Froglikes, and other genre-likes
Over the course of the past few years, one genre of game has had me particularly impressed, and to be entirely honest, it started earlier than you’d think. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really have a name, and I want to change that.
Frog Fractions is a game that is starred by a frog, and has very little to do with fractions.
Frog Fractions’ initial façade is the same as one of those Cool Math Games, and in particular one that’s intended to teach children about fractions. For those who weren’t a young schoolchild in the early noughties, it was a weird time where the internet was a staple of everyday life, but to use it, you had to sit at a desk and stare at a blurry monitor. The only way to access the internet at school was through one of these cursed desks, and the school firewall forbid most websites that weren’t deemed educational. Considering the time period and the words “Cool”, “Math”, and “Games”, you can probably guess what kind of website it was.
Frog Fractions came out, by comparison, in the early teens (2012), when those schoolchildren had become angsty schoolteens, or angsty university students. Maybe even angsty game design students.
The whole game is an odyssey that satirises all kinds of video games and video game design itself. In fact, the word “odyssey” is something we’ll come back to later, since it describes Frog Fractions and similar games very well. At the time, Frog Fractions was very popular within its own audience of weird internet folks, but there were still a lot of people who hadn’t heard of it.
Fast-forward three years later in 2015 and Toby Fox finally releases his magnum opus, Undertale. While Frog Fractions explores the weirdness of games through a barrage of cute little snippets of one-off flash games, Undertale dives deep into one core idea and creates a fully-fleshed game. At the time, Undertale became a pop culture sensation, and analyses of its main story elements ended up being widespread, which ruined the experience of an otherwise masterfully designed game for a lot of people who never had the chance to experience it properly.
Nowadays, basically everyone knows about Undertale, or at least has vaguely heard of it, but the core message of what the game is about is lost behind the love of its characters, which is definitely for the better. Since Undertale is a game that’s best played while knowing as little ahead upfront, it’s good that most people only know of it as “the game with the funny skeleton dude” instead of (redacted).
Video game genres are a very weird mess. Since games get released far and wide into the general public long before they’re seriously studied by unfun academics, it’s hard for people to pin down what exactly makes games memorable. As such, we’ve adopted a tradition of naming game genres after memorable games within them, which is why grid-based puzzle games often reference 倉庫番 and games similar to Street Fighter are called fighting games.
In all seriousness, one of the most well-known genres named after a game is the Roguelike, named after a game no one has ever played, called Rogue. There are also Metroidvanias, named after the two game series Metroid and Castlevania. And Soulslikes, named after Dark Souls. At this point, naming genres after games is kind of a meme, even though it’s 100% true that Castlevania is a Metroidvania game that takes place in a castle.
To be fair, a lot of these genre-likes do have genuine descriptions, but the game-based descriptions are less of a mouthful. Roguelikes are cyclic games with permadeath, featuring both the permanent and non-permanent kinds of permadeath. Soulslikes are dark, unforgiving games with a usually gothic aesthetic. Metroidvanias are exploration-based platformers with lock-and-key mechanics. You can try and mix and match these words to be shorter and simpler, but ultimately, you’re going to end up using more than one word, which is why people still settle on the name-like naming scheme.
Froglikes (affectionately pronounced frogue-like) are my take on naming a genre after Frog Fractions. It feels perfect because:
The game was released almost a decade ago, which means a lot of people haven’t played it
Most games in the genre look and feel completely different from it
Vagueness is exactly what you want in this particular genre
Now, there are existing terms that feel close to froglikes, but they don’t match perfectly. For example, Alternative Reality Games feature transmedia storytelling, where real-life events alongside player input affect the course of a game. However, a lot of froglikes have associated “ARGs”, and they’re not the same.
For example, Frog Fractions 2 was hinted-at through clues scattered throughout numerous other games before being fully released inside another game. The intent behind this was for players to explore and discover hints of its whereabouts before finding the actual game itself. Jim Stormdancer, the creator of Frog Fractions, describes Frog Fractions 2 as really being Frog Fractions 3, with this ARG being the real Frog Fractions 2.
Since the main element of Froglikes is this meta-narrative or ludonarrative focus, one common element of all Froglikes is the sentiment that they’re best played with zero knowledge upfront, only knowing very vague details about the games’ mechanics and stories. This is why vagueness of the genre itself is also a good thing: with all else removed, all that a game being a Froglike really tells you is that you should sit back and enjoy the ride instead of doing your research ahead of time.
Unfortunately, this does make convincing others to play Froglikes hard, as it generally relies on someone who’s played it knowing someone who might enjoy it. It’s very rare to find a pure Froglike game (and, in my opinion, one doesn’t exist), and so Froglikes are often sprinkled among other genres of games.
Without delving too much into the actual features of these games, here are a few examples of games I consider Froglikes:
Frog Fractions (moreso the sequels than the original)
Undertale, and not Deltarune
Inscryption, The Hex, and Pony Island
Baba Is You
Doki Doki Literature Club
Stephen’s Sausage Roll
And in the spirit of the split between “Roguelikes” and “Roguelites”, here are a few games I consider Froglikes:
The Stanley Parable
The Beginner’s Guide
There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension
To further clarify this split: roguelikes are cyclic, forcing a player to completely start over from the beginning and replay the game until they master its mechanics; while roguelites generally carry over some progress, despite keeping the same idea. In my opinion, froglikes must satisfy the “you shouldn’t know much going in about how the game is played” criteria, whereas this doesn’t matter nearly as much for froglites. And similarly to the distinction between roguelikes and roguelites, I can imagine that the difference between froglikes and froglites will also be very opinion-based and controversial.
Lastly, I want to go over some of the examples of what I consider recurring elements in Froglikes. Obviously, we have the most common element of “you don’t want to know much going in,” but there are a few other recurring elements that are not strictly required, such as:
- Describing themselves as an “odyssey”
- Part of the game’s story includes the game itself, the player, and/or the developer as characters
- Generally being satire for games, a particular kind of games, game design, developers, etc.
- Intentionally misleading what the game is about beyond just the surface level
- Completely adding, removing, or modifying mechanics throughout the course of the game
- Breaking the fourth wall
And a few things that could be confused with Froglike elements, but are not:
- Breaking the fourth wall
- Having unique mechanics that shift between parts of the game
- Seriously misleading the player during the course of the game or its story
- Talking about video games as a theme, or making being a game the central theme of the game
- Having a deep and impactful story beyond the game
- Having a story that is best experienced without spoilers
I promise that putting “breaking the fourth wall” on both lists is not just a joke but very intentional: while a lot of Froglikes will break the fourth wall, doing so is not required to be a Froglike. Again, the distinction between the two is extremely opinionated, and no matter who you talk to (including me), they are wrong.
I have been meaning to write this up for a while and finally brain-dumped when I had it all in my head, so, I don’t expect this to be entirely coherent or consistent. I personally will continue using the term “Froglike” both seriously and as a joke, and I encourage other people to do the same. Having a common term for this sort of thing would be very helpful for a lot of reasons, and even if this term isn’t accepted, I hope another one is.
I also love the idea of ARGs, even though I often don’t have the time or energy to participate.
So, yeah. Hope you liked this; if not, that sucks, I guess.