Cover art by Sakis25.
Very few games today have just one genre. This is true of most media, as well. Rarely does a story, regardless of how its presented, find itself delegated to just one box. Games do this by taking features that are usually found in one genre and adding it to themselves. An FPS with an experience system, a platformer with logic puzzles, a horror racing game (I've never seen this, but I'd really like to). However, despite pulling from several different genres, a game always has one primary genre in mind. So, then, how does one determine what the primary genre of a game is? I'm not an expert, but I've thought about this a lot, having many discussions with friends and co-workers about the mechanics, so I believe I've come up with some good insight. Hopefully you agree!
What is a Genre?
Likely you already know what a genre is, so there's not much to go over here, but it's important to cover just so we're all on the same page. As cliché as it is, the best way to start is to just give the dictionary definition of genre: (noun); a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter. That's at least the definition you'll find when you Google the word "genre," and it suits our purposes just fine.
Similarities. That's the keyword in that definition. A piece of work's genre is determined by the similarities it has with other artistic works. Horror works tend to have some kind of terrifying adversary, be it a living creature, a location, or even a concept, for example. As horror works try to differentiate themselves from one another, they may remove certain common elements. A horror movie could take place in broad daylight. A horror novel could be designed to be read by children. However, no matter how much movies, television, books, games, etc. try to distinguish themselves from their peers, there will be a connecting tissue. That tissue is the intended experience for the media consumer. Before we get further into that, let's focus back on games, and figuring out how to identify a genre.
Identifying the Genres within Mechanics
There are certain game mechanics that are found across all genres. However, the list of universal mechanics is actually rather short. The reason there are few universal mechanics is because most of them are functions of gaming as a whole. An example of this would be pressing a button to cause something to happen. It's a very broad concept, though clearly defined. As time as gone on, games have tried harder and harder to reduce the list of universal mechanics, as a means of challenging the form.
It used to be that games had a set goal in mind, a win condition. Now we have games where there is no objective, just ones you make for yourself. Even pressing buttons could be phased out as an universal mechanic, with the advent of VR. The one standard that can never change is that the player must be able to interact with the game, otherwise it's not a game, it's some other form of media. The mechanics that are not universal are those that are commonly found in one genre, but not another. For example, an FPS will always, by definition, be played from the first person perspective. If the game puts the camera behind the character, it becomes a TPS, a third person shooter. Interestingly, FPS has become a more commonly used term than "shooter," so even when a game is in third person, it's often that it'll still be referred to as an FPS.
Anyway, identifying a genre by the mechanics is the first and easiest step. It's easiest because it focuses on the factual, the objective truths, rather than subjective beliefs. First person shooters will always be, as we said, in the first person. FPS games will also include, you guessed it, shooting. Without some means of firing a projectile, be it a gun or spell, the S in FPS is lost. In truth, FPS is a qualifier. "Shooter" is a genre, with two distinctions: first person and third person. So, on sight, if you see a game with a character that has means of shooting, you will immediately classify it as FPS or TPS, depending on where the camera is. Likewise, when a game shows that is has an experience/leveling system and loot, you likely think RPG. If a character is leaping from one platform to the next, it's a platformer. If at least two characters are racing each other, either in vehicle or on foot, it's a racing game. Once you learn more about the game, other genres might pop into your mind.
Separating the Primary Genre from the Secondary Genres
So then how do you determine what the game's primary genre is, and what it's secondary genres are? Quite simply, the primary genre is the experience, and the secondary genres are the supporting mechanics. The first thing a game designer must determine is what kind of experience they want the player to have. Do they want them to solve puzzles, shoot zombies, survive the night, etc.? Once that's determined, any other genre mechanics are added in to help support that experience and/or differentiate the game from other entries in its primary genre. Though Resident Evil 7 is technically an FPS, it is, first and foremost, a horror game. The developers wanted the players to be faced with horrifying situations. Being able to shoot a gun is just the means they decided the player would use to deal with those situations.
