I asked a friend the other day something about Action/Adventure video games and he asked back, “What is an Action/Adventure game?” After I stopped asking incredulously over and over how could he not know and actually tried to produce an example I realized I couldn’t. Super Mario Galaxy seems like an Action/Adventure game, but it’s a platformer. Call of Duty has a ton of action in it, but it’s an FPS. Metal Gear Solid is a stealth game. Resident Evil is survival horror. Soul Calibur is a fighting game. Grand Theft Auto a sandbox game, and Fallout 3 is a sandbox, FPS with RPG elements.
But that can’t be. There must be an Action/Adventure game. It is a genre. We all know it is. It was decreed by the genre pigeonholing council of 1527.
The thing is they are all Action/Adventure titles. It’s a schizophrenic bunch. It would be, the very title can’t decide what it’s talking about. Adventure games are about exploration and big worlds to look through. Action games are fast paced games, with multiple button presses per second—generally speaking anyway. It was a lot easier to talk about in the golden age of the 8- and 16-bit era. Action games were twitchfests to different degrees and adventure games, following the model of the genre’s namesake "Adventure," were mazes with a broad definitions of key to open broad definitions of door.
Videogame genres are named after the majority verb used through out the game, sometimes with some adjectives attached. What do you mostly do in Call of Duty? Shoot. Mario? Jump. GTA? Anything you want. And we have names for all of those genres: shooter, platformer and sandbox games respectively. Of course, as time marched on, as it is wont to do, genres started to get mixed. There were action RPGs, and now RPGs that had to have a J to the front to differentiate what once was just a regular RPG. First and Person were added to the front of shooter as not to confuse them with the likes of Contra. And now we have "First Person Shooter Role Playing." In fact there are now so many genres that Action/Adventure doesn’t tell us anything and is just an outdated term. Older games like Zelda, which were Action/Adventure titles in their heyday, are only grandfathered into the genre when really they are better described as open world or sandbox games. Hell, fighting games are full of action with fast twitch based gameplay, but no one would dare call Super Street Fighter IV an action game—it's a fighting game.
Action/Adventure is a super genre. Like RPG and Strategy they are genre titles that don’t mean anything without some clarification. Platformer, sandbox, survival horror, stealth, first and third person shooters are all genres that fall under the Action/Adventure banner. But we still use the unhelpful superterm. Why? Because humans are lazy. It’s a short cut when we don’t want to describe a game to someone who may not understand all the terminology gamers are so used to, but we also use it as a term to describe something we have no defined genre for. I said before that a genre is named for the verb used the most in a game. Killer 7 is a First Person/Rail/Shooter/Puzzle/RPG? No, it’s Action/Adventure. Shadow of the Colossus is an Open World/Adventure/Boss Battle/Platformer. No, it’s Action/Adventure.
There are too many wildly different games out there now that it’s not just impractical to give each different type a different name, but unhelpful. Our best option is to call them Action/Adventure games. With games whose scope is so broad we use a term just as broad. That’s the answer. Action/Adventure games are games with no other term to describe them.