A Clarification of Genre: RPG

Please read A Clarification of Genre: Introduction because this post will be building off of the foundation concepts put forth there. That post also contains some clarifications for how I will be writing this series. You can read the previous entries: Action and Adventure.

Now comes the big enchilada. The one I’m sure to get the most arguments/hate mail about.


I’m going to break up the formula of the posts for this one and instead of starting off with the definition of the Super-genre, I’m going to work up to it via the thought process by which it came about. This is probably the most hotly debated topic in the critical sphere at the moment, with near weekly twitter debates (used to be daily) at least a dozen blog posts either as theoretical as my own or as specific as to focus on a single title. And of course Extra Credits just finished their three part series on wRPG vs JRPG, which incidentally was what got my butt in gear to actually sit down and write this series.

In each case it all starts with a deceptively simple question: what is an RPG? I started with a game where you play a role. Facetious, yes I know. But it was only a starting point and as good as any other that does not focus on mechanics or repeated elements through examples of the genre. At one point this definition as tautological as it may have been probably was good enough to describe RPGs from litany of other games out there because it was at a time where other games could not include such role elements like detailed character and story choice. Of course we have long since left that era and now seemly every game has characters and story with as much to say as any series of novels or movies. The Uncharted series has a cast of characters described by critics like they are following along the adventure of real people. Drake, Sully, Elena, Chloe are all names of rich characters and you play in the role of Nathan Drake getting him through encounter to encounter on his adventure. You step into his shoes and are playing as him, but the games are not RPGs. Likewise most games nowadays have stories, some passable, some awful and a few are great, but this is true for everything from RTS to FPS to rhythm games of all things. So we have to define what we mean by role and playing a role.

The key comes from understanding the focus of what is traditionally considered an Action game and traditionally an RPG. Let’s for the sake of things compare Pac-Man and Ultima. In both you play a role, in the former you are a yellow circle that moves around eating pellets and in the later you are whomever you create in the character creator known as the Stranger. Already we have our first difference. A pre-defined character vs. one the player creates. Except if we bring this forwards we see Action games like Saint’s Row and most FPS now offering a level of character customization that is not in most RPGs. Going back, what else is there? Well in Pac-Man the “character” is defined by his verbs, the mechanics the player interacts with regards to the game’s timing, while in Ultima the “character” is defined by the player’s choices. This becomes even more prominent in later Ultima games, most notably Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. So RPGs are defined by player choice with regards to character?

Again no because this brings us back to the character creation screen and since most Action games, a few Adventure games and one or two Strategy games I can name include experience points and leveling up we have to include that those factors do not make an RPG either. The key is not in what we do, but why we do it. Let’s take a closer philosophical look at Ultima IV. In it you are the Avatar and instead of the ultimate goal of defeating the big bad, the goal is to master the eight virtues through your adventures across the countryside. You will have numerous choices embedded into almost every facet of the game that affect your standing on the various bars. These choices, letting the Goblin go verses finishing off the evil creature determine the kind of person you are. Role-Playing Games work towards answering the fundamental question: Who are you?

RPG – a focus on the exploration and development of the self to achieve mastery via self-definition

It is similar to the focus of Adventure games as both concern the idea of abstract exploration as a form of interaction. With Adventure it was with the world, with the RPG it is with yourself. The exploration is about the player-controlled character to determine who you are. This can be anything from how you interact with the various NPCs in the world to choosing what mechanics or even what verbs are available to your character. It is the idea that your character is yours, it is you or whatever type of person you want to be. Stories are centered around you character and not just that you are in the same plot as the rest of the world, but that the stories focus is on you. You either are the defining consequence to the world or the rest of the world is a backdrop to your story.

Of course this isn’t narrowed to just one character within a game, but to any number of characters as you define them as people. This is to include the older style RPGs where you created a party and not just a single character. Immersing yourself as a single person is not the focus of an RPG, it falls under it, but is a part not the whole. The focus is on the idea of exploring who they are through self-definition of who they are by the player. This can be done as a virtual individual or as a virtual group.

The Problem With Combat

I think RPG combat has caused more headaches in working out the Super-genres than anything else I’ve had conceptualize or explain. Part of the problem is that RPG combat doesn’t come from a traditional history a player embodying a person and defining them as a character, but from a wargaming background, Strategy games in other words. This heavy focus on fighting in the RPG Super-genre has cause some problems in the understanding of what they are as well as real world vitriol and death threats. RPGs are not their combat. Their combat, like leveling up and experience points, have been conflated with the genre because no one can be bothered to try anything else. Well in the digital space anyway.  Whenever a new RPG is announced the first question invariable asked is what is the combat going to be like. This is not because of that is what RPGs have to have to be an RPG, but an understanding by the audience that that is what all video game RPGs have, further conflating the elements together.

