A Clarification of Genre: Action

Please read the previous entry – Introduction – as this post will be building off of the foundation stones and concepts put forth there. That post also contains some clarifications for how I will be writing this series.

And now to the first Super-genre on the list.


The key to understanding the Action Super-genre is understanding the commonalities between so many genres that we think of as Action games. Where does the platformer intersect with the shooter with the racer and so on? What is the common element between all these disparate genres? It was looking there that I came up with this definition of Action games.

Action – a focus on timing of the physical execution of the interactive elements to achieve mastery of verbs

This is a more clarified statement what I said previously on the general understanding of Action games to be: lots of button presses in a short amount of time to do actions. Of course we need to be more specific or we end up including games that fit the definition, but are working towards a different focus. With actions games the focus is centrally placed on the input and specific timing of it for the player’s success or failure. This is including the lack of button presses at the right moments should that be an optimal choice.

Of course the basic concept that comes to mind when ‘button press = action’ are games of quick reflexes like the fighting game, the platformer or shooters.  I do not go into specifics about the timing, because that does not matter. Where you have to press the dodge button in a millisecond or a minute does not matter, because the timing needed to accomplish tasks is different depending on the game, tasks and difficultly level. The timing required in a match of Call of Duty is subtly different from one in Battlefield and for a more drastic comparison it is different from the timing in Dynasty Warrior. This time in which a button or combination of buttons have to be pressed is called the window. Outside the window is failure. Either you attacked too soon or responded too late to the game’s stimuli. The penalties can be anywhere from a virtual slap on the wrist to an instant game over. None of that matters. What matters is that the focus of the game is centered on the player working with the windows they are given for their actions.

In a complex example like an FPS for this Super-genre umbrella I feel requires a little clarification. You are always providing input in a shooter even if it is just movement. In Call of Duty to take a single accurate shot requires the subtle manipulation of the analog sticks or mouse/keyboard to center the target and a press of the fire button. Shooting may be the primary verb that the genre is named after, but the player is always providing input during play even if they are not shooting. Those subtle manipulations for accurate shooting to kill before being killed are just as key as pulling the virtual trigger.

Now games from other genres may incorporate “Action elements” just as games of other genres may incorporate “RPG elements” but again that does not inherently mean those games are Action games just like it does not inherently mean a game that does the latter is an RPG. An example would be a game that adds specific windows to its otherwise unaffiliated dynamics by adding a timer. Final Fantasy VIII’s action timed battle system comes to mind. We have a decidedly non-Action game incorporating Action elements by adding a restriction over core elements that do not focus on it. Really any game that adds a clock on top of its primary focus as a mechanic is really something else with Action elements rather than an Action game.

What Falls Under Action Games?

Action was a good place to start because it really has the widest variety of genres and sub-genres of any of the Super-genres. Whether it was the rise of technology, the focus on inputs in early designer’s minds or economics or the short attention spans of our youth, it has spawned so many more variations and concepts than Adventure games, RPGs or Strategy games.

There are the shooters of the first person, third person and top down variety. There are driving games, racing games being a subset. There are fighting games, platformers, and the dozen different types of brawlers. And some games combine the elements of these genres together like Tomb Raider and its ilk. Mini-game collections, games like Marble Madness that I’m not sure have a genre title, but also under this definition you will find rhythm games.

Usually though of as its own separate genre all by its lonesome, rhythm games like Guitar Hero, Rock Band, DDR and all the others I wont name for time are the most stripped down version of an action game. They are literally all about the specific timing of an input to onscreen stimuli. It is usually a colored shape crossing a predetermined target that we have to press a button or combination of buttons to be successful. The focus is quite clearly on making those timed presses. While the meaning of a game like Guitar Hero is to put you in the place of a rock god and make you feel like you are creating the music, to do so the player must focus on hitting the inputs correctly to channel that experience.

