A Rose by Any Other Name

you want me to play what‽

Two general questions that are asked when being introduced to a game are “What game is it?” and “What type of game is it?”

The first question is innocent enough and equally easy to answer. You just tell the asker what it is! However, what type of game? Well… there the water gets a little murky. How does one answer this? Genres are not codified anywhere, so they are open to personal interpretation. And then there’s sub-genres. How specific do you get? But, also, who is judging these specificities, and when does the difference actually matter?

What’s in a game?

Thus begins an attempt to classify games. Most people are familiar with the following terms

  • FPS/First Person Shooter
  • Third Person Shooter/Over the Shoulder Shooter
  • Sports
  • Action
  • Platformer
  • RPG/Roleplaying Game

But is that enough? Where do we make distinctions? Some things are pretty straight forward. Halo is an FPS. You don’t get to upgrade your character, you are the same from the beginning to the end. However, when we look at Dishonored or Borderlands, these include many RPG elements such as customization of equipment and character progression. To say, though, that they are RPGs or FPSes would not be the whole picture. Are they then FPRPGs? Even that might not go far enough.

Shield-eaters and world leaders have many likes alike

What causes a game to spawn its own category of games? Borderlands created the Shooter-Looter genre. If you’ve played one of them, the reason is clear. Chests, enemies, and vending machines/shops constantly give you new items of varying rarity, abilities, and stats. Hunt down the loot!

Artoftransformation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the earliest games to immortalize itself as genre defining is Rogue, which was shared/released in 1980. Many games now bear the genre of Rogue-like or Rogue-lite. This causes much frustration and confusion. Many people will rally with torches and pitchforks over mislabeling of a game as to whether it is a “like” or a “lite” (I, myself, like to be as “correct” as possible with these labels). However, much of the labelling is subjective.

Rogue-likes, to me, are turn based, procedurally generated, have perma-death, and have *no* metaprogression or changing of the game from run to run – barring lessons you’ve learned to become a better player.

Rogue-lites are any game with procedurally generated content that features some form of perma-death and violates any of the above.

This puts rogue-likes in a place of a very definite structure and narrow expectations. Rogue-lites, though, often require other descriptions. Risk of Rain 2 is a First Person Rogue-lite (or FPS Rogue-lite), while Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos is an overhead Zelda-style Rogue-lite.

Legend of Zelda was released in 1986, as was Metroid (February and August respectively). Side scrolling platformer games where you acquire abilities and revisit areas to make progress are now called Metroidvanias. But the first, and arguably most well known, Castlevania in the series to make use of that style was Symphony of the Night in 1997. Is it a crime that Zelda doesn’t have its own genre? With the advent of Metroid Prime style games and Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time, it’s arguable that even those games have transcended their origins; which begs the questions – Is Metroid Prime a metroidvania still? How far can you deviate from your roots and still be the same series or type of game (looking at you every Final Fantasy since Final Fantasy X).

Conversely, we have games that have come out (relatively) recently that have received their own genre – Demon’s Souls (released 2009). This gritty, punishing, single player ARPG, led people to start calling similar games Soulslike. Should these games instead be called “Monster Hunter-likes” since, arguably, they feature the same ARPG combat style, emphasis on weapons for game play style, large difficult monsters to battle, and Monster Hunter came out first (2004)?

Genres genres everywhere, but not a game to play

It comes down to this: Games are incredibly varied and they fit in to broad categories. Trying to classify them and block in distinct codified narrow categories is a fool’s errand because there will always be valid reasons it could go into another category.

Give yourself and your friends a break and act with grace. If someone disagrees with the category you put a game into, find out why with no agenda other than to learn. It can open up new games and aspects of games you’ve played before but can now go back and play with a new light.

Especially for roguelite vs roguelike. I use them with the explicit definition I’ve put forth, but if someone else uses it incorrectly, just let it slide.

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