Side Story

How do genres work

Like something long enough, and you’ll want to give it a name. Despite being something we all hold dearly here, this genre has never really had a definitive title. Hack and Slash? Isn’t that also Diablo? Action? Isn’t that too broad? Character Action? Isn’t every game focused on characters?

It’s a problem, albeit one of luxury. But with recent analysis videos stirring up discussions, it’s slowly starting to become a nearly weekly discussion with some of them getting quite heated. So let’s ask a question: what exactly are genres, what are they for and which one does our beloved one belong to?


Genres are a form of categorization in games and other media. It helps designers to find trends and avoid common pitfalls in games like theirs, while also keeping an eye out on what people like about games of their ilk. For critics it is an important method of putting a game in a bigger scope, where does it stand compared to its contemporaries and how does it innovate or fall short compared to what came before it.

Amelia from the under-appreciated Assault Spy

And as gamers it is a banner to rally behind, waiting in anticipation of one game that hits all the right buttons just like the other one did. Yet – to be blunt – we also simply use them to find games that are alike, but where their similarities begin and end can sometimes be difficult.

Say you’ve just beaten Devil May Cry 3 and would love to play something of the same genre, just asking “hey, you guys know any games like Devil May Cry 3” will probably only see you get a few replies noting titles that are exactly like it. Ask “hey guys, anyone know any good action games?” and you would see more diverse replies than just Bayonetta and Assault Spy. One person might reply with Nano Breaker for instance, a rare action title from 2005.

Now, a reader could note that note that Nano Breaker isn’t as good as something like Devil May Cry 3, but that’s not what genres are for. Genres are not special lists of games where you have to apply to enter. Just because Bubsy 3D is a horrible game doesn’t mean it isn’t a platformer just like Super Mario World (which is fantastic).

Genres work best when looking at them as you would at a tree. They’re build from from a root, the base-genre, which they all share. Think of simple terms like Action, Platforming, Adventure, Shooter etc. Afterwards they add branches, i.e. sub-genres, to further distinguish themselves like First Person Adventure for Metroid Prime or Action Platformer for Super Castlevania IV.

In these instances, lines will quickly get blurred as it can be hard to tell which of the two words dictates the main genre, and which is the sub-genre. Metroid Prime isn’t a First Person game with Adventure elements, it’s an Adventure game that’s First Person. And that’s not even getting into rare cases where genres are born from trends, resulting in names like ‘Soulslike’ and ‘Metroidvania’ being thrown about.


Ernest W. Adams, founder of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) and writer of Fundamentals of Action and Arcade Game Design and later also Fundamentals of Shooter Game Design noted that Action games are classified by many subgenres. Platform games and fighting games are among the best-known, while shooter games quickly became and continue to be one of the dominant genres in video gaming since the 1990s. He also noted that Action games usually involve elements of twitch gameplay

When analyzed, Action games generally contain a series of challenges that feature extended fighting – be it through martial arts or gunplay – that demand hand-eye coordination and motor skill to overcome. They center around the player, who is in control of most of the action and they give a sense of thrill, danger, but also a sense of empowerment and reward for skillful play when mastered.


So now let’s do a little test. We’ll put down a list of Action titles and their base genre. Throughout the test we’ll add sub-genres, with our goal being to eventually have a genre that just describes Devil May Cry 3.

ActionUncharted 2
Action Vanquish
Action Dynasty Warriors 9
Action Devil May Cry 3
Action Ninja Gaiden Black
Action Doom 2016

Alright, so we have our example list of Action titles. For this we picked a bit of a diverse list of games that at their core can be described as Action games, but down the line probably will diverge from Devil May Cry 3 quite a bit. Now let’s go deeper and add some sub-genres, and see where we end up. Let’s start by seeing what happens if we add the (in)famous “character” moniker.

Character Action Uncharted 2
Character Action Vanquish
Multi-Character ActionDynasty Warriors 9
Character Action Devil May Cry 3
Character Action Ninja Gaiden Black
Character Action Doom 2016

Look hard enough and you’ll find mention of the Character Action sub-genre as early as 2002. Over the years the term has met with criticism however, mostly due to it being unclear. When using the term people would often ask questions such as “so is Assassin’s Creed II a Character Action game” and “what about Max Payne 3? Is that Character Action”?

Some interpret the the “character” part of the label in that the personality of the main character is reflected in the game’s combat system. Dante is a cocky and charismatic dude, and Devil May Cry’s combat is all about style and creativity. While Ryu Hayabusa is a taciturn and disciplined master of his craft with Ninja Gaiden being all about efficiency and quick decisions.

Yet if we look at the table above, the term “character” fails to distinguish the games further. Perhaps if The Wonderful 101 was part of the list, but even that is debatable with how their persona is exhibited in the gameplay. Still, the term can be a great umbrella term for the bigger genre. Still, with our next table let’s try to be more specific!

Action AdventureUncharted 2
Action Third Person ShooterVanquish
Action Hack & SlashDynasty Warriors 9
Action Hack & Slash Devil May Cry 3
Action Hack & Slash Ninja Gaiden Black
Action First Person ShooterDoom 2016

Okay, that narrows it down a lot more. Adding the Hack&Slash sub-genre leaves us with three titles; Uncharted, Vanquish and Doom are too different from Devil May Cry 3.

Action AdventureUncharted 2
Action Third Person ShooterVanquish
Musou Action Hack & SlashDynasty Warriors 9
Stylish Action Hack & Slash Devil May Cry 3
Methodical (?) Action Hack & Slash Ninja Gaiden Black
Action First Person ShooterDoom 2016

Mission Accomplished! For this one we used two more commonly used terms, “Stylish Action” being a term used while promoting the original Devil May Cry while “Musou” is the Japanese name for the Koei Tecmo’s Warriors franchise

Going too deep like this ends up defeating the point though , as the genre would be so specific – with Stylish Action Hack and Slash only being shared with maybe two other games – you might as well once again ask “hey, you guys know any games like Devil May Cry 3”.

This is why we tend to call it Action Hack & Slash. It tends to cover the specific range of the sub-genre we like with titles like Bayonetta, Shinobi, Ninja Gaiden, God of War and even off beats like indeed Nano Breaker, Assault Spy and Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise being represented. Sometimes digging for the root of the genre to find titles like Doom or Vanquish is a great little diversion or you might even find other titles or sub-genres you’ll adore like The Evil Within series which goes in reverse, starting at Survival Horror and ending up at Action Survival Horror. Another example could be Diablo, which starts at Hack and Slash and ends up at Hack and Slash RPG.


Calm down! Yes, Dynasty Warriors is an Action Hack and Slash title. As stated before, just because you like one more than the other, doesn’t mean it isn’t valid as an in-genre title. These games are just different in tone i.e. a feeling of empowerment instead of challenge.


With all that said, I hope that this article can be used to give newcomers into the discussion about what constitutes the Action genre a foundation to base their own opinion on. There’s a lot of differing opinions and a lot of them have solid ground to stand on. Yet I also feel that it’s important in these discussions to remain civil and remember that you’re – in essence – talking to people who are just as passionate about this genre of games as you are, dear reader.

So discuss at your heart’s content, but also enjoy the games together and having a blast dissecting mechanics and combat as a community.

源 sources 源





Fundamentals of Action and Arcade Game Design (Ernest W. Adams)

Fundamentals of Shooter Game Design (Ernest W. Adams)

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