, deeper looking archetypes of genre, the supergenres if you will. This isn’t easy to explain with the likes of Adventure games, RPGs or Strategy games for that matter, but very simple to demonstrate with Action games.

Action

The Action supergenre is composed of a wide variety of distinct genres that makes up the end of the year category awards for many sites: platformers, shooters of the first and third person variety, rhythm games, racers, fighting games and brawlers. The last one divides into the subgenres beat ‘em up, spectacle fighters and slog fighters. As you can see the differences in genre are important when it comes to their design. You don’t want to confuse the design ethos of an FPS with a racing game or rhythm game, oh wait, maybe you do. See that’s the thing, because they all fall under the ethos, the focus of the Action supergenre, mixing under these conditions makes much more sense. It’s why Uncharted isn’t a platfomrer or third person shooter or brawler. It’s an Action game because it is all of these. Also it explains why many games like Call of Duty or God of War are able to incorporate so called “RPG elements” so easily, because stat building is not an RPG element.

I wrote above in my Gameranx piece that Action/Adventure games were games without any set genre or mixes too many to adequately explained. But since I wrote that, I’ve looked over the writings and constant twitter discussions on other genres and think I may have been a little off. In broad sweeping terms it’s true, but it’s unhelpful. Action/Adventure games are those games that mix the ethos’ of both Action games and Adventure games to varying degrees. (Most likely an Open World game.) The trick to finding the key to the Action supergenre is find the fundamental element or primary focus that all other tropes and idioms that we think indicative of these games build off of.

I think that element is a focus on timing. Should the play focus primarily on timing, things that require button presses within a window to perform an action for success, it is an Action game. Racing games, rhythm games, brawlers, fighting games, platformers, shooters, they can all be reduced to an element of timing. The timing of button presses that translate into any number of actions. The timing of jumps between platforms, the timing of firing bullets to hit a target or the timing of movement to aim at a foe correctly. The Action supergenre has the widest variety genres because it’s focus is on repeatable action and there are numerous repeatable physical actions for the player to perform and have an effect on the game. But other genres don’t focus on physical action and their central focus, but interaction is the key to the medium so we confuse the physical action of an avatar for player interaction. In Action games they are pretty much the same thing, the reality is the physical actions are just a method by which the player judges his success or failure when it comes to the particular timing of a game. Strip away the game’s set dressing and narrative elements and they all reveal themselves to be the same concept of missing or hitting a particular window with a button press or combination of button presses. But in other game supergenres focus is different so the physical verbs are not the primary focus. It’s the conflation of these two that causes problems or in the cases above trying to fix problems that either aren’t the central issue or narrowing the field of possible solutions.

RPGs

The RPG or Role-Playing Game is the name of the supergenre though it often gets repeated as the name of a genre with various sub-genres JRPG, wRPG, Tactical RPG, etc. This doesn’t work. There is a fundamental flaw in the reasoning, all because we aren’t descriptive enough. So many people confuse the ethos of the genre with the mechanics typical of games made within it. They are looking at the tools and thinking that’s what the project is about. Hammers, nails and saws are not the purpose of a house, they are how you construct one, the purpose is a place to live. Many people think RPGs are about stat building or conversations trees or (and this one ticks me off most of all and is the source of many of the problems because it was used to differentiate it from other genres back in the day) story. These are all incorrect. Each of these can be found in other genres. Stat building is making its way into Action games and were a part of Adventure games. Conversation trees were a staple of point and click Adventure games of the 90s. And story is everywhere now; even our puzzle games have them. Then what is unique to RPGs that everything centers on? What is the central nugget that is or at least should be the focus of the genre?

