Dungeon crawler or looter shooter? Nine video game genres explained

Modern video games now exist in a bewildering mass of interconnected genres and sub-genres: here’s your guide to the most interesting

Metroidvania

This term is a portmanteau derived from two beloved games that arrived on the Nintendo Entertainment System in the mid-1980s, Metroid and Castlevania, and is usually applied to 2D games in which the world is explorable in all directions (as opposed to classic platform games, in which you go from left to right). There are usually secret rooms and areas that can only be accessed once you’ve found some key or item later on, so players have to mentally map their progress and backtrack when necessary. In this way a good metroidvania world is like a story, with tension, foreshadowing, plants, payoffs and surprise reveals built into the very foundations.

Try: Hollow Knight, Axiom Verge, Ori and the Blind Forest.

Roguelikes

One of the most popular indie game genres, the term roguelike comes from the 1980 game Rogue, originally developed by coders Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman. It featured a hero exploring a multi-storey dungeon, attempting to find treasure while battling monsters and collecting weapons and armour – but if the character died it was game over, no extra lives. The dungeon’s layout would change each time you played.

A roguelike is a modern take that retains the key elements – permanent death (or permadeath), continually changing environments and gameplay based around exploration, killing enemies and picking up items. Importantly, death is understood in this genre not as a failure but as a step towards better understanding the game. “Generally, roguelikes are about learning what might yet come, and being more prepared and capable to deal with it,” says game developer Rami Ismail, who co-created the acclaimed Nuclear Throne. “Most roguelikes feature simple interconnecting systems and their charm comes from learning to understand the permutations … [it’s] about failing and learning and failing and learning and realising you’re failing a bit later every time. There’s a genuine sense of achievement in overcoming a challenge like that. They are fun to make, too: small, interconnecting systems allow for tons of emergence and surprises.”

Try: Nuclear Throne, Spelunky, Caves of Qud, Crypt of the NecroDancer.

Roguelites

More recently, a variation on roguelikes has emerged: roguelites. In these games, players retain some skills, items, weapons or whatever else after death, so that they don’t have to start entirely from scratch every time they die.

Try: Hades, Returnal, Dead Cells.

Soulslike

A genre that emerged in homage to the landmark Japanese dark fantasy game, Dark Souls (and Demon’s Souls before it). Essentially, this is a role-playing action adventure involving tough combat, hostile environments, enormous danger, and few checkpoints to mark your progress. Soulslike games will usually have some sort of currency gained from killing enemies which can be used to level up your character – this currency is dropped if the player character is killed, but can be recovered if you trek back to find your body. Totally clear, right? There are lots of arguments online about what constitutes a soulslike, and like the games themselves, they can become extremely obscure and tiring.

Try: Nioh, The Surge, Salt and Sanctuary.

Dungeon crawler

A derivative of the role-playing game which tends to abandon narrative and tinkering with your character in favour of fast-paced exploration and combat, and accumulating endless shiny things. Dungeon crawlers involve running through labyrinthine enclosed environments, battling enemies, picking up items and money, solving puzzles, and unlocking doors. The greatest examples, Gauntlet and Diablo, let you do all of that together with friends. Game devs love them: “The genre provides enough flexibility to set your game effectively anywhere, and focus on gameplay and systems experimentation,” says Dave Crooks from Dodge Roll Games, creator of the brilliant Enter the Gungeon.

“Furthermore, dungeon crawlers are often set in confined spaces and built with modular parts; you don’t need online multiplayer, you don’t need an expert physics programmer, you don’t even need to know how to write dialogue. The important parts are that the player feels drawn to continue crawling, that they are rewarded, and that the gameplay loop is compelling.”

Try: Enter the Gungeon, Darkest Dungeon, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, Diablo III.

Looter shooter

This genre term applies to any shooter game that has you collecting ever better and more useful weapons, ammo and clothing from your vanquished foes. Looter shooters tend to involve complex inventory screens where players can intricately personalise their avatars, selecting armour, abilities and weapon load-outs that match individual approaches to play. Discoverable items are usually ranked from common to legendary, based on their stats and rarity, and the small chance of finding scarce items is a major motivator for play. The sci-fi shooter Borderlands is usually credited as the progenitor of the genre.

Try: The Division, Destiny 2, Borderlands.

Survival game

One of the bleakest gaming sub-genres, survival games challenge you to live for as long as possible in an inhospitable environment, gathering resources and fighting off danger until your character escapes or succumbs (usually, it’s the latter). “Most survival games also model physical vulnerabilities, simulating ideas like hunger, thirst, fatigue, and extreme cold or heat,” says Raphael van Lierop, writer/director of The Long Dark. “Many have extensive crafting, or combat, but in general they are built around the player having to make good choices that help them stay alive another day … A survival game gives the player a unique relationship with the game world, one where even simple movement carries a cost, and you are always fighting for time.

“As we learn more about how to wrap interesting narratives around these vulnerability simulators, I think we have an opportunity to really change the way our players think about their relationship with a game, and likewise with the real world. If approached thoughtfully, a survival game can help someone become a better steward of the nature we depend on. That’s the future.”

Try: The Long Dark, Don’t Starve, Ark: Survival Evolved, Escape From Tarkov, Valheim, Day Z.

Deck builder/Card battler

A genre that borrows elements from traditional card games as well as collectible card sets such as Pokemon and Magic: the Gathering. Characters are represented as cards with abilities and values, which are played against a rival’s collection in a turn-based battle.

Players may start with a limited number of cards, but earn more as they go on – hence, deck building. “In our games we use cards in several different ways: to drive the battle between our character and an enemy; as consumables like a health potion; as interchangeable, collectible items that offer costumes and power-ups,” says Helen Carmichael, designer of card battlers Shadowhand and Ancient Enemy.

To Carmichael, the appeal of the games is in their familiarity. “Cards are a widely understood token that carry over from all kinds of tabletop games – from poker to monopoly. They are easy to understand … Cards within deck-building games can be both very beautiful and display a lot of information. There is a great deal of testing and balancing that goes on to make sure these types of games are fun and the difficulty level is reasonable. But when we’ve got that right, the temptation to play ‘just one more hand’ is hard to resist.”

Try: Hearthstone, Dicey Dungeons, Slay the Spire, Shadowhand.

Masocore

Another portmanteau – this time combining masochist and hardcore – applied to any game in which sheer uncompromising difficulty is kind of the point. It is most often associated with a type of platformer in which levels are designed specifically to frustrate the player and require trial and error to conquer – as well as extreme skill. Capcom’s Mega Man series is often cited as an early example due to its emphasis on precise jump challenges. Indie games in this genre have become cult hits due to their ridiculous difficulty.

Try: Celeste, Super Rude Bear Resurrection, VVVVVV, Super Meat Boy.

Contributor

Keith Stuart

The GuardianTramp

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