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Action Adventure: A lack of boundaries leads to lost focus

Somewhat perplexingly, or perhaps arbitrarily, other landmark games did manage to splinter off from the Action Adventure catch-all. Stealth games, born from the likes of Metal Gear Solid, still use reflex-based gameplay, item acquisition, and internalized virtual maps--but the focus is shifted to evading enemies instead of killing them. The survival horror genre, popularized by Resident Evil but established by Sweet Home, builds tension by dropping the player into unfamiliar territory, with scant resources and twitch reflexes as the only means of preservation. These genre labels convey familiar, applicable concepts, and offer a sense of what playing them will be like.

But some games continue to be clumped under the Action Adventure umbrella, with no indication of how vastly different they actually are. These games have outgrown the definition we're giving them. It'd be as inaccurate as comparing a human being to an amoeba. The modern-day games that get wrongly labeled as Action Adventure offer far more than two words can muster.

Some are self-contained worlds, populated by distinctive characters that seem to lead their own virtual lives. The Grand Theft Auto series may incorporate gunplay and madcap vehicular chaos into its missions, but the sensation of spreading crime throughout a densely populated city is what makes them so invigorating. Uncharted’s sense of driven exploration is fabricated, where every fairly linear level and cover-based shootout gets bookended by a well-choreographed cinematic. The infinitely relatable characters are what supercharge the game with a sense of thrilling adventure, as you bond with Nathan Drake’s treasure-hunting for your own individual reasons.

Don't get me wrong--it's not that these games suffer from a lack of innovation or quality. But without a clear idea of what the genre is and how to iterate on its core concepts, any leaps forward will be few and far between. And this deficiency is being born out in a variety of once-groundbreaking franchises. Take Grand Theft Auto IV and Assassin's Creed III. Neither revolutionized the concepts that made their franchises such huge successes in the first place. Instead, they diluted their sandbox experience with too many uninteresting side-tasks, leading to the dreaded feature bloat that can reduce a great premise to a merely good game. Instead of doing better things, they simply did more things, with varying returns. How can developers move a genre forward when it has no singular idea to improve upon?

A few genres, like platformers and fighting games, have concrete frameworks for gameplay, with new premises built upon that solid foundation. Super Meat Boy was made possible by Super Mario Bros. and the generations of iteration that followed it; Street Fighter furthered the fundamentals seen in Yie Ar Kung Fu. But Action Adventure offers nothing for a game designer to go on, and no simple gameplay mechanic to start with. All there is to go on is the latest success--but we shouldn't be forced to use "GTA-style" or "Uncharted-esque" as the measure of an entire genre.

Without boundaries to guide their efforts, without a clear definition of what to iterate on, developers will continue to broaden their scope without refining their craft. Trying to capture the nebulous concept of Action Adventure in your game is impossible--it's an ambiguous non-genre that seems to mean different things at different times. What we need are more narrowly defined genres, ones that are clearly defined and fully aware of who and what they are. Only when we know our boundaries can we fully explore them.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

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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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