The best way to describe this is with some examples. To complicate things, I'll start with a movie, but this movie has been a matter of contention between my friends and I so it's a good starting place. The movie is Alien. Alien is both a science fiction movie and a horror movie. It has equal parts of both genres. Because it's such an even distribution between sci-fi and scares, there is usually debate as to what genre it primarily is. Alien's primary genre is horror.
So why is Alien first and foremost a horror movie, and a science fiction movie second? The reason is the intended experience. Horror movies exist to scare the viewers. Science fiction movies exist to show the viewers a possible future, with all this benefits and consequences, sometimes serving as a hopeful vision or a cautionary tale. Alien, despite taking place in space, featuring an alien life form, and occurring in the future, is still a horror movie first. Alien was not a movie made to have viewers think, "Wow, this is what the future might be like," or "If we don't change the course we're on, this is what our future could be like." Though these thoughts might still occur, the creator's goal was still to scare the audience. If the movie had taken place on an oil rig, and the alien was some ocean creature dredged up and set loose on the crew, it would still be the same movie. The only difference would be in its appearances.
Let's take a look at a few game examples. The Call of Duty franchise is an immensely popular FPS series. Though it didn't start with it, later games would incorporate experience and leveling. Experience and leveling are distinctly RPG mechanics. Does that make Call of Duty games RPGs? No. The intended experience for the player was not one of adventure, exploration, and growth. The intended experience was experiencing warfare with guns. The leveling system was just added to give the online mode some replayability.
Borderlands is a FPS with an experience/leveling system, bosses, classes, and loot. At first glance, to someone who's never seen the game before, Borderlands is a FPS. Anyone who knows the game more than that, knows it's also an RPG. So, at its core, what is Borderlands? This one is tougher to define than Call of Duty, because Borderlands provides two experiences. On the one hand, the game provides the player the typical FPS experience of mowing down enemies with an array of weapons. On the other hand, Borderlands also provides the experience of doing quests, finding loot, and making your character stronger. Then how do we determine the primary genre?
For Borderlands, and finding out if its, at its core, an FPS or RPG, one method is to take away the mechanics of the competing genres, and see how much it changes the game. Borderlands without the FPS mechanics, and replaced with, say, melee fighting, but with all the same loot, quest, leveling, etc. systems in place. The game, though different from the original, is not so different. It's just that now instead of guns, you might loot fighting styles, armor, or melee weapons. Next, let's take away the RPG mechanics but leave the FPS ones in. Without the looting, questing, and leveling, you are left with just a shooter. There isn't anything in the RPG's place that you can use to help supplement its missing mechanics. The experience, as a whole, is different. Thus, Borderlands' primary genre is RPG. It being in first person, and the character using guns, is just a means to help the player through the RPG experience.
Now, much of this can be subjective. It's not impossible to argue that Borderlands without the RPG mechanics is still Borderlands, because the writing stays the same, the characters are all there, etc., and that without being able to shoot guns, the experience is radically different. That's why it's best to start by looking at the game's intended experience before looking at the mechanics when determining the primary genre.
To summarize, a genre is a piece of artwork's intended experience. Horror movies are designed to scare. Comedy shows are meant to elicit laughter. Racing games are designed to have the player compete, be it with others, AI, or themselves (for a better score). These experiences can still draw on other genre tropes to help tell their story. A horror movie can have comedy, like Evil Dead 2. A comedy movie can take place in space, like Galaxy Quest. A racing game can allow the player to fire projectiles to stop their opponents, like Mario Kart.
Genres can mix, easily, and it can be hard to separate them from each other. When it becomes difficult, ask yourself if the game in question would be radically different if you swapped on genre with another? Mario Kart might not be as fun without being able to shoot items at other racers, but it'd still be a racing game. If you took the racing part out of Mario Kart, it would be an entirely different game all together. Sometimes this distinction becomes near impossible to make objectively, and it comes down to personal opinion. Would Persona games still be Persona games without RPG battles, leveling, and monster collecting? Would they still be Persona games without the relationship building with your teammates? Could the same story of Persona 5 be told if it were a platformer with RPG elements, or a Match-3 game with socializing in between rounds?