In essence though RPG combat is about expression of a character of your development. Whether it is on a micro level of what numbers and modifiers from equipment and spells to a more macro interactive level of choosing the very verbs one uses. The level of the effect doesn’t matter it is the focus of it that does. But making decisions based off of the numbers isn’t defining a character, it’s solving a puzzle. Yes, yes it is. The problem with understanding RPGs comes from a severe lack of focus from their mechanics towards their proposed goals of a player affectation with regards to play. Combat often is geared towards a puzzle solving direction than free from expression of character. Design wise anyway. There are players who can forgo the need to grok a system in favor of self-definition. Of course at the same time any intrinsic character examination from prescribed combat is a delineation of Action games. The of course there is fact to contend with that the combat itself has its roots in Strategy games. Yeah, RPG combat is kind of a clusterfuck of concepts and points.

The key to seeing the narrow band in which RPGs tend to reside within these two confines is to reduce how often it happens. I know of know actual RPG that does this so it will have to be hypothetical. Take an RPG that has combat and when you level up you get to either put points into attributes or make choices towards how your fight in combat or simply give you more agency in how much you can already do what you’ve chosen to do. In most RPGs this is where you fight numerous battles until you gain enough experience to level up again. Let’s futz with those numbers a bit and say it takes only 1 or 2 fights before you level up and are given more material with which to define your character’s combat capabilities. In this reduced aspect the choice comes in the level up decision making process and the combat then becomes the consequences of your choices played out as a tactical or not so tactical battle as the case may be. If this is how the game is focused then the combat systems don’t become an end in themselves but are themselves a stimuli response to the choices that do define the character. The only difference in this example is instead of one or two battles there are dozens in between such choices. The grind dilutes the focus, but does not eliminate it.

In the early RPGs – Ultima, Wizardry, Bard’s Tale, Gold Box etc – the focus was almost universally on the combat and not any other systems. They are not Strategy games, even though there was a certain amount of strategy to playing them. Here the self-definition of your party members was not a focus of their overall character and being, but minutely to one aspect that was the game. Their “who are you” question was a matter of whoa are you in the party? What role do you fill in this group of adventurers? Over 30 years later we are still asking this question of our players each time we have them step into combat and level up their fighting abilities. Recent release Kingdom’s of Amalur allows you to drastically change how you self-define yourself by reallocating your class, points and abilities. In doing so it allows the player to reinvent their character over and over as to suit their personal play style. Again you are defining a character by how they fight and what roll they play in a fight. It doesn’t matter if they are permanent choices, so long as they are choices of self-definition.

Understanding this brings up another issue not seen until the recently crop of multiplayer shooters. Battlefield in particular is class based. I’ll use Battlefield 1943 because it’s simpler. Each time you respawn you choose a class – infantry, engineer, sniper – and you are given different guns, secondary weapon and tools based on your class. You are choosing how to fight and it doesn’t matter that it isn’t permanent as you can choose again at each respawn or if you find a different pack on the ground, you are still choosing. But what are you choosing? You choosing the representations of modifiers to the timing of play; the machine gun fires faster than the rifle, but the rifle is more powerful and the sniper rifle is more powerful still with a longer range, but smaller clip and longer reload. None of this defines a character, merely the modification of verbs, which is the realm of an Action game. Of course how does this differentiate between the modifier of seconds to execute and action verses the modifier of numbers on a stat sheet in and individual fight. Likewise how does this differentiate between the state sheet of an individual in an RPG and the stat sheet of a tank in a Strategy game?

Headache coming on.

The thing is the answer waffles on a case by case basis. Because RPGs are so flimsy and seem to enforce a dichotomy between combat systems and everything else it is hard to make a distinction. With some games it is easy to see how choosing different thing when leveling up defines a character, see Deus Ex, whiles others despite tropes and common elements associated with RPGs its hard to see differences in them verses other Super-genres, see Final Fantasy. It gets even messier when you start thinking in terms of immiscible games.

I have stated how combat works as a tool of self-definition and I cannot go through every single example of poorly integrated combat.  I’m going to move on.

Talking About Character and Story

I started this in the last post on Adventure’s use of these two elements and now I will go for the RPG side of things. Character in Adventure games were about them being part of the milieu. With RPGs, character is about you. NPCs in Adventure games were part of the milieu that you had to learn what place they occupied in the world. NPCs in RPGs are characters there to help define your character by how you interact with them. This is most commonly done through dialogue options, sometimes with story choices affecting of certain characters see you. It’s your character’s relationships with other characters the help define who you are in a larger sense than what tactile position you take up.

