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.

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