Wednesday, February 13, 2013

#56: The Timeless Question: What is an RPG?

Most of you out there know that I love to talk about video games. I derive pleasure from discussing what makes certain games work, where they go wrong, whether or not their stories make sense, and so on. Out of all of the questions related to video games that one could asked, there exists two that I dread seeing. These two are “What is a game?” and “What is an Role Playing Game (RPG)?”. This week, I will be discussing the latter because the topic came up on Twitter the other day and the realization dawned on me that I would be unable to answer that question in a series of 140-character posts. The fact is that there are so many games under the umbrella term of RPG that a definition that is broad enough to include all of them, yet narrow enough to exclude other types of game. With that in mind, coming up with my own definition and then working it around all the kinds of games in the genre would be impossible. Instead, I think it would be best to analyze all the games, from Mass Effect, to Fallout, to Final Fantasy, to Kingdom Hearts, that people mostly agree fit under the term and create a definition of “RPG” based on what all of them have in common.

The first of these characteristics that I notice in all RPGs is an overall sense of progression. By that, I mean that as the game goes on, there is generally a sense that the protagonist is growing and getting better at certain feats. Most of these games accomplish this through an experience/leveling system. As players accomplish objectives and dispatch enemies, they gain experience. After enough experience, they level up and gain stats and/or skill points used to purchase abilities. This model is one of the most common, appearing in Final Fantasy, Persona, The Elder Scrolls, and many similar games. Other franchises like Fallout add perks to this to further a sense of growth. While this is the most common method of instilling a sense of progression, it is by no means the only way to go about it. Both Deus Ex and its modern sequel, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, employed different systems. The original Deus Ex gave players Ability Points directly, after completing objectives or finding certain locations, which they could spend on skills from different types of weaponry to more passive skills such as First Aid, Lockpicking, or Swimming (which I would not recommend). Deus Ex: Human Revolution had experience, but instead of ability points which increased certain skills, they allowed protagonist Adam Jensen to unlock the cybernetic augmentations he is equipped with. Regardless of what systems are in place to encourage it, an RPG always has some way to make the player feel like his/her character is growing in either skill or power.

Another very common characteristic in RPGs is that designers tend to place a very large focus on the world and its inhabitants when making them. If players take the time to talk to people and explore in an RPG, they can expect to learn about economies, cultures, society, geography, political struggles, and more regarding the world or region that it takes place in. Games like The Elder Scrolls and Fallout (both older and newer titles) can boast a very rich and detailed world just waiting to be explored. That is one of the biggest draws of those games, and a topic I have written about before. Also, Bioware games like Mass Effect, Baldur's Gate, or Knights of the Old Republic serve as good examples. Like it or hate it, a major part of what makes the Mass Effect franchise so popular is that Bioware took the time to envision and develop a very vivid lore that most of the fans fell in love with. Learning about all of the various races, their cultures, and beliefs is half the fun of the game to some players. This is also true for the Japanese side of the RPG moniker. While games like Final Fantasy and Persona do not necessarily need to have very detailed background information due to how linear those games tend to be, players of them are often treated to pretty interesting worlds like the land of Spira in Final Fantasy X or the rural town of Inaba in Persona 4. The people and places all have there own story. The church of Yevon and the story of its creation and internal corruption are as fascinating as the discovery of a world inside the TV and all of its mysteries. When it comes down to it, all RPGs have deep, interesting worlds to learn about and/or explore.

The last element that I have noticed in all Role Playing Games to some extent is a feeling that the player has some element of choice in how the player character/party develops. Admittedly, this one is going to be a bit of a hard sell, so hear me out. In most western-style RPGs, this characteristic is pretty obvious. Usually, the player gets to choose what skills the protagonist has and/or how they develop. This is usually tied into the development system, similarly to the sense of progression. Players can often be asked at the start what class they wish to play as, a tactic employed in Alpha Protocol and other games. This can either be used separately or in combination with a system that gives players Ability Points to spend on skills as they rank up. Another well known system in Western RPGs is Skyrim's system where skills develop as they are used. From the other side of the coin, in JRPGs, this characteristic may be less noticeable, but I feel that it is still present. Games like Final Fantasy usually have characters evolve on static and fairly predictable paths, at level X they acquire ability Y. However, all of these games have some form of customization. The very first Final Fantasy allowed players to choose their character classes at the start of the game. The second had abilities level up upon using them. The third and fifth had job class systems that allowed players to experiment with different classes and truly customize their characters to their own playstyle. And most others allowed players to pick their party from a very large group. All of these games have some element that allows players to pick their own way to play through the game. The other notable JRPG, Persona, is also extremely well known for this thanks to its system where the player character and hold and use different personae while the rest of the party can be chosen from a diverse cast of character, although earlier games in the franchise allowed all party members to switch personae. Every RPG allows for players to think for themselves and play through them in their own way.

To me, all of these elements are what separate an RPG from other genres of video games. A strong sense of progression and customization along with a detailed world are ultimately what binds all of the games under this heading together. While this is the definition that I have reached, I will not claim that this definition is absolute by any means. Feel free to dispute and criticize my opinion on this subject all you like. I would welcome the conversation gladly. Whatever your own opinion is, I encourage you to discuss and share it with others.


SougoXIII said...