In fact, the best way to understand the basics of any of the Super-genres is to look at the most stripped down version to get a handle on things, before they are complicated and it becomes difficult to dig down to the core. There is no more perfect example of an Action game at its core than Dance Dance Revolution. There are four hollow arrows at the top of the screen with neon arrows flying up towards them. When they cross the hollow arrow you are to press the corresponding arrow button on the dance pad. Not only does it provide clear direction and input goals, but it also has a scaling window of success. Get it on the edge of that window and you get a Good rating, which the closer you get to the center of that short time span the rating becomes Great, Wonderful all the way to Perfect. You can build up streaks of correct hits as further game stimuli encouragement to hit that window. Should you miss the marker the punishment is the resetting of hit streaks and the loss of potential points. The timing is drastically altered by a series of options of difficulty, arrow speed and any other amount of potential challenges added to the stimuli for the sake of challenge. The fact that your entire body is in motion in order to play feels like a perfect cherry on top to get the point across that it is an Action game.

Rhythm games are a very different experience from the combat or competition of many of the other genres that fall under the Action category, but the experience is not the point. To understand the focus of a game is not about what it means, but to understand what the delivery method of that meaning is. With Action games it is the focus on player input as a matter of correct or incorrect timing. You are trying to achieve correct timing (save for cases where the player purposefully messes up) and as such looking for mastery of the game’s verbs to achieve that success. You can argue purposefully messing up means you are aiming for outside the window and though it isn’t the intent of the game it just means that the windows and concept of punishment has been reversed. The conceptual focus of Actions games remains the same.

Combining Genres Within Action Games

Thanks to the wider variety of concepts and purposes that Action games have accumulated over the years they have a wider variety of cross genre pollination with regards to the purposes of the Super-genre’s focus. Back in the old days you had a pure experiences born out of technological limitation and the fact that designers were building experiences from the ground up in a digital age. Centipede, Pac-Man and the like only had movement as an input verb. Later we added in jumping, then shooting, then jumping and shooting and so on and so forth. Verbs and mechanics got added and combined, but Action games always remained focused on the concept of input timing. From this stand point there is very little difference between Pac-Man and Contra. One has more verbs than the other and more possible actions at any given time, but both are centered on hitting success windows and avoiding falling outside of them.

This was back before game genres had been codified as a thing in digital games like they are now. Now we have the likes of rhythm-shooters (Rez) and racer-platformers (Mirror’s Edge) that take the concepts and tropes born out of each of these genres and blend them together. The focus, however, remains the same just in a new guise. The type of shooting in Rez is something new born from elements well covered or rather the timing of the shooting has changed to correlate to a beat rather than dynamic stimuli of enemies. The type of platforming has changed in Mirror’s Edge, both from its first person perspective, but also that it puts you on a timing both external (best time) and internal (chasing enemies) rather than giving the player the leeway of making the jump at their own pace to avoiding failure. It changes the dynamic, but not the focus.

I cannot stress this enough. It is the game’s focus that determines the game’s Super-genre because that is how it is experienced and is the method by which the game’s meaning is delivered.

Adding Elements of the Other Super-genres

This is where the oft-brought up example of Call of Duty multiplayer’s leveling system comes in. The “RPG elements” of gaining experience and using that to increase your level is either cited as an expansion of what an RPG is or a hindrance to the discussion of what RPGs are. The simplest way to understand it is to look at what those elements are trying to accomplish in a game. In the case of Call of Duty multiplayer or any FPS multiplayer with a leveling system it usually amounts to unlocking new and sometimes better weapons or tools to use and maybe the ability to alter the look of the avatar or the performance of the tools. So what does this achieve with relation to the game?

For example, what does an increased ammo clip or more deadly ammunition or faster reloading time or a new weapon mean for the player’s avatar? The timing window has changed. All those things mean that you have slightly expanded you opportunity to hit the timing window and therefore shifted the game in your favor. Larger clips mean you can shoot longer without having to reload and more opportunity to kill an enemy before you die or have to reload. More deadly ammunition means less shots are needed to kill an enemy meaning less time spent in the window before success and less chance of leaving that window. Same goes for faster reloads and a new weapon just changes the parameters by which you can interact with the timing window. All of these things affect how you interact with the timing of a game and nothing else.

