I believe anyone can get into video games, but aspects of the hobby can be unfriendly to newcomers. One such needless barrier to entry is the confusing way many players talk about video game genres.
Unlike movie or book genres, which tend to describe the story’s content or setting — such as “sci-fi,” “historical non-fiction,” “mystery,” or “romance” — video game genres describe the gameplay experience. But while new players can likely point out common genres like racing, first-person shooter (FPS), and role-playing games (RPGs), they probably don’t know what “immersive sim,” “roguelite,” and “soulslike” mean, nor could they point out examples of these popular subgenres, or describe what makes one different from another.
To help you navigate the often inscrutable world of video game genre nomenclature, let’s consider 12 popular video game genres and styles that could use some more explanation.
Given the recent launch and ubiquitous popularity of Elden Ring, let’s start with “soulslikes.”
Soulslikes are a specific style of action RPG with two key gameplay systems: The first is “souls” or some other currency collected by killing foes that is used to level up your character, unlock new abilities, or buy items and equipment from shops in the game. In most soulslikes, any currency banked by your character is dropped upon death, which plays into the second key feature of the subgenre: the “corpse run.”
Instead of a “game over” screen, dying in a soulslike sends you back to the most recent checkpoint, giving you a chance to run back through the level and collect your dropped souls from the spot where you perished. However, if you die again before successfully reclaiming your lost bounty, it’s gone for good. High difficulty is another common (but not universal) trait of soulslikes as well, making repeated deaths and corpse runs a key part of the experience.
But why are they called that? The term “soulslike” refers to FromSoftware’s 2009 action RPG Demon’s Souls. While Demon’s Souls was merely an iteration on From’s previous hardcore dungeon crawlers like King’s Field and Shadow Tower, it popularised the souls and corpse run mechanics. Games that take direct inspiration from Demon’s Souls’ formula are now referred to as “soulslikes.” This includes almost all of From’s subsequent RPGs like Bloodborne, Elden Ring, and the Dark Souls trilogy (often referred to collectively as the “Soulsborne” series), as well as titles made by other studios like Star Wars: Fallen Order, The Surge, and Ashen.
Roguelikes are extremely difficult dungeon crawler RPGs inspired by the original Rogue, released in 1980. To be considered a “true” roguelike, a game must adhere to a strict set of gameplay systems codified in the “Berlin Interpretation,” including:
- Turn-based, grid-based movement and combat
- Permadeath, with no progression carrying over between playthroughs.
- Randomly generated levels.
Roguelikes tend to feature complex gameplay systems and focus on resource management and risk — such as hunger meters, crafting to create items, and using unknown items that could help or harm the player. These are all elements of the original Rogue — hence “roguelike.” Examples of modern Roguelikes include Caves of Qud, Jupiter Hell, and Shiren the Wanderer.
Roguelites, on the other hand, break from the traditional roguelike conventions, and instead pick and choose from classic roguelike elements (most commonly, procedural generation and permadeath) and apply them to other genres and gameplay styles.
For example, the side-scrolling action platformer Dead Cells and the top-down action RPG Hades both feature procedural level generation, randomised powerups, and permadeath. Roguelites also tend to offer metaprogression to offset the permadeath and make subsequent attempts easier — such as earning gold to spend on upgrades between runs in Rogue Legacy or “darkness” that can unlock permanent new abilities in Hades — rather than forcing players to start over completely after each run.
Character action is an odd name for a genre — after all, most action games feature a character of some kind.
What distinguishes these games is their gameplay pacing and camera perspective. In character action games, you control a single character at a time (though multiple characters may be playable) from a third-person perspective. Combat often borrows elements from arcade brawlers, action RPGs, and 1-on-1 fighting games, such as combo moves, skill trees, unlockable upgrades, and stage-based progression. Bayonetta, Devil May Cry, and Ninja Gaiden are examples of character action games.
While “Musou” is the Japanese name for Koei Tecmo’s Warriors franchise, in the west the term refers to the subgenre of action games popularised by the series.
In musou games, characters control a single character and face off against large waves of enemies — often hundreds or even thousands in a single level. Your character’s attacks deal high damage to multiple foes at once, sending enemy battalions literally flying through the air. Many — but not all — musou games take place in large-scale battlefield settings, and levels often feature strategic objectives like capturing important points on the map or defeating the enemy’s commanders.
Along with the prolific Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors series, other notable musou titles include Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, Persona 5 Strikers, and Dragon Quest Heroes.
Horror themes, jump scares, and tense atmosphere can show up in any video game, but survival horror games are the closest the medium has to a codified “horror” subgenre akin to horror movies.
Survival horror games blend action and adventure elements — such as combat, level exploration, and environmental puzzle solving — but add in heaps of tension. While survival horror games often give players a means to fight back against monsters and other creepy foes, important resources like healing items and weapon ammo are often scarce, and the player character may be slower or weaker compared to the enemies you face, so combat is rarely incentivized over simply running the hell away.
Resident Evil and Silent Hill are probably the most popular games in the genre, but other standouts include Condemned, The Evil Within, and Dead Space.
Immersive sims can be hard to spot, since the term refers to a specific type of game design that can appear in almost any genre, from first-person shooters, to RPGs, to puzzles games. However, the experience of playing an immersive sim is unmistakable.
