In my hands I hold two games. One is a gritty, violent noir where you play a sheriff trying to catch a murderer in a corrupt and classist regime. The other, a high school drama, where you play a teenage photographer who has to navigate social situations with themes of bullying, mental illness, and teenage rebellion. Now what if I told you they are the same genre: Graphic Adventure?
The games I described are Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us and Dontnod’s Life Is Strange. The mechanics of these games are fairly simple: a single-player character, point-and-click environment interaction, and multiple choice conversation options. These games also share an episodic release schedule with player choice statistics at the end of each episode.
The main mechanical difference in these games has to do with pacing. The Wolf Among Us has a time constraint on conversations, forcing you to make quick decisions or else remain conspicuously silent. By removing the ability to dwell on decisions, the game gives the impression of non-stop action and encourages rushed or even reckless choices.
Life Is Strange, on the other hand, has few timed events, and introduces a time travel mechanic that allows the player to revisit decisions endlessly. When your friend’s step-dad comes home, you have all the time you need to find a place to hide, even though the event only lasts until he reaches the top of the stairs. This lifts a lot of the tension of decision-making, and the game feels more leisurely as a result.
But even when you’re using the same mechanics, the feel of each game is very different. In The Wolf Among Us, you’re navigating dark streets to run-down apartments, following blood trails to find killers and examining fatal wounds. In Life Is Strange, you may be hitting the same buttons on your keyboard, but you’re walking around through a colorful boarding school, hurrying to the bathroom to wash your face after class and examining photographs. The Wolf Among Us uses conversations to highlight the tension between its adversarial elements—the government and its neglected people, or the sheriff and his suspects—and to ramp up the urgency of your mission. Life Is Strange conversations are focused on establishing daily school life—a teacher’s lecture, a bully blocking the door, reconnecting with an old friend—and building characters.
That one mechanical style can support such different games is neat! But it also means that defining these games strictly by their mechanics is neither thorough nor meaningful. If you enjoy Life Is Strange for its easy pace and strong character focus, you won’t immediately cotton to The Wolf Among Us’ rapid decision-making and heavy violence. Conversely, fans of The Wolf Among Us may find Life Is Strange to be plodding and stylistically bland. While obviously it’s possible to like both games, you probably won’t like them for the same reasons.
Life Is Strange (top) sports a more vibrant color palette than The Wolf Among Us (bottom)
Why do we group these two games together, then? Well, mechanical genres—such as shooter, fighter, and platformer—are the main way we talk about games. It’s a useful paradigm; games are defined by their interactivity, so categorizing them by how the player engages allows players to identify similar games that match their skillset and utilize play styles they enjoy. We can comfortably say that someone who enjoys Titanfall is likely to enjoy Destiny because, despite their differences, the first-person shooter mechanics are the main draw of both games. However, with the rise of Twine games and the resurgence of Graphic Adventure games as led by Telltale, we’re seeing an increasing number of story-focused games with minimal or lightweight mechanics. For these games, mechanics are a framing device for the narrative, rather than the selling point.
This isn’t a call to define these games the same way we do movies; while “Noir” and “Drama” are apt descriptors for these examples, they lose the fact that these are undeniably games, not films. It is the suggestion that “Graphic Adventure” is too broad. We aren’t getting the same level of information from the term “Graphic Adventure” as we are from “First-person Shooter” or from “Fighter.” If we want games to be taken seriously as a storytelling genre, we need to take a closer look at how we define them and move past the strict mechanical categorization.