Definition of an RPG
So today I did some reading of forums about favorite RPGs, and I’ve taken serious issue with what some people consider rules for even calling something an RPG. Mostly I’m a little confused about people calling Oblivion an action/adventure game or a hack & slash instead of an RPG. What exactly are the criteria people are using to write it off? I guess most people consider the Final Fantasy franchise as the model against which all games must be judged in this area. Basically they feel that unless a game has turn-based combat, a levelling system that usually caps out at 99 (at which point you are virtually unstoppable except against super-secret-extra-special-totally-irrelevant-bosses like FF7’s weapon bosses and all the ridiculous multi-level abysses filled with encounters that must be played in a specific way for hours in order to win like in FFX or the high-level hunts in FFXII), men who look like women, over-the-top bosses that usually have multiple incarnations (usually becoming demons, gods, or angels at the end), endless dialogues and side-stories told by townspeople or sages, hours of sidequests, and an ever-growing roster of characters with different weapons, ultimate attacks, and cliched emotional profiles. The list goes on really, when you’re describing what makes an FF game specifically or a JRPG in general. So I can see how BioWare’s games and the Elder Scrolls series might trouble some players of the typical turn-based girlboy fest.
But let’s be honest: we’re talking about Role Playing Games. American and European RPGs clearly push the standards of what traditionally might be called an RPG. That is, instead of contenting themselves with making the same game over and over again with the same combat mechanics and general story arc, developers outside Japan want to experiment and push the envelope when it comes to this genre. Open-ended RPGs have less linear storylines (except for the Main Quest, of course), higher levels of choice and ambiguity, more complex character development, and – at the very least- the ability to develop one’s avatar into a “good” or “evil” persona. When you think about it, a JRPG doesn’t even let you Play a Role very well at all. So Oblivion doesn’t let you pick and choose from a roster of compatriots, and you don’t get a bunch of epic cut-scenes or hour-long boss battles. But at least you get to choose two or three ways to finish any given quest, select from three major (and over 20 minor) character types, and join/reject over 6 complex factions with multiple courses of advancement through their ranks. You really get a feeling that your choices make a difference here, even if the illusion is only skin-deep at too many crucial points. At least they’re trying to let you develop yourself as a unique personality in the game world! I propose, as a complete farce, a new definition of RPG that will exclude most every JRPG I can think of: you have to be able to become a vampire by choice or by accident. When someone tells you Oblivion isn’t an RPG, just say: “But in your favorite RPGs can you be a vampire?” This question highlights the stupid lengths to which most RPG fans go to pick and choose from the games that they like and dislike (and thus wish to define by their rigid taste standards).
Mass Effect definitely strays from this general discussion and our varying sets of definitions, and in a later post I will expound my thoughts on whether it should be called an RPG by either a JRPG fanboy or a more liberal-minded fan of European and American RPGs. Also, I think it stands to ask how WoW and other MMOs fit into this discussion. Thoughts?