Ahh JRPGs, a subject close my heart. I would agree with all of your point and add that the clear distinction between WRPGs and JRPGs is their emphasis on how your choice as a player, affect the narrative. It is this distinction that make many people dismiss JRPGs as a 'real' RPG genre at all - though when they actually think about it, how many games like Alpha Protocol and Deus Ex: HR actually exist? The rest are just playing on the illusion of choice with a linear narrative.

If you think about it though, JRPGs do give you the abilities to respond to the plot. An example of this is the Live Trigger mechanic in FFXIII-2 and in FFVII onwards, we do often get some sort of dialogue choice for our character. The difference between this and WRPGs is that it doesn't try to sell me the notion that what I do will have any effect on the story at all and I appreciate it for that (Except for the ending 'choice' of FFXIII-2 but we can all agree that FFXIII-2 was not written by a very competent person.)

newdarkcloud said...

FFXIII-2's story fills me with white hot rage. I love the changes they made to gameplay, but dear god that story annoys me.

SougoXIII said...

The real tragedy of FFXIII-2 is that they can make a legitimately good sequel. They just need to do the following:

1) Do not retcon the ending - Seriously, I do not even know Etro exist in FFXIII. You can make the excuse of how Lightning and Co come back from being crystalised by saying that since the Fal'Cie who branded them have died, they are now free from its cursed. I would have buy it because it make freaking sense.

2) Focusing on rebuilding a society on Pulse. It is a major theme of FFXIII - building your own destiny. Toriyama (the writer) made a cough out by saying 'Hey guys, don't worry we can still savage resources from Cocoon despite the whole urm... city? planet? being turned into a giant crystal.

3) No need to create new conflict - I can understand the reason why the use time traveling as a plot device in order to reuse assets as much as possible while making it fell 'fresh' but it does terrible thing to the narrative given how Toriyama have no freaking clue on how to handle a time travel story. There's already a conflict ripping within the ending FFXIII: 'Are you going to tell me that a majority of Cocoon citizens are going to believe Lightning and Co after having their home and comfortable way of life destroy? Hell no. There will be dissent. There will be attack on the 'heroes.' There will be those who refuse to accept the situation and turn their blind faith to the Fal'Cie again. Given that there's still some Pulse Fal'Cie around, we have a recepes for a plot right there. (To be fair, FFXIII-2 does have this plot point somewhere, but it casually swept it under the rug for more Liam O'brien and 'Warrior Goddess.'

3) Focus more on the characters - This is hilarious because FFXIII was all suppose to be about the characters but after 40 hours, they're not even that developed at! (Lightning, Snow, Fang, I'm looking at you.) I would focus on the relationship between Lightning and Serah cause since all we know from FFXIII is that 'They care about each other, because urm... they're sister I guess.' There's no way in hell Lightning and Serah have a normal sister relationship given how Lightning's barely home due - you can even say that Lightning's been avoiding Serah as a coping mechanism similar to how Dojima's treating Nanako in P4 and Serah blames herself as she believes that Lightning essentially sacrifice her 'normal' life just for her.

The most disappointing character in FFXIII-2 is Serah because I can't for the life of me remember any new development from her in FFXIII-2 that I don't already know from her 10 mins appearance in FFXIII.

You can see why this is so frustrating for me. I was legitimately hyped when FFXIII-2 was announced because I see it as another go at the badly flesh out world of FFXIII. I learned my lesson for LR:FFXIII though. Though I will still get it day 1 because well... you name me another decent funding Jrpgs that going to be out for consoles.

newdarkcloud said...

Yeah. XIII-2 held a lot of promise, but it just failed to deliver. That said, since I like playing these games, odds are I'll get LR: FFXIII.

1.) Totally in agreement here. The whole Etro thing feels tacked on almost. This is odd because the whole point of the original Fabula Nova Crystalis "trilogy" was that they all had the same background lore (ie. L'Cie, Fal'Cie, Etro, Yuel, etc.) but were set in different worlds. Make of that what you will.

2.) I'd find this extremely interesting. This really should have been the whole point of XIII because...

3.)...FUCK TIME TRAVEL. A time travel plot almost instantly introduces elements that don't make sense. This is especially true for XIII-2. I couldn't stand Villain Sue Caius and the fact that every... fucking... problem was the result of a paradox. Grrr.

3.1) This really is the biggest problem. Besides maybe Snow and Hope, none of the characters from the old game got a lot of development. Serah got some, given that she kills herself saving the world, but that's not much. It's just dumb... like Aldowyn!

Indy said...

Those things feel like a very loose description of the genre but there's no way to break it down further, is there? As a genre, there's nothing that defines what the gameplay actually is. Diablo, GTA, and Skyrim are all very different beasts, after all. Would it be a better system if we broke RPG down into a bunch of sub-genres instead of just having a category for 'RPG'?

newdarkcloud said...

Perhaps. Aside from general elements, the RPG genre doesn't have many elements the bind the whole genre together. It probably would be better to just break it down into subcategories just to make it more manageable.

Barry Zane Akers said...

RPG is such a broad term that it technically shouldn't even be considered a genre. I believe that progression in character ability is usually par for the course but unless it is complimented by progression in story it typically isn't recognized as a proper RPG. For the past few years we have seen more and more games contain "RPG Elements" that allow players to have some influence over there character but to me RPG will always mean the fantastic epics with well written characters in interesting and dynamic worlds.

newdarkcloud said...

Y'know. There's a very strong case to be made there, simply because so many diverse things belong under that blanket term.