Some games when leveling up allow customizing of one’s avatar. This is purely a cosmetic change and does nothing to influence the focus of the game either in Action games or RPGs by themselves. Unless, the cosmetic changes make you harder to see or easier to attach to and develop a character respectively. By themselves cosmetic changes are meaningless.

One could say that by leveling up it becomes a representation of your own skill in the game due to the time and effort you have put in. But that has nothing to do with the game. Any improvement in your mastery of the verbs is part of the Action Super-genre’s focus. Of course you will get better at timed actions the more your perform them, but that doesn’t mean you have fundamentally changed the game to a different focus. Adding experience points and levels are adding mechanics for the purpose of giving players long term feed back they can see easily represented. Maybe they are rewarded with goodies like improving their combat numbers or new toys to play with, but that doesn’t change that Call of Duty and the like are still Action games.

It’s not just RPG elements. It’s anything generally belonging to another Super-genre with a different focus now being implemented in Action games. Strategy on some level has always been apart of Action games, but became more pronounced with the tactical shooter Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. Now suddenly you needed a plan to take out the bad guys or you would fail. But ultimately it still required a proficiency in the timing of the game verb’s execution. Due to the nature of the game the player’ performance had changed and generally the players were better prepared to take out a room of buy guys than in the normal run and gun shooter, but it still resulted in a player’s need to move, aim and fire in just the right amounts to achieve victory.

Action games can have strategy, but they are not Strategy games. The focus is different and so the method of experience delivery is different.

Action Analogs

I debated whether or not to put these sections in, but for multiple reason I decided in favor. I did the work, might as well show it off and sine I’m going to be a lightning rod for so much attention and assured backlash, might as well get it all out of the way all at once.

The Super-genres are game genres, not video game genres. There is nothing inherent to digital games that preclude the defining focuses from appearing in analog counterparts.

The big and obvious one with the Action Super-genre are the games we call sports. Basketball, Football, Soccer (I’m American), Baseball, Curling etc, etc are all based around timing. The input has changed from button presses to physical body movements, but the principal is the same. Instead of using analog stick to move a digital avatar you use your feet. Instead of a button press to throw the ball, you use your hands. You get where this is going. I don’t have to list out every single body part. Again these games do have an element of strategy to them, but as the New England Patriots proved this year that doesn’t matter if you cannot execute.

Certain board games also fall under this Super-genre. I remember one I owned as a kid where you had a little catapult to fling a tiny plastic Basketball into a little hoop. Clearly timing based. (Also, wasn’t very good.) Tiddlywinks also falls under Action. As does the card game Egyptian Rat Screw. Now there is a pure Action game is I ever saw one. No strategy, just recognizing when two cards with the same number appear on top of one another and being fast enough to grab the pile.

In a way it might be easier to see the timing based focus when removed from a digital realm. When a computer isn’t controlling and resolving everything and things are taken out of strict number quotients it is easier to see that the timing is only in reaction to the other nouns of the game and verbs they are performing. Passing a ball past a defense isn’t measured in seconds or equations, but if you can do it before you are tackled and whether the pass was good enough to be caught un-intercepted. No I’m not bitter about the Giants, why do you ask?

Action Conclusion

The Action Super-genre I feel is the easiest to explain mainly because it has such a wider variety to it. Yes there are a lot of combat games, but there are also a lot of games that allow you to avoid it and quite a number that don’t involve combat or violence at all. There are games about movement on foot and in a numerous different vehicles, in both 2D and 3D spaces. Action games seem to cover an emotional and thematic spectrum from their dynamics unseen in the other Super-genres. Plus, it is easier to point out these subtle similarities by virtue that the games underneath the umbrella all look so different ironically. In being so different what is similar becomes more pronounced.

Moving on to a more difficult genre to talk about next post – Adventure.

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