A few weeks ago I reviewed Fable III for the Rootin’ Tootin’ MSP. Not being insecure at all, I posted my intent to review the game on Twitter the day before to see what others had to say about it. Reaction varied, some people hadn’t played it but were looking forward to it, others had given it a spin and were enjoying it, but one comment in particular really surprised me. “cool, just make sure you don’t call it an ‘RPG’.”
My reaction to this was sequential.
Reaction 1: Huh, I hadn’t thought about Fable III as an RPG.
Reaction 2: wait… isn’t it, though?
So I decided to figure out what, exactly constituted an RPG, which took me on a quest to the repository of all internet knowledge…
A role-playing game (RPG) is a broad family of games in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting, or through a process of structured decision-making or character development. Actions taken within the game succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines.
“Ok,” I said out loud to myself before remembering I was at work, “by that definition Fable is an RPG… but by that same definition, so is Star Fox.” and I don’t even mean Dinosaur Planet Star Fox. I mean even the original Super NES version, since you play a cool pilot in a cool spaceship and your decisions influence the course you take to the final boss. Of course, Star Fox isn’t generally regarded as an RPG. So I decided to approach this issue from a different direction.
I have played lots of games that are actually considered to be RPGs some of them include:
- Chrono Trigger
- The Final Fantasy Series
- Breath of Fire
- Fire Emblem
- That game that was formative to your gaming experience and I neglectfully omitted
So what do all these games have in common? And what separates them from the Super Mario Bros 2s, Contra IIIs, and Super Street Fighter Alphas out there? These are their distinctive commonalities:
Plot complexity: Most of these games have a storyline that is more complex than “save the princess” often, in the case of most Final Fantasy games, one that seems deliberately complicated. Also the storyline develops throughout the game, as opposed to the game being one long kill-the-final-boss mission.
Pen-and-paper RPG-based mechanics: Most of these games can trace their roots back to Dungeons and Dragons (or to each other, and then D&D). Character levels, turn based combat and hit/miss chances are all common in these games.
Focus on character stats and resource management: Another D&D vestige, but worth bringing up. Inventory usage, ability point allocation and swapping characters are all regarded as “RPG” traits.
Decisions that affect the plot or the illusion thereof: RPGs were some of the first games to have multiple endings or extra bits of plot that develop depending on player decisions.
Using these traits it becomes possible to rule out Star Fox as an RPG, but not any of the Fable games. Nor can we really toss out Fallout, Metroid games from the Game Cube on, and even games in the Halo series. This, of course leads me to my long overdue thesis: There’s actually no such thing as an RPG video game.
RPG video games were defined as such because of their mechanical similarities to tabletop RPGs, but the core of what makes a pen-and-paper RPG is absent from video games. Without that human interactive element, a tabletop game becomes simply a very fancy and complex strategy or adventure game. Which is what most of these video games actually are. Even if you choose to label those older games as RPGs, the fact of the matter is that as the industry has grown, most games now have at least some “RPG” elements. In fact by the definitions we have seen so far, Super Mario Galaxy is as much of an RPG as Final Fantasy XIII.
This leaves us with two options. We can call most video games RPGs, which renders the label essentially worthless, or you can break “The classic RPG” into its component parts and apply them as necessary. This way Fallout 2 has RPG-like interaction, Final Fantasy XIII has an RPG-like character system, and Metroid: Other M has RPG-Like whining. Thus there are no Role-Playing games, just Role-Playing characteristics.
Now, you, in the back, you can put your hand down, I’m about to talk about WOW.
Some might argue that due to the importance of interacting with other players, MMORPGs may be the only true RPGs out there. This is, of course, not true. MMOs suffer the same issues as non-massive games in that they are largely about mechanics and point allocation, rather than any sort of shared narrative. Sure you can log on to World of Warcraft’s RP friendly servers, but the fact of the matter is that the role-playing aspect (in the tabletop sense) is not central to the execution of the game. It is optional. In fact the game itself, just by virtue of being a video game will often strain the role-playing experience, say by resetting a mission after you complete it. Playing an MMORPG is just playing Secret of Evermore with twelve million people.
So what do we get from all of this? Hopefully this: Sometimes we get caught up in labels, even when they no longer make any sense. I mean what the hell kind of game do you call Portal anyway? Our inability to accurately (and succinctly) label games is a good sign. Video Games continue to evolve as a medium, and soon we will need to start defining them not by game play but by intended audience, as even games aimed at toddlers will have “RPG” and “first person shooter” aspects.