Content Warning — The Beginning of “Lethal-Company-Likes” and Why Genre Means Nothing

Soulslike. Metroidvania. Rogue-Lite.

And so on, and so forth. You can probably list a half-dozen other examples from across gaming’s decades of history. But I’ve got a new one for you (but probably not for long). But first, let’s recap something.

It all started yesterday when the new extraction co-op horror game Content Warning launched, free for its entire first day. And — while we could debate who that April Fools’ Day prank was on (did the developers trick us to all play their game, or did we trick them into giving it to us for free?) — what might be as interesting are the outlets that covered the rocketing success of this bid. That’s to say, they immediately and simultaneously started using an as-of-then uncoined term: Lethal-Company-Like.

lethal company like articles
A few select examples. There are more.

Now, let’s make it clear: If “Lethal-Company-Like” is a thing (and I guess it is now), Content Warning is absolutely one. It sees you and a few friends venture into horrifying environments for the sake of profit, produces as many laughs as it does screams, and has the lo-fi, alt-universe-PS2 look that is just so appealing right now. Yeah, it’s safe to say that there are enough similarities for the games to be “-like” each other.

But — and I’m not the first one to point this out — isn’t it a bit weird that video game subgenres are like that. I mean, we wouldn’t call Monkey Man a “John-Wick-like”, Franz Ferdinand (the band) a “Modest-Mouse-like”, or the Earthsea books “Lord-of-the-Rings-likes,” would we?

And yet, here a new game is, being compared like that. And not even against a massively popular style of established games that has been recognizable for years. No, instead, it is of a subgenre that formed from an indie game that came out less than 6 months ago.

What on Titan is going on?

Well, there’s a bit to this. Firstly, we don’t have good names for things yet. Gamers sometimes forget this, but video games are a very new medium, not only coming into existence recently, but also being recognized as art even more recently than that. In 1994, Harlan Ellison asserted that video games couldn’t be art (except for his, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, of course). And in 2010, Roger Ebert echoed the same sentiment. That second one is what spawned a wave of pushback that finally converted popular consensus to the opposite.

Behold, the article which spawned 10,000 YouTube rebuttals

That was only 14 years ago. And while that might seem like ages ago for most gamers and in terms of the internet, that is a very short amount of time to figure out how things worked. For perspective, Science Fiction wasn’t coined as a genre until 1929, nearly 40 years after the birth of cinema. And that was one of the early ones genres for the medium. Prior to that, books and movies that we’d now call Sci-fi were “adventure” or “speculative” stories. Or, in at least a few cases, several books and movies were referred to as “like a Jules Verne novel,” erring awfully close to “Jules-Verne-likes.”

So, what’s my point? Well, video games are a very young medium. We don’t have the categories full-fledged yet, we are still finding our way to defining things. Old genre labels don’t always work — after all, there is a whole interactive element to video games that helps define them — but also newer genres that take into account gameplay styles (like “First-Person Shooter” or “Racing Games”) feel inadequate to really subdivide the medium.

And so, we end up with “Metroidvania”, saying in one word what would otherwise have to be said with “2-d side-scrolling platformer with collectible powers that enable you to return and pass through previously previously-closed-off barriers, often in a horror-themed (but not actually horror) location.” And we end up with “Soulslike” instead of “a third-person action RPG with a dodge-roll or similar mechanic where control precision and attack timing are essential, taking place in a strange world that you have to piece together with minimal exposition or explanation.” And even those don’t include games that are considered part of their genre that don’t fit, like Hollow Knight (in both cases).

image 1
Me, catching my breath with my bug girlfriend after calling Hollow Knight a 2.5D semi-linear action-precision-platformer mystery-drama with minimal exposition set in a post-apocalyptic, dreamlike smallworld-fantasy-gothic kingdom.

We use these comparisons because they fit, and because video games are just too new and too layered of an art form to have good terms for everything yet. And, because of how we engage with games, this comparative language makes sense. We recommend games because they feel like other games we like. That extra interactive element makes that comparison make sense: poets use metaphor because complex ideas can be boiled down simply through them. We use comparison for the same way.

Because of that incredibly deep extra layer, unlike other mediums, there can never be enough terms to describe every single disparate way to experience games… But I can tell you what games feel like Grand Theft Auto. It’s like adding the Z-dimension to a graph which was already running short of labels for its points when it was just X and Y.

But this has produced an interesting effect. Because we’ve been doing this since we started calling games “roguelikes” in the 80s, and never stopped since, now that is just how gamers think. Those basic genre tags are still there, both for gameplay and more traditional genre — things like Horror, Adventure, First-Person Shooter — but when those start to get a bit too cumbersome, we turn to comparison.

shadow of mordor combat
Sure, you could describe Shadow of Mordor’s combat without using the word “Arkham.” But why would you?

And that’s how you get a brand-new indie game — only the second popular game to follow in a particular design style — to be referred to as a “-like” of the first game to have that style, a 6-month-old indie game made by one person.

And you know what? That’s fine by me. Genres are all made up, anyway. They have always been marketing, just ways to tell audiences what to expect. And what better way to do that than to say, “this thing is like this other thing?”

Doesn’t get much more effective than that.

So, gamers, rejoice, and bask in the light of the Lethal-Company-like, and we must be happy to call Content Warning that, so that we don’t have to refer to one of the most co-op horror games this year as a “first-person co-op survival-horror/comedy extraction game.” Genre might be meaningless, but at least “Lethal-Company-like” isn’t useless.

At least, I hope it isn’t. How else will I introduce you to the new addition to the Balatro-like genre: Bingle Bingle?

bingle bingle is a balatro like
Balatro-like: a game based on modifying casino-game rules, which only* takes 15 minutes to play

(*in 3 hour increments)
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Graves is an avid writer, web designer, and gamer, with more ideas than he could hope to achieve in a lifetime. But, armed with a mug of coffee and an overactive imagination, he'll try. When he isn't working on a creative project, he is painting miniatures, reading cheesy sci-fi novels, or making music.

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