This has come to be more obvious with the rise of Bioware in the late 90s. Their focus on character and most importantly interaction between party members has created a new set of ideas of what RPGs are. They have focused on character via what they say and what they believe as a method of expression, which hadn’t been done so much and not on a scale where it could determine who you were or have that determination affect the outcome of a story. Of course I say the rise of Bioware, but now most other RPG makers have included this type of party and NPC interaction as a matter of course. Do not confuse this for saying that dialogue trees or their equivalent are the defining factor of RPGs’ focus. It is just another mechanical trope common to the Super-genre that occupies another possibility space under the umbrella. It is also a transferable mechanic should the focus change. Adventure games have used them in the past like The Longest Journey.

The second factor is the RPG story. Whereas Adventure game stories were about the milieu, an RPG story is again focused on your character and a method by which it will allow you to express yourself. Often an RPG places you as some savior of the world. This allows the game to take you to a variety of different locations and cultures in an effort to save it. Of course you are not going to these places because you are learning about the world, but because you are defining your Role within the role of world savior. You have a role in the story and you roll along rolling dice to fight in your determined combat role in your Role-Player Game. Okay I’ll stop. The story of an RPG is the circumstance by which you define your character. It can be about saving the galaxy, defeating the Darkspawn, retrieving a water chip, locating your sister or regaining your place on the throne of the outer gods. Or in the case of one browser based game, Alter Ego, living an ordinary life from birth to death. You make dozens of choices through each stage of your life and have those choices effect different stats determining who you are and what you are. You learn, you love and if you are prudent enough you die peacefully and old. If nothing else this game is probably the best proof that combat is not necessary for an RPG. You defined and determined a character as how you see them through ordinary daily life situations.

Stories can be epic or small, fantastical or mundane or anything in between. The common element of all stories in RPGs, they are centered around the player character. They may not be about the player character, but they are the player character’s story.

I can’t be bothered going through specific examples to make my point. Plug the concept into your favorite RPGs and I think you’ll find it fits.

One Unusual Addition

In the final run up to this piece Rowan Kaiser presented a case on twitter for The Sims to being an RPG. The Sims is a dollhouse simulator and I can certainly see the argument of it being a game that allows self-definition. There is no fantastical or large scale situation, The Sims is very mundane, if a bit wacky, but it allows you to create a person or family to explore the possibility space and live out their lives as characters of your devising. You do define these characters within a very broad creation space.

I have not played any variation of The Sims and I’m know Troy Goodfellow has his own ideas of what the game is, but from my limited knowledge I do believe that it would fall under the RPG Super-genre. Especially if Alice and Kev is anything to go by.

Analog RPGs

This one is so easy. Tabletop/pen and paper/dice based Role-Playing Games. Dungeons and Dragons is the granddaddy of the whole Super-genre and the most famous of this type of game. Off the top of my head I can also think of White Wolf, Vampire: The Masquerade, Traveler, GURPS, and Bhaloidam by Corvus Elrod my go to example to show that leveling up isn’t necessary for an RPG system. Many of these were the basis of or the inspirations for many digital RPGs so it isn’t too hard to see them as the same game type, albeit with a grander possibility space because its run by humans rather than machines.

I do have another example though. Model UN is an RPG of a type. For those who don’t know it is a club generally in high school where one person or group of people represent a nation and the lot of them are a model of the UN. They research them and apply their situations of presented problems. They are acting out roles, while not entirely self-defined their persona as a representative of that country and their interpretation of what is in their best self interest is a self-definition.

I’d put kids playing house and the like under the definition of an RPG. It may be more limited to the concept of husband and wife or whatever variation or profession the children come up with it fits the classification. The descriptor is about defining a role and should the role be defined from preconceived notions about a title like ‘housewife’ or ‘doctor’ or ‘astronaut’ then so be it. Limitation of scope, information or imagination does not disqualify it from its central focus.

RPG Conclusion

This is a very loose explanation of a concept that seems to walk a tightrope between other established game focuses. I don’t believe that to be the case. It’s just that the RPGs as a whole have been pigeon holed into such a narrow definition of concepts in part because on the conflation of mechanics with focus and another part economics that much of the possibility space has not been used at all. I can think of a number of Adventure games if they were repurposed and refocused could be reclassified as RPG. Change the focus from the world to the individual and these worlds could be playground for different types of stories and game system concepts easily. But always it comes back to combat, level up, save the world. RPGs have mostly been defined by a sub-genre of a sub-genre of game space. This is the main reason the genre debate gets so on my nerves. So much focus is placed on what has been done that we never look up to see all the blank areas yet to be explored and filled in. And because we keep looking down at this narrow subset it is inevitable that we conflate experience points or levels or sword and sorcery or class combat with what an RPG is.

If a Super-genre is the method of delivery and all the descriptors underneath on the genre and sub-genre stratifications consist of the emotional and thematic experiences that are being delivered than we are sorely under delivering. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say among the 4 Super-genres, if Action is the most diverse than RPGs are the least and it’s making our understanding of them stupid.

The next one on the docket: Strategy

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