The video game industry has expanded greatly over the years, leading to all kinds of new genres and subgenres. As a result, there is some confusion among gamers about video game genres, with some of them being misused and misunderstood.
For example, genre labels are meant to be self-explanatory. Look at literary genres like Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance, Autobiography, all self-explanatory. Same for film genres, such as Thriller, Horror, Documentary, Crime Drama, all of them are self-explanatory. So are real video game genres, like Role-Playing Game (RPG), First-Person Shooter (FPS), Real-Time Strategy (RTS), Turn-Based Strategy (TBS), Puzzle, Survival Horror, Point-and-Click Adventure, etc. All of them self-explanatory.
But then somewhere along the line, uneducated and illiterate basement-dwelling gamers unaware of the fact that genre labels must be self-explanatory came up with the likes of “Immersive Sim”, “Metroidvania”, and “Roguelike” which are the polar opposite of self-explanatory and ultimately mean nothing. Not to mention these genre labels, both due to their obscure and unclear nature combined with the fact that gamers lack the knowledge and capacity to understand even clear-cut genres like RPG, have become bastardized and virtually meaningless, straying from their original definitions like RPG has (e.g., the classic Thief series do not fit Warren Spector’s definition of “Immersive Sim”).
So because of all this confusion, nonsense, and illiteracy, it is necessary to clear the air here. This article serves as a glossary for all known, actual video game genres and subgenres, and it will be updated over time.
Action Adventure – A very vague genre that can really apply to many kinds of games. Often times they are Third-Person Shooter games as well, like Uncharted and Rise of the Tomb Raider, but not always as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt shows. But such games are usually called Action Adventure first and foremost, to emphasize that the plot takes you across a vast adventure.
Brawler – Also known as Beat ‘Em Up games. These games revolve around, as the name implies, beating up large numbers of people. An example is Zeno Clash.
Fighting Games – Games in which the player(s) fight in matches, like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.
Hack and Slash – Action games where the focus is on hacking and slashing your way through foes (cutting through them with bladed weapons). Thus, the emphasis is on combat. Dark Souls games do fit in here; this genre sometimes falsely has “mindless gameplay” associations.
- Spectacle Fighter – Highly skill based, unrealistic hack and slash games in which the purpose is to make fighting an extreme visual spectacle, hence the name. Examples include Bayonetta, Devil May Cry, and God of War.
Horror – Games designed to horrify you, scary games. Most of the subgenres come from literary horror genres and are thus defined by the game’s story material.
- Existential Horror – A horror game with a story that revolves around existential questions. Most such games are Lovecraft inspired, like all of the video game adaptations of The Call of Cthulhu and other games such as Penumbra.
- Psychological Horror – In these games, the horror is most strongly conveyed by the mental state of the game’s characters. Pioneered in the video game industry by Silent Hill.
- Survival Horror – Survival Horror does not refer to any literary element, rather it refers purely to gameplay. A Survival Horror game is a horror game in which the gameplay mechanics revolve around survival, more than games from other genres. Popularized by Resident Evil.
Multiplayer – By far the broadest genre here. Multiplayer games can be found in virtually every genre. Different types of multiplayer are listed below, but note that none of these labels make for sufficient genre classification on their own. They must be combined with the game’s actual genre, e.g. Co-op Survival Horror or PvP Shooter.
- Co-op – Short for cooperative. Players join together as a team in these multiplayer games.
- MMO – Massively Multiplayer Online. Refers to multiplayer games with huge amounts of players and a persistent world environment. Most commonly, MMOs are RPGs, but not necessarily. MMOFPS (Massively Multiplayer Online First-Person Shooter) has gained lots of popularity over the years.
- MOBA – Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. Two teams comprised of players that must destroy one another, with the involvement of AI as well.
- PvE – Player vs Environment. Players are not necessarily cooperating together in one team, but are still competing against the environment (usually AI). Many MMORPGs include PvE gameplay.
- PvP – Player vs Player, can also be referred to simply as ‘versus.’ Players compete against each other.
Platformer – Games where the focus is on overcoming physical obstacles, typically by jumping. Pioneered by Donkey Kong, but has since evolved to take on many different forms—not always sidescrolling.
Point-and-click Adventure – Adventure games in which the player interacts with the game by pointing and clicking with a cursor. These games come in so many different forms. Popularized by Myst which spawned a franchise, which bears little resemblance to Telltale’s games (e.g. The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us) which are also Point-and-click Adventure.
Puzzle – Games in which the focus and majority of the gameplay revolve around solving puzzles. Puzzles take on so many different forms in games. Popularized by Myst which is also a Point-and-click Adventure game.
Racing – In Racing Games, the goal is to win races. They essentially boil down to the subgenres listed below.
- Arcade Racing – Realism is not emphasized.
- Driving Simulator – Not to be mistaken with games like Euro Truck Simulator. Driving Simulators like Gran Turismo and Forza attempt to realistically simulate driving mechanics, but not racing mechanics or Motorsports structure.
- Racing Simulator – The most realistic Racing Games, attempting to accurately simulate not only driving mechanics but actual Motorsports structure. In Racing Simulators, the player partakes in simulations of actual racing events, like Le Mans.
RPG – Stands for Role-Playing Game, being adapted from pen and paper/tabletop Role-Playing Games like Dungeons & Dragons. This is the most misunderstood genre. As it derives from pen and paper RPGs, the definition of role-playing is the ability to create or assume, and tailor a role/character within a world or story. To do so, in some way, shape, or form the player must be able to control and define his/her character’s innate physical and mental/personality attributes, as well as alignment. This does not necessitate creating a player character from scratch, nor does it mandate a clearly defined alignment system mechanic. Through dialogue and actions, the player will further define these things about the player character while advancing through the world or story, gaining experience along the way, but again this supplements defining your character’s innate physical and mental abilities, this alone doesn’t make an RPG as Point-and-Click Adventure games and other non-RPGs have this alone too. The goal is to allow the player to define who their player character is, and journey through a world that reacts to your unique player character and your actions in various ways.
So now it should be obvious that RPG does not simply mean, “a game with an ability tree” which people mistakenly believe, or “a game with dialogue choices.” This accurate definition excludes games such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt from the genre, since it has no actual role-playing (nor does any other Witcher game). To better understand the genre, please read a pen and paper RPG core rulebook, and you will see the definition of role-playing above applies to all of them whether it is Dungeons & Dragons or RuneQuest or Vampire: The Masquerade or Cyberpunk.
RPG is a broad genre classification with several subgenres, which are listed below.
- Action RPG – This is a strange one. When abbreviated as ‘ARPG’ it is used to label isometric dungeon crawler type RPGs, where the focus is on fighting your way through many hostile enemies, often in dungeons, where you are encouraged to loot. Loot is the primary reward of these kinds of games, popular examples include Diablo, Path of Exile, Torchlight, and Grim Dawn. However, it does not only refer to such games; any RPG with action game mechanics (fast paced directly controlled combat actions) is technically an Action RPG, so this term also extends to the Mass Effect games, The Elder Scrolls, Fallout 3, Fallout 4, Fallout: New Vegas, and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. But these Action RPGs are never referred to as ‘ARPGs’ since for some reason ARPG is only used to market and refer to isometric dungeon crawlers. Strange, but just realize an Action RPG is an RPG in which you can focus on action combat rather than turn-based or real-time with pause.
- cRPG – Stands for Computer RPG. This term is old; it was heavily used in the 1980s and 1990s to refer to computer video game RPGs, since during these times RPGs were either tabletop games or computer video games. Since the introduction of RPGs to consoles in the 1990s, and the mainstream success of RPGs, this term stopped seeing use until its nostalgic resurrection in the 2010s. Nowadays it generally seems to mean “Actual RPG” since the term “RPG” is often applied to games that are not RPGs.
- JRPG – Japanese RPG, like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger. RPGs created by Japanese artists. They have a distinct style and very little actual role-playing, arguably not even RPGs so they can just be considered Japanese turn-based cinematic games.
- MMORPG – Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. An online RPG containing huge amounts of players together in a persistent world environment. Popularized the most by World of Warcraft.
- wRPG – Western RPG. These are “traditional” RPGs, following the style created by the likes of Dungeons & Dragons since this style originated in the United States. Generally synonymous with cRPG.
Sidescroller – Games in which the controlled character only moves on a two dimensional X and possibly Y axis (Y axis movement would only be jumping and the like, most of these games is X axis movement).
Simulation Games – A very broad genre with many unique subgenres, outlined below.
- City Building Games – Games that revolve around building and maintaining cities, like Cities: Skylines.
- Flight Simulator – Games that simulate realistic flying of aircraft.
- Life Simulator – Not as realistic relative to its material as other simulators, but Life Simulators attempt to emulate characters living a normal life. Most popular example is The Sims.
- Racing Simulator – Also mentioned earlier under racing. These games simulate Motorsports events, structure, rules, and driving mechanics.
- Space Simulator – While these are largely fantasy games, they are still referred to as simulators for their in-depth management mechanics, taking place in outer space. Often times they are MMOs, like EVE Online.
- Sports Management – These games are distinguished from Sports Games, since the gameplay revolves around managing the sport/teams rather than playing the sport. The most popular example is Football Manager.
- Tycoon – Business or Economic Simulation Games.
- Vehicle Simulator – Refers to other kinds of vehicle and driving simulation games like Euro Truck Simulator.
- Other: There are other kinds of simulation franchises that have no rival. Since they tend to stand alone, they don’t have a specific subgenre and are instead just labeled as Simulation Games or Simulators. An example includes Farming Simulator.
Shooter – Shooter games, where the focus is on shooting things to death. Shooter subgenres are listed below.
- 2D Shooter – Shooters with 2D graphics rather than 3D.
- FPS – First-Person Shooter. These shooters provide the player with a first person point of view, obviously. Made popular by Doom although it wasn’t the first.
- Arena Shooter – A subgenre of FPS. Arena Shooters are a distinct style of highly competitive PvP shooters pitting players against each other in a Deathmatch like scenario, requiring weapon variety and actual ballistic physics opposed to hitscan weapons. The most popular examples are Quake and Unreal Tournament. It is an endangered genre at most now.
- Rail Shooter – Also referred to “Shoot Em’ Up” games. These shooters stem from arcade games, and there are essentially two types: one is an FPS in which you do not control player movement, only a cursor on the screen as well as the shooting. Progression is automatic. In the other type, you can move around the screen but progression is still automatic. An example of the latter is Robotron.
- Tactical Shooter – These shooters involve tactical thinking and execution. You can’t just run around shooting people in these since you’d fail and never advance. They tend to let you plan scenarios before executing them. They can come in any shooter form really, such as first person single player (e.g. Arma or Rainbow Six), first person co-op (the same two examples apply here as well), first person PvP (e.g. Natural Selection 2), and third person either in single player or any multiplayer form (e.g. Arma or Ghost Recon).
- Top-Down Shooter – Shooters with a top-down view perspective.
- TPS – Third-Person Shooter. These shooters have a third person point of view. They became more popular after the releases of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter and most of all Gears of War.
Sports – Games in which the player plays an established sport. Sports Games exist for many sports such as Basketball, American Football, Football (aka Soccer), Skateboarding, BMX, and much more.
Stealth – Action games in which the emphasis is on using stealth to advance through the game, making it possible to avoid encounters (although not necessarily all encounters). Pioneered by Metal Gear and evolved tremendously by Thief: The Dark Project. Hitman: Codename 47 pioneered an unnamed subgenre of stealth in which the player hides in plain sight more than he/she hides in shadows.
Strategy – A broad genre where the emphasis is on strategic gameplay. The subgenres are listed below.
- RTS – Real Time Strategy. The strategic gameplay takes place real-time, so such games are generally difficult. Popular examples include Starcraft, Age of Empires, and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War.
- RTT – Real Time Tactics. Such games might not even have a strategic element, yet they are put underneath the Strategy genre anyway. This term refers to tactical gameplay that takes place real-time, so it is also generally difficult and often fast paced. Popular examples include Company of Heroes, Men of War (which also falls under Real-Time Strategy), Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War (which also falls under Real Time Strategy), and Total War (which also falls under Turn-Based Strategy).
- TBS – Turn-Based Strategy. The game progresses in turns, almost like a board game. Popular examples include Civilization and Total War (which also falls under Real Time Tactics).
- TBT – Turn-Based Tactics. A game with tactical gameplay (which lacks the long term goals of strategic gameplay) that progresses in turns, almost like a board game. Popular examples include XCOM which also has some Real Time Strategy gameplay (but not much).
Survival Games – Games in which the goal is to survive, using relatively complex gaming mechanics to do so. Distinct from Survival Horror games as plain Survival Games are not Horror games. Rust is a popular example.