Genre vs themes

Disclaimer: The only reason why I felt compelled to write what you are looking at right now is because I can’t leave a poorly designed system alone. Even if I already know beforehand that all my efforts will go to waste. Even if the normal response is just to accept such a faulty system and work around it. I just can’t help but try to dismantle the problem, analyze why we’ve arrived at such a poor system and theorize how it can be reworked.


I’ve been thinking about the definition of “genre” in the context of games and how different it is from its usage in any other media. Mainly, that it is used to classify works by mechanics when talking about games but it’s otherwise based on provoked emotions when classifying other media (except for music … that’s a whole other can of worms that I don’t want to touch even with a 10 foot pole). It’s an interesting issue since at first glance it is not hard to notice that games appear to have a very restricted emotional palette. “Games can’t make you cry” Some people say. But I don’t think that’s exactly the issue. More than that, I’d say game genres are about mechanics because their focus is not on provoking emotions: Their focus is more about providing experiences.

Now, having said that, game genres are a complete clusterfuck.

What exactly is an RPG? And a Graphic Adventure? An Arcade game?  … what exactly is an Indie game? To all of these questions there’s a handful of answers at best and at worst every single person on the face of the earth will answer differently. Of course, there is some consensus but there are way too many problems with this classification system. It’s too vague to be used as a tool and at other times oddly specific. On top of that, it presents a systematic need for new genres, becoming a bloated collection of names that grows larger with the pass of every decade.

For example, the RTS genre is one of the most strongly defined, and so it doesn’t suffer from being too vague. In fact, it suffers from the exact opposite problem of being too specific. But why is that a problem? To put it simply, because we can create whole new genres out of it by removing some mechanics (Tower Defense). And that’s not even mentioning DOTA. Or the weirdly similar 4X genre.

It’s weird, but the more I think about it, the more it becomes clear that these problems are caused by one simple thing: Granularity. Or in other more mundane words, we are missing the forest for the trees.

Granted, I know that this is just a sparsely updated blog with a tiny readership and that what I’m about to propose will not reach many people or even be adopted by anyone, but hey, that hasn’t stopped me before hasn’t it? Let’s have some fun.

Basically, what I’m proposing is classifying games by the central theme of their mechanics.

What excites me the most about this is that I genuinely can’t think of a new theme to add and no matter what game I choose, it can be classified by one or more of these themes. This suggests to me that it’s a strong system

So, without further ado, here they are:

  • Combat: Survival against others. Including but not limited to Shooting, Brawling, Colliding, Killing and Dying. Corresponds to most games out on the market, but just to name one example: Call of Duty.
  • Strategy: Requires thinking and planning to achieve victory. Example: Civilization.
  • Exploration: Traversal through content with obstacles or choice of where to go. Examples: Mario, Galatea.
  • Puzzles: Logical problems that require solving. Example: Tetris.
  • Building: Drawing, Creating, Customizing. Example: The Sims.
  • Choice: Consequences for actions. Example: Deus Ex, Fallout.
  • Simulation: Modeling an aspect of the real world as a system. Example: Grand Turismo.
  • Twitch difficulty: Memorization of patterns and reflex tests. Example: Guitar Hero.

Awesome, right? It tells you what the game’s experience is about, but there’s a lot of information missing. Even if a game’s mechanics cannot be expressly about multiplayer it still is useful as a classification tool. Well my friends, for those situations where you need more information we have the new revolutionary “Secondary Themes”! If you call now you’ll get 5 of them absolutely free*!

  • Non-interaction: Action outside of the player’s reach. Examples: Metal Gear, Half-Life.
  • Mechanics as metaphor: Self-explanatory. Examples: Braid, Passage.
  • ARG: Alternative/Augmented Reality Games. Examples: I Love Bees, Portal 2 Potato Fools Day.
  • Singleplayer: No direct interaction from any other human being inside play.
  • Multiplayer: The logical opposite of singleplayer. Could be further branched into Offline and Online Multiplayer.

I’m willing to bet that there are an astounding amount of possible secondary themes and sub-themes that could be defined, but I’m not willing to actually do the work.

Also, of note: Yes, I’m equating Half-Life to Metal Gear on how non-interactive they both are. Yes, I’m serious. They are both rollercoaster rides that make extensive use of non-interactive events.


*Not actually free. We reserve the right to charge you whatever we feel like at the time. We guarantee we’ll do it for the giggles.