Ask game developers what kind of game they’re working on and they’ll usually mention a genre. “It’s a platformer.” “It’s a rhythm game.” “It’s a Battle Royale.”
They're describing their gameplay genre.
But game writers need to know their story's genre, too.
Game genre and story genre are not the same things!
Wikipedia defines video game genre as “a classification assigned to a video game based on its core gameplay (type of interaction) rather than visual or narrative features.”
Then there are narrative genres, like adventure stories, science fiction/fantasy, mystery, horror, and romance.
One is about gameplay, the other is about story. (Makes sense, right?)
You can mix and match story & gameplay genres. Sometimes they’re one and the same, like a horror game that tells a horror story. Or you can have a role-playing game that invites the player to solve a mystery.
It’s important to know your game genre AND your story genre.
But believe it or not, this distinction between game & story almost never comes up in studios - at least, not with the larger team. Sometimes, the devs just don’t have good ways to talk to each other about this.
Things are changing - more and more studios are calling me in to teach story workshops, for example - but as an industry, we still have a long way to go.
Most game devs spend their days working hard on the gameplay. They don’t always have the bandwidth to think deeply about things like story conventions and story genres.
But somebody on the team's gotta think about them. Because you know who DOES think about story genre? The player.
Players have been hearing and watching and playing stories for a long time. They recognize genres when they see them. Sometimes they even choose which stories to watch/read/play based on genres. Maybe they’re big fans of Westerns or detective stories or sci-fi.
And when stories let them down - when the game promises to bring them into a great fantasy story, for example, but then forget to include the magic - they’re frustrated and disappointed.
And nobody wants to disappoint the player!
So let's get our heads wrapped around this tricky topic.
Not sure which story genre is right for you?
Let’s figure it out…by looking at the game!
Start with the player
It all starts with thinking about the experience you want to create for the player.
For example, let’s say your game is open-world. You want your players to spend a lot of time exploring. If so, fantasy would be a good story genre for your game. Fantasy is all about exploring and discovering.
The key to making a fantasy story work is to create a contrast between the world and the character. The world is huge and full of magic - so most heroes of fantasy stories are repressed in some way. This gives the characters room to grow as they move through the story. Here are some examples of repressed heroes in fantasy stories: Frodo in The Lord of The Rings or Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz.
I bet you noticed that I didn’t list any game examples there. Here’s why: in fantasy stories, characters usually grow and change. Most game characters don’t change much. But they COULD! The game that ships a fantasy story where characters go through some kind of transformation will be breaking new ground.
Sometimes, the game genre and the story genre are one and the same. For example: let’s say your game mechanics are all about fighting. In that case, you could keep things simple and build an action story for your game. With an action story, you want to keep things moving, as fast as possible, so one good strategy is to make sure all the opponents are monsters - either literal monsters or just Extremely Bad Dudes - so that you don’t have to spend time explaining why they need to be stopped: the player can just get right to it.
But guess what: action games lend themselves to all kinds of story genres. For example, you can combine action stories with a crime/detective story, like Batman: Arkham City or Cyberpunk 2077. Or you can combine action with fantasy, like Elden Ring. Action games give you options.
One story genre that is both a great fit for games - but is also hard to pull off - is the detective story. It’s a great fit because a detective solves puzzles, and most games are problem-solving, so gameplay and story can really come together. The trick is to be sure there are PLENTY of suspects, all of whom could have committed the crime. You don’t want the player to be able to guess the ending from a mile away. One brilliant example of this type of story is the role-playing game Disco Elysium. If you haven’t played it yet, please go play it now. You’ll be glad you did.
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.