14 July 2010

There’s some confusion about the term RPG, or the roleplaying genre of games, which is only logical since it’s the ‘in’ term.  It’s the hip thing, calling your game an RPG. Every self-respecting modern game lards its gameplay potatoes with RPG béarnaise.

Still, that doesn’t mean their game is technically an RPG. So let’s clarify things. What makes an RPG? Is it the levelling of characters, the accumulation of items? Is it random, turn-based battles? Upgradable statistics? Is it, in short, the specific mechanics of a game? Or doesn’t that really matter? Are all those things merely the gameplay-technical outcomes of a specific philosophy? The RPG idea, if you will?

RPG’s originally came from the offline Dungeons & Dragons type games, in which you create a character, entering into a narrative world where you can decide the course of the adventure. This became a very popular pastime and the RPG quickly exploded across many forms and media. Videogames, boardgames, even books (the beloved Fighting Fantasy series)! These forms doubtlessly had many different mechanics, but they were all RPG’s because they focused on the one thing the genre has at its core: player choice. Player choice informs everything these games do. The mechanics are subservient to it, they flow from that concept. That also means they do not decide whether the game is an RPG. Mechanics do not an RPG make. Its philosophy does. Let’s hear a bold, true statement BioWare’s Daniel Erickson (who works on The Old Republic) made in May this year about Japanese RPG’s:

,,You can put a 'J' in front of it, but it's not an RPG. You don't make any choices, you don't create a character, you don't live your character... I don't know what those are - adventure games maybe? But they're not RPG's.”

And so it is. Not to knock on JRPG’s too much (a favourite pastime), but the vast majority of them are not RPG’s at all. The only ‘role’ you play is one that was decided for you. In that sense every game would be a roleplaying game, which is clearly be preposterous. JRPG’s often have little choice too, affecting the world at most in minor, inconsequential ways. That’s not the true RPG spirit!

Wrong in this regard was Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkins, a prophet I usually agree with. In this bit ( he writes about how most modern shooters have become RPG’s, as you ‘earn levels and equip items, customizing your character along three distinct trees’. He puts the focus squarely on the mechanical aspects that shooters (and many other genres of games) have indeed assimilated. But those mechanics empathically don’t confer the heart of the RPG. It’s doffing a poofy white hat, taking a dough roller in hand and bethinking yourself a baker. Alas, not so.

There’s a grey area, to be sure. Erickson muses that there are still heavy debates in the BioWare offices about GTA4: is it an RPG? There’s enormous room for customizability and taking your own path, along with a handful of big choices to make. On the other hand, Nico’s character is pretty much decided for you and the choices are rather limited in number.

These borderline examples only serve to illustrate that many genres can take up the gameplay tropes of the RPG, but that doesn’t mean they become them. It’s superficial, the merest sprinkling. It takes more than that to be an RPG. It takes true roleplaying grit, raw choice, real impact. Under these sterling values, many shrivel to show their true colours.