It’s rather obvious as it is in the name. The focus is around role-playing, playing a role, building a character or team and directing the growth of said character or team. Because of their gestation from Dungeons and Dragons, (itself born from wargaming) the genre has always been focused around combat and stats. The thing is as a game genre every other form other than video games has moved on or at least diversified. There are RPGs in the tabletop scene that have no institutionalized combat at all. Bhalroidam is a prime, recent example of this. Playing a role or building your character is central to the genre. Combat stats are only one form of it. They define you character’s role within a combat team, the part they play in military endeavors. Tank, DPS, AoE or Support. That is what stat-building does as a form of character creation and progression. Stats work in FPSs, because those stats are focused not on individual character, but are instead focused on improving advantages the player has towards their timing. Larger clips, faster reload speed, stronger ammo or perks are all about improving your ability to accomplish a goal based around the timing of your button presses versus a window. Often these bonuses widen the window a bit, thus giving the player an advantage. They are not the same use of a stat. In RPGs it is your character that is improving, in an Action game it is making the game easier to give the illusion the player is improving.

This is a narrow view of what RPGs are and yet this is the backbone to every RPG in video games. It’s all that is done with the genre. Recently games have instituted character building and defining them through conversations and reputation meters, but it is limited and often a separate focus from the combat aspect. In the tabletop world you can have entire games built around diplomacy negotiations. Student government and Model UN are systems that concern roleplay sanctioned around debate, problem solving and politics. The expansive possibilities are much wider than the central focus around combat currently allows. Present RPGs don’t allow for much personality building or psychological definition.

Because of this I’d argue that all present video games of the supergenre RPG are under the genre category of combat RPGs with multiple recognizable subtypes: Tactical, turn-based, action, massively multiplayer. All the improvements and different definitions regarding world building or point of origin are ancillary rather than the defining aspect of a game’s soul. It’s the method and system for building, defining and developing a character a role to inhabit the world or story that matters. You could have the entire game world be a whitewashed room as long as there were methods to create and develop a character. The worlds of RPGs and all the details within them are only there to serve the primary directive of developing a character by their reaction and place within.

Adventure

Adventure games were named after their originator Adventure, later renamed to Colossal Cave Adventure. In both of the articles above they talk about the puzzles, their effect on the genre and how they killed it. Of course in Adventure games, they weren’t really so much puzzles as finding broad definitions of keys for broad definitions of doors. And yes finding the balance between challenging and impossible or quirky and moon-logic was often an art unto itself. (Babel Fish puzzle) The thing is, the original Adventure didn’t have any puzzles, another person who wanted more to do added them in later.

Puzzles are not the ethos of the Adventure supergenre. If exploration of a character is the ethos of the RPG, then exploration of the milieu is that of the Adventure game. Adventure games are all about learning a new environment, the boundaries and nuances of places different from our own. We would see the sights, talk to the characters, but also learn the societal, physical and logical rules that govern the world by interacting with it. That’s what the puzzles were, methods by which you interacted with the world and consequently learned more about (in order) the logical, physical and societal rules of the world the game took place in. The moon logic came from worlds we couldn’t fully understand because the steps needed to attain the answer had been skipped and we were stuck with an incomplete understanding of the world’s logic. Either that or it was a one of time where the puzzle broke the game’s own logic. Many of the LucasArts and Sierra games were worlds based on logic different from out own. The pace of these games are slower allowing for appreciation of details, of noticing extraneous world building facets that have nothing to do with solutions or story progression. The biggest complaints having to do with the puzzles aren’t the arbitrariness of them, but that they obscure the world rather than reveal anything about it. They become stopgaps to our learning of this new world and the moment that happens we lose interest. The frustration comes that we know that we don’t know everything, but are denied access to the rest of the information. I may be saying things that are well known about the genre in a different manner, but it is important to understand the distinction. Once you understand why certain puzzles failed you can flip it and see why other puzzles succeeded beyond the feeling of accomplishment at having solved it. It also carries into other aspects of the supergenre.

