Trouble with Genre
“So what kind of game is this?”
It’s a pretty simple question. A pretty important one, too, especially when you’ve only got a few seconds to communicate the basic idea. And yet, after nearly two months of showing off Darknet, I still don’t have a good answer.
My problem is that Darknet doesn’t fit neatly into any genre, and that makes a quick description difficult. I usually start like this:
1) Darknet is a cyberpunk hacking game
This is my go-to description of the game, and it’s 100% accurate. It’s set in a cyberpunk world, and you play as a hacker! What more could anyone want to know?
Of course, this immediately invites the question, “yeah, but what do you do?” “Hacking” is not a satisfactory answer. Most game genre labels try to describe the game’s mechanics, not its narrative theme. From that perspective, this answer is just too vague.
2) Darknet is a puzzle game
The most common interaction in the game, the hacking challenge, is turn-based and deterministic. The player can try out a solution, see if it works, and retry if it doesn’t. Even though there are some moving parts involved, it’s ultimately a static challenge. A puzzle!
Except that’s not the whole story. The first problem is that, while the puzzles in Darknet are deterministic, they’re much too chaotic to predict or understand all at once, which deviates from the usual puzzle category. (Perhaps if you count Tetris or Bejeweled as “puzzle games”, you could count Darknet as one, it still feels like it’s stretching the definition.) More importantly, there’s a whole layer of gameplay sitting above the puzzle-y hacking challenges. Players accumulate and spend resources over the course of each level, and they can choose when in that process to take on a hacking challenge. So...
3) Darknet is a strategy game
Think of some of the classic turn-based strategy games, like Heroes of Might and Magic or Age of Wonders: if you cut the game down to a single battle with predetermined armies on each side, we might be able to call it a puzzle. But that’s not the case. Instead, you’re responsible for building that army, scouting out the enemy, and entering the battle on your own terms. There’s a wider context and a major element of resource management, which raises the game to the level of strategy. The same is true in Darknet.
As far as genre labels go, “strategy” has got to be the most vague. Like the “hacking game” label, it’s accurate, but not really helpful. “Okay, it’s a strategy game; but what do you do?” I’ve been calling Darknet a strategy game so far, but I keep hoping for a better, more specific answer somewhere.
4) Darknet is a roguelike game
Or roguelite, or roguelikelike, or procedural death labyrinth, or whatever.
The gameplay structure of a Darknet level is inspired by roguelike games like FTL and Speklunky. The level is randomly generated, offering the player a variety of hacking challenges. The player always starts out very weak, with few resources, and gains new resources by conquering harder and harder challenges. There’s no guarantee that the player will win, and losing erases all of the player’s hard-earned gains (which we might as well call “permadeath”).
This description, of course, fails in its own ways. First of all, the roguelikes that inspired me are notoriously hard; most of the long-term appeal comes from the difficulty of getting to the end at all. The levels in Darknet, on the other hand, can range in difficulty from stupidly easy to impossible, and the player gets to choose which one to tackle. Second, although the player can collect resources and buy items in Darknet, the player is gaining strength in a mostly linear way, as opposed to the more RPG-like character customization in other roguelikes. Perhaps I can still call it a roguelike, but it’s definitely not a complete answer. And there’s another important factor to consider...
5) Darknet is an action game.
Darknet is mostly turn-based; whenever the player is making decisions, the game is not fighting back in any way. But there’s a twist: a timer is constantly ticking down in the background. If the player doesn’t complete the level within a certain time limit, they lose. This adds an element of tension and speed. Much like in an FPS, a player in Darknet needs to make tactical decisions quickly, sometimes optimizing for speed above all else.
But, of course, it’s preposterous to call the whole thing an action game just because of a timer. Time is ultimately just another resource to be budgeted, and the decisions are always more cerebral than twitch-based. Perhaps I could call it a real-time strategy game, but unfortunately that phrase seems to be reserved for games in the Starcraft/C&C mold.
So what should I call it?
It’s tempting to just start saying “PREPARE FOR SOMETHING TOTALLY DIFFERENT!!!” and give up on the genre thing entirely, but Darknet’s problem is that it sits in between so many genres, not outside of them, so this would be a little disingenuous. I could also try to invent a new genre label to describe it. Maybe an acronym that combines puzzle, strategy, action, and roguelikes (SPAR? RAPS?). But bringing a new acronym into the world is a crime I don’t want to have on my conscience.
If you have any better ideas, let me know! I’d also accept a concise way of explaining the close connection with puzzles, the roguelike structure, and the extra twist of time pressure. Then, I could just keep saying “strategy” but with a caveat. Any suggestions?