As the name implies, immersive sim games painstakingly simulate real-world interactions between in-game objects. For example, items you can pick up or throw have believable physical properties like weight, inertia, and velocity, and their impact affects other items in the world. Water and metal will conduct electricity. Fire will spread between flammable materials. These simulated behaviours aren’t just for the sake of realism; the flexibility of these systems gives players more agency over their experience. As such, levels, combat encounters, and puzzles are often open-ended, and can be approached in a variety of ways.
Immersive sim games often feature first-person camera perspectives, following in the footsteps of the genre’s earliest examples like Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief. Modern examples that continue this trend include Prey (2017), Dishonored, and Biosock. However, many third-person games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain feature immersive sim mechanics, even if they aren’t strictly considered as such.
“Shmup” is shorthand for “Shoot ‘em Up,” and refers to the wide variety of arcade-style shooters. Unlike first-person shooters (FPS) like Doom and Call of Duty, or third-person shooters like Gears of War, shmups are based on the classic “shooter” gameplay found in games like Galaxian, Zaxxon, and Tempest, where players blast waves of enemies while dodging incoming projectiles. Beyond that core gameplay similarity, shmups come in many forms including (but not limited to):
- Scrolling shooters: 2D games (or 3D games played from a 2D perspective) where the screens moves left-to-right or top-to-bottom. Examples include: Ikaruga, R-Type, and Einhander.
- Rail shooters: Fully 3D shooters, where the character moves through the levels automatically while players fire at incoming enemies, such as Star Fox, Panzer Dragoon, and Sin & Punishment.
- Twin-stick shooters: Players control their character’s movement and firing direction, as in Asteroids, Geometry Wars, and Hell Divers.
While not a discreet genre per se, you may see the term “shlooter” thrown around in discussions of popular games like Destiny 2, The Division, and Borderlands. “Shlooter” comes from the phrase “looter-shooter,” which is a reductive descriptor for games that meld the loot-driven, mission-based structure of multiplayer action RPGs like Diablo and Phantasy Star Online with first- or third-person shooter combat.
MOBA stands for “multiplayer online battle arena.” MOBAs are an offshoot of real-time strategy games, where two teams of players face off against each other in compact maps — which are split into “lanes” — alongside waves of AI-controlled NPC (non-playable character) troops. Players control powerful hero characters with unique abilities that develop over the course of each match. Teams battle each other to gain control of the map and eventually destroy the enemy’s home base.
The subgenre started as, of all things, a custom game mode in the strategy game Warcraft 3 called “Defence of the Ancients” (aka DOTA). Its popularity expanded beyond Warcraft 3 and eventually spawned the free-to-play standalone game League of Legends along with Dota 2 (yes, they made a sequel to a Warcraft 3 custom mode).
League of Legends and Dota 2 are massively popular games worldwide, and MOBAs are currently one of the biggest draws in esports. For a while, companies rushed to create their own MOBAs to cash in on the genre’s ballooning popularity. While most of these games never caught on, a few managed to find their own audiences, such as SMITE, Heroes of the Storm, and the recent Pokemon Unite.
Autobattlers are chess-like strategy games in which players face off in multi-round, one-on-one battles. During each round, players select a team of units. The units then engage in automated combat, with no direct control from the players themselves. Each round lasts until one player’s units are defeated, then points are awarded to the winner (or subtracted from the loser’s hit points, in some cases) and a new round starts. The match continues until one player wins enough rounds.
Autobattlers started as yet another custom map type in Warcraft 3. However, it wasn’t until the Dota 2 mod Auto Chess that the genre gained popularity. That means this is a subgenre based on a popular mod that spun off from MOBAs, which themselves are a subgenre based on a popular mod for a real-time strategy game.
In the wake of Auto Chess’ popularity, Valve released an official Dota 2 autobattler, Dota Underlords, though it was a short-lived experiment and the game is no longer officially supported. Despite Dota Underlords’ demise, the genre remains popular thanks to games it inspired, including Team Fight Tactics, Legends TD 2, and the “Battlegrounds” mode in the digital trading card game Hearthstone.
Metroidvanias are action games (usually platformers or action RPGs) that emphasise exploration, featuring large, contiguous levels packed with hidden items, shortcuts, and other secrets. Instead of simply beating a level to progress, players must acquire upgrades to unlock new paths and/or enhance their character’s skills to take on new challenges. This is known as “ability gating,” since forward progression relies on your character knowing specific moves, rather than just having the right key to proceed.
The term “metroidvania” is a portmanteau of “Metroid’’ and “Castlevania,” and refers specifically to the two titles that popularised the genre’s gameplay: Super Metroid on SNES and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on the original PlayStation. Attempts to supplant “metroidvania” with more descriptive labels like “pathfinder” or “search-action” (which is how the genre is referred to in Japan) haven’t stuck, so metroidvania remains the popular term.
“Metroidvania” games tend to be 2D, whether that be side scrollers like Hollow Knight, Guacamelee, and Axiom Verge, or top-down games like Unsighted and Scurge Hive. There are also 3D metroidvanias like the Metroid Prime series, Batman Arkham Asylum, and Castlevania: Curse of Darkness, all of which feature the same level design ethos and ability-gated progression as their 2D counterparts. Some argue that the non-linear, shortcut-heavy level design of games like Resident Evil 2 and Dark Souls count as 3D metroidvanias as well, though the lack of ability gating is contentious among genre-purists.