Puzzles aren’t the only method of interaction, nor are they the only feature built for learning or exploration. Adventure enraptured an audience with mere descriptions and connections to other locations. Imaginative and varied locals are the key to extending the life of an Adventure game. Once the player has a grip on the world and understands its intricacies they have grokked the world. Once they have grokked the world they have no reason to keep playing and the game should end about there. Puzzles and challenges aren’t why one plays these games. The player is a tourist, a visitor to the virtual lands of make believe. This is why King’s Quest VI and The Longest Journey are such exemplars of the genre. Both games have varied locals of differing visuals, differing governing laws and differing tones. They have complex worlds that take some time to fully get a hold of. They also change subtly through the game. This can be a big deal after so many times through the same screen only to see something slightly different. They also allow for repeat visitations. They are the right length, King’s Quest 6 in particular, not to bog down the player if they know the world and are here to visit a favorite virtual place.

Character exploration can be a key to this genre as well, but the focus is different. Where learning about NPCs is an important part of RPGs, they are there to relate to the PC and help define your character. In Adventure games it’s to learn about the NPCs place in the world and their relation to others. In RPGs choices are widely different so as yo further define who your character is. Any PC choices in Adventure games are all in character for the predefined avatar. They are chaos theory decisions rather than defining a different person like in an RPG.

Conclusion

I wanted to define the genres, because so much of the discussion of what the games within them are about is defined by what they have done. I see dizzying discussion of round and round maybe touching on occasionally the core of a genre’s purpose, but then again concentrate on the tools rather than the purpose of those tools. I see discussion of where a genre of video games can go based on minute changes to a long lists of previously made decisions. New tweaks that alter the surface level end product, but change nothing underneath. The idioms and structures for the most part lay unchanging and set in stone. Somehow the concept of the genre has replaced that of supergenre for what games are capable of. I understand that supergenre is my own term, but the idea of a broad reaching concept that many different examples fall under is not. The narrower your focus in similar things, the more similar they are going to be. The narrower your focus in similar games, the more surface level the differences will be. But the broader your focus in like minded things the deeper you have to dig to get at what makes them similar.

In chapter 7 of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, he explains the 6 levels of art. This works both from a creation and critiquing point of view, though the work is from opposing ends. Stage 1 is Idea/Purpose, the concept, the central nugget, the thing the creator wants to say with his work. Stage 2 is the Form, the medium the creator chooses to work in, but also all the things that medium is capable of doing. We call it video games, though like comic books it is an out of date term only used by virtue of tradition. Where comics have sequential art as better descriptive term, video games have interactive experiences. Stage 3 is Idioms, here you choose the genre and from that the focus on how you will express your idea and the tools you will use to do so. This is where genres would normally go, but because genre has become so specific in nature to a game’s structure, to express myself properly I have to widen the idea by adding the prefix super to indicate a greater capacity. The idioms, under which all the tools to work with towards a focus of expressing an idea in a chosen medium, are the supergenres. Stage 4 is Structure, this is where genres as we discuss them fall under. This is how to use the tools once you’ve chosen from those available from the given idiom. Stage 5 is Craft, the skill in applying the chosen tools and the ability of the creator to physically put something together. If stage 4 is where the designing would happen, this is where the implementation happens. Stage 6 is Surface, this is the polish, this is pizzazz that attracts people to your work, it is the shiny coat, the wow factor that brings people in.

These are not concrete steps, nor do they always happen in strict order. Nor am I saying that once you are done with one you move on and never come back. Creation is the free flowing exercise between the stages and their focus. Changes in one will inform on changes or new options in another. This is a guide to understanding the theoretical and philosophical ramifications that can and will inform on the practical ramifications. It is a guide to understanding what you are doing before you start doing it.

RPGs don’t have to have combat. Adventure games don’t have to have puzzles and so forth. And Action games cover a wider variety than you previously thought. The real problem is that the gaming industry, both mainstream and indie alike don’t see any of this. The supergenres are capable of so much more, but we insist on focusing on the top end of McCloud’s graph, endlessly tweaking instead of really reinventing the wheel. Well at least outside Action games. I think that is kind of a shame.

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