Genre Definition

I recently came across a massive flowchart for anime recommendations. I’d copy it in this post, but it’s enormous. It sparked a conversation with Kodra about what genres things actually fit into, and got me thinking about what having a genre even means at this point.


Kodra looked over the chart and found it odd that Kino’s Journey, a show we watched recently, was classified under “slice of life” and not “adventure”. It’s a show about a girl on a motorcycle traveling from country to country through a fictional (read: allegorical) world, learning about the lives of the locals and occasionally getting involved with local events (but mostly trying to remain a neutral observer).

Kodra’s take (though he can correct me if I’m misrepresenting it) was that the whole road trip, fraught with danger and sometimes open conflict, was an adventure, and that the show was therefore an adventure for showcasing adventurous things. I disagreed– my take was that it’s a show about seeing the everyday lives of various people through the lens of someone whose day-to-day is travel, rather than staying in one place. There’s no beginning or end to the story, no overriding goal to accomplish, no Big Bad to defeat, just a continuing story of a somewhat unusual everyday life.

That having been said, I also have to ask myself the question– would someone coming off of a string of more “standard” slice-of-life shows enjoy Kino’s Journey? Is that even a genre that makes sense? A lot of police procedurals and medical dramas fall quite neatly into the “slice of life” category, but is someone going to like Grey’s Anatomy or CSI just because they liked The Wire or The Big Bang Theory? On the other side, something like How I Met Your Mother is framed like an adventure, but is a lot closer to other slice-of-life shows than something like, say, LOST.


The same thing applies to games as well. Dishonored is a stealth game, unless you don’t want to play it that way. Wolfenstein: The New Order is an action shooter, but you can play it like a stealth game if you want. Borderlands is a shooter but has a lot of MMO stylings and is, realistically, best when played with friends rather than solo. I don’t know where you even start to classify something like Gone Home or Cibele, outside of the wide arc of “interactive fiction”.

On Steam, games are less and less classified by genre and more classified with tags, which vary pretty widely. Dishonored has the following tags on steam: “Stealth”, “Steampunk”, “Action”, “First-Person”, “Assassin”, “Atmospheric”, “Singleplayer”, “Adventure”, “Story-Rich”, “Multiple Endings”, “Dark”, “Dystopian”, “Magic”, “FPS”, “RPG”, “Replay Value”, “Fantasy”, “Open-World”, “Shooter”, and “Sci-fi”, which are arranged by most popular tags by the community. Some of these tags are pretty redundant, but they paint a reasonable picture of what to expect, without trying to shove the game into a single genre.

We can look at Gone Home, one of those games that defies simple genre categorization. Steam has it tagged thusly: “Walking Simulator”, “Short”, “Indie”, “Exploration”, “Atmospheric”, “First-Person”, “Story-Rich”, “Female Protagonist”, “Adventure”, “Singleplayer”, “Great Soundtrack”, “Interactive Fiction”, “1990s”, “Mystery”, “Romance”, “Point & Click”, “Narration”, “Realistic”, “Relaxing”, “Simulation”. I’m not sure I would call Gone Home a simulation of much of anything, and the tag “walking simulator” seems a bit tongue-in-cheek to me, but the overall theme of the tags paints a good picture of the game.


I’m not sure when exactly it happened, but it was definitely during my lifetime (I’m going to say late-90s/early-00s) that entertainment media started mixing genres more significantly than before. You can see it in the weird evolutions of niche, speciality TV stations– when MTV stopped just playing music and The Fantasy Channel blended with Sci-Fi (anyone remember The Fantasy Channel?), all the way up to now, where shows like Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, and Agents of SHIELD started appearing on be primetime channels, instead of being relegated to tiny budgets on niche networks.

It’s been a really neat thing to follow, but our classification of media hasn’t really kept up. We don’t have a lot of unifying language to talk about the media we like, and I suspect that’s why you get a lot of outrage about particular shows. Someone expects to watch Jessica Jones and get a similar experience to Daredevil (because they’re both comic book properties through the same network), and is surprised (sometimes unpleasantly) to find that they’re very different shows, and they feel like they’ve been misled.


People got up in arms about Destiny because they felt like it should have has deeper MMO mechanics, or a larger focus on story, or have more intricately balanced multiplayer like Halo. There wasn’t the right language to classify the game properly, so it’s a lot easier to be disappointed. We as viewers and players have developed more specific, more rarefied tastes while the language used to describe our media has become less and less accurate, making it hard to figure out if we’ll enjoy something new.

It’s an interesting problem, and I’m not sure where the onus of solving it lies. Does it lie with critics and journalism? Can their major contribution to the state of the industry be developing and delivering a unified language for describing media? Does it lie with marketing? Should marketing be defining their games, with the most successful games dictating what language means for everyone else? Does it lie with players, and the new surge of community tagging and sorting?

Kodra and I have run into issues trying to sort through Crunchyroll and other platforms to find media we like– there’s so much and it’s so poorly described and categorized (if at all) that it’s hard to know what’s worthwhile, especially if it takes a few installments for something to really get going. Mostly we sort by looking for recommendations, though finding recommendations we trust is hard. At this point, of all the people we know, we’re probably some of the most versed and up-to-date on anime, making it easy for us to recommend things but much more difficult to find stuff ourselves.


  1. Interesting post. Genre is a strange thing because they can be anything from very vague, like RPG, to oddly specific, like Metroidvania. People can also define genres differently. For example, while I consider a shoot’em up to be something like a vertical/spaceship shooter, I’ve seen others refer to pretty much any game with guns as a shoot’em up.

    Games are so complex now, and often combine aspects of many different genres that I don’t think a one or two word genre category can really explain most of them. I usually find comparisons to other games the most helpful, though it relies on being familiar with many other games and would be unfriendly to newer gamers.

    1. I’m really leery of using relativistic categorization for media, where you say a game or show or movie is “like [this other game/show/movie]”, because it makes certain types of media totally impenetrable.

      It’s a problem I’ve run into with anime, where a lot of recommendations are “well, if you like X, you’ll like Y”, but that not only rarely captures the reasons I might like X, but the comparisons are worthless to me if I haven’t seen X. I’ve been watching a TON of shows for pretty much the entire year and am only just now getting to the point where I can parse people’s recommendations.

      Especially for mature media, you might be talking about something ten or more years old, that was really great in the ’90s, and led you to like the more refined version decades later, but doesn’t hold up now. I love Gone Home because it reminds me of Lucasarts adventure games, but those are rather hard to find at this point, if they even still hold up.

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