Chungking Espresso

Definition of an RPG

Posted in Gaming by Simon Ferrari on February 19, 2008

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?


6 Responses

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  1. Maaaax said, on February 19, 2008 at 8:49 pm

    What’s really stupid and pointless about this whole debate is that the term RPG (as far as I know it) originated to describe pen & paper games like D&D and text adventure games for computers the size of your bedroom. Why this makes the debate incredibly stupid is that Oblivion or Mass Effect share way more in common with original RPGs than any Dragon Quest/Final Fantasy ripoff. You’re absolutely correct to say that those games aren’t even truly role-playing. All this just goes to prove that we should be playing around with 20-sided dice instead of controllers. Just kidding! Kind of.

  2. Maaaax said, on February 19, 2008 at 8:50 pm

    Also, the font size for your comments is incredibly, painfully small. I appreciate that you made your last entry a bigger font size (even though I just read this from an RSS reader), but you should get on dat.

  3. Tommi said, on February 20, 2008 at 2:34 am

    I don’t even hold single-player anything as an rpg; they are poor imitations of the real deal. But I am something of a fanatic.

    Tabletop gaming can give real choice, not simply to illusion of such (and you can play a vampire).

  4. cr0n. said, on February 24, 2008 at 9:04 am

    Though I believe that today’s MMORPGs offer the highest level of difficulty (at the raiding level) and the most extensive character development experiences available from any current form of gaming, when I think of the archetypal “RPG” my mind focuses on just one game:

    Star Ocean: The Second Story.

    For anyone who isn’t familiar with this gem of not-so-modern gaming, SO2 for the PlayStation was released in the U.S. on May 31, 1999 to mild critical acclaim, but has since become a cult classic due to its expansive character development possibilities, open-ended story lines, and almost masochistic degree of difficulty throughout its latter stages.

    That being said, how does all of this unrestrained fan boy propaganda translate into the average gamer’s role-playing experience?

    86 possible endings, that’s how.

    For a pre-Y2K PSX title, this level of plot flexibility stands unchallenged, and anyone having played through the game’s entirety can vouch for the seemingly infinite number of character-development opportunities, some required and others optional, that subtly shape the inter-personal relations between characters, ultimately resulting in the game’s various endings.

    Combined with a gripping storyline and a fantastically innovative active time battle system (that’s right, no turn-based combat to be seen), the numerous opportunities for player-controlled spontaneous character development create a gaming experience that rises far above those of its more linear, though more popular peers, such as titles from the FF, Chrono, and .hack series.

    Without getting too caught up in the rest of the title’s expertly designed aspects, such as the intricate item-customization and cooking techniques, I can say (as neutrally as possible) that SO2 is the be all end all of PSX RPGs, and it just might change the way you think about the role playing genre in general.

  5. Tommi said, on February 28, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    When talking about computer games in which there is a character that develops and interacts with other beings and so forth, my favourite is without doubt ