Imagine watching a Michael Bay movie, and never seeing any kablooey.
Imagine sitting through a comedy, but never hearing a joke.
Imagine playing a high-fantasy game, and never getting a chance to cast a spell.
Would this be a disappointment? A bummer, even?
That’s because when you started that movie, or that TV show, or that game, you knew what you wanted to see. Of course you did! We all do. We all decide what we’re going to read, watch, or play based on a promise - the promise the creators and marketers make to us, on the movie poster or the Netflix menu or the back of the box.
That promise is this: “We deliver your kind of fun.”
Maybe for you, getting scared half to death is fun. Or seeing things blow up real good is your cup of tea. Or maybe you live for the perfect joke. We all have our things! And your audience has their thing, too.
If you want to connect with your audience, you’ve gotta know what they want.
Some people might say “Genre?!? That’s for hacks. I want to do something totally original.” To which I say, Great! Go for it. But in order to break the rules, you’ve got to know them first.
And here’s why: those rules don’t live in dusty old books - they live in the minds of your audience, who have been raised on a lifetime of stories.
That means they're already in your head, too. On a gut level, you already know a lot about genre. This is all about going pro, and taking the time to really learn your craft - moving that knowledge from your gut to your brain, where it can do more good.
When you know those rules at a deep level, you’ll be able to meet your audience where they’re at, and then you can take them on a journey, anywhere you like.
Genre is extra-tricky in games, for reasons I’ll explain. And that’s all the more reason to figure out how it works.
Once you know how to wield this weapon, it will always serve you well. (I promise.)
Let’s take a closer look.
Gameplay genre and story genre are not the same thing
So what exactly IS a game genre? “A video game genre is a specific category of games related by similar gameplay characteristics. Video game genres are not usually defined by the setting or story of the game or its medium of play, but by the way the player interacts with the game.”
Here are some examples I bet you'll recognize:
- Platformers, like Donkey Kong or Super Mario Brothers
- Battle royale, like Apex Legends or Call of Duty: Warzone
- Rhythm games, like Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero
And a story genre is a narrative category - we all know most of these:
- Detective/Mystery stories, like Chinatown or Rear Window
- Love stories, like When Harry Met Sally or Moonstruck
- Sci-fi stories, like Alien or Star Wars
And here’s where it gets tricky. There are some examples of genres that could apply to games, or stories, or both - like action-adventure, or horror, or even sports.
Most of the time, when developers are talking about genre, they’re thinking only of gameplay. And that makes sense: that’s their job.
But as a game writer, it’s your job to think about both gameplay and story - and figure out how they fit together.
This is why genre is your secret weapon. It gives you X-ray vision - the power to see the shape of both your story and your game. That helps you make good decisions about your project, faster, and with a lot more confidence.
I'll share a real-life example in just a minute. But first:
How a game's genre defines your story
If you're ready to get your head wrapped around your game's genre, you can start by asking two simple questions:
- What will the player be able to do in this game? and
- How will that make the player feel?
You won’t know for sure, of course, how the player will feel - but you can guess. After a while, your guesses will turn into insights, and then eventually predictions. You’ll feel like a wizard.
Here’s an example.
Let’s say you’re working on an action-adventure game. In it, players can:
If somebody were playing a game like that, how would they (probably) feel?
Aggressive? Focused? Competitive?
Now let’s say somebody wanted to write a comedy story for this game. (Just go with me here...)
That would be a hard trick to pull off. Because comedies work best when audiences feel relaxed, safe, and ready to let their guard down.
You’d have to dial the game’s competitive factor WAY down - and change a few verbs - in order to make room for the funny. It can be done - see Brütal Legend - you just have to be intentional (and get the designers on board with your plan).
Gameplay make us feel a certain way. And stories make us feel a certain way, too.
It’s all about finding stories and games that go together.
Keep your eyes on the (genre) prize
Genre is invisible. And so it’s easy to miss. But it really IS a secret weapon. Make it work for you, not against you.
A few years ago, a team brought me on board to help them fix their script. It was in big trouble. They were getting terrible feedback on their story. 80% of playtesters couldn’t follow the plot. The publisher was demanding changes. And the team HAD to ship on schedule, or else. Yikes.
The game was an action RPG. But the setting was high-fantasy - so the script was too. Lots of gorgeous flowery language, lots of riffs on lore and magic.
So what story genre were they working in? Were they telling an action story, or a fantasy story?
To figure it out, I looked at what the avatar actually did in the game. What role he played.
Because in most action stories (John McClane in Die Hard, Indiana Jones), the hero is a fighter.
And in most fantasy stories (Frodo in LoTR, Dorothy in Wizard of Oz), the hero is an explorer.
So did the avatar explore? Or fight?
Turns out he was a warrior. He fought.
So OK! This was an action story, taking place in a fantasy world.
We stripped out all the high-minded dialog, we moved lore to the menus, and we streamlined the script into a fast-moving action story - perfect for a fighter.
The players were happy, the publisher was happy, and the game shipped on time.
Thanks for reading. See you next week.
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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.