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Action Adventure: A lack of boundaries leads to lost focus

Pixelated murder simulator. Superhuman stealth game. Open-world quest for retribution. Whimsical journey through the skies. These descriptions capture what makes our Action Adventure of the Year 2012 nominees so poignant and impressive--but none of their characterizations could ever be all-encompassing for an entire genre. To label the stellar assortment of today’s highly evolved gaming masterworks as a mere mash-up of “Action Adventure” is, to put it simply, inaccurate. Such a definition glosses over decades of progress in games.

What compels us to instinctually classify these games as such? The fact that we explore the world? The presence of items to collect and enemies to fight? The imaginative, grandiose scope of the environment and lore? Most every game does these things; to group them all together under one label is lunacy. It's not just a semantics issue, either. Games have evolved past the obsolete, single-note experiences of the early days.

During their most primitive beginnings, “Action” meant the reflex-based movement and button tapping in games like Space Invaders, while “Adventure” was defined by text-based expeditions as with Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork. The Atari 2600’s “Adventure” is cited as the first-ever Action Adventure game, marrying the compass-based exploration and inventory management of a text quest with the graphics, movement, and incoming threats of an action game. But many gamers think of Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda as the quintessential Action Adventure game.

Immensely more advanced than the simple mazes, banal enemies, and single-pixel protagonist of Adventure, Link's first undertaking gave players a true sense of progression through an inhabited world. Gamers' mental pathways merged--a reaction to the intensity of attacking enemies and dodging attacks mixed with the uncertainty of exploring huge environments and interacting with memorable characters.

However, it didn't take long for the genre to turn into a mad jumble. Games like Super Metroid and Tomb Raider pushed the concepts of exploration and hand-eye coordination further. They introduced new elements to the established formula: things like the incremental gain of new abilities, challenging platforming segments, a dedication to hiding secrets throughout the game, and a more intimate perspective thanks to new camera angles. They improved on Zelda’s designs to a point where they weren’t recognizable as simple Action mixed with plain Adventure.

Landmark games are called such for a reason. Such is the case with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which further antiquated the term Action Adventure through the innovations it brought to the table. As a highly evolved version of the original, it's so much more than the action of slashing your Master Sword through skeletons, or the adventure of exploring a three-dimensional Hyrule. Such an oversimplification leaves out the “Eureka!” moments of solving a tough dungeon puzzle, the awe of galloping across open fields on Epona’s back, and the serene meditation of learning a new Ocarina melody. Calling these multifaceted quests Action Adventure games strips away so much of the allure that charmed entire generations of gamers.

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11 comments

  • THE_FORCE - December 14, 2012 11:05 p.m.

    If you're saying that Zelda OOT was bland, sparse and oversimplified then I agree. Most overhyped game in console history!
  • talleyXIV - December 14, 2012 12:35 p.m.

    I literally have no idea what you are trying to argue here... do you want sub genres to form or what? This seemed like a showcase for using big words and sounding intelligent. Really just a load of pretentious bull crap and superfluous words... seriously action/adventure games are still getting better, what is the problem here?
  • GR_LucasSullivan - December 14, 2012 1:17 p.m.

    How can a game define a genre when that genre has no clear definition? Why do we still use an obsolete, catch-all label?
  • TanookiMan - December 14, 2012 11:41 a.m.

    Hey Lucas, really interesting read here. I do agree that a lot of games suffer from the "more is better" mentality, but do you really think that the vagueness of terms like Action Adventure are to blame? I guess I just don't see developers sitting down and thinking, "This time around, let's make an action adventure" and then constraining themselves on this basis. Creative designers will push the envelope, regardless of the genre they think their game falls under once the game is complete.
  • GR_LucasSullivan - December 14, 2012 1:21 p.m.

    Thanks! I kinda think of it like drilling into the earth; if you're not really digging in one specific spot, then it will take way longer to get any deeper. Having a clear idea of what "Action Adventure" is would be like having that focused spot, and who knows how deep they can dig if the path is clear?
  • Hobogonigal - December 13, 2012 9:08 p.m.

    Interesting article, with a few insightful points. I wouldn't mind seeing a few more of these.
  • NOGIRLSIWANNAJETPACK - December 13, 2012 7:50 p.m.

    I just want to say that this was a fantastic, insightful article!
  • PBC13 - December 13, 2012 4:09 p.m.

    I'm not sure I entirely understand the problem here. I don't see how a purposefully broad name for a genre is effecting anything at all. And I also strongly object to the idea that GTA IV is 'merely a good game'.
  • shawksta - December 13, 2012 4:05 p.m.

    VERY Interesting article. I agree to an extent, how this presentation should be showed isnt gonna be easy because there's so many. Take the 3D Platforming Genre for example, there arnt that many games that sybolize it, because nowadays people consider them to evolve into action adventures. Now thats where Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 comes in. Because there's barely been any games on the genre, Galaxy was literally the only game to set new standards to the genre, TWICE. It showed what the 3D Platforming genre is and what it symbolizes. Its still clear what Action Adventure is, because nowadays a game is either a FPS,RPG or an Action Adventure, Depending on view and depending on the gameplay. Hope to see some great things because AA is by far the most adventurest and free roaming thats not locked into a specific view. What will come? I dont know, but to me, whatever Zelda is next is what im looking at only because how every Zelda experiements on something different.
  • grappler51 - December 13, 2012 9:21 p.m.

    I don't know that I agree with that. Super Mario 64 is usually considered a 3D platformer along with stuff like Banjo-Kazooie,Jak and Daxter etc. Though I'll admit that those games could probably be considered action-adventure as well, it's a pretty vague genre. All that aside, great article. It's really interesting to look at how games have evolved and mixed genres to the point where it's hard to classify many games a single type.
  • shawksta - December 13, 2012 10:48 p.m.

    Im talking about 3D Platforming relevance THIS gen, for disclosure

Showing 1-11 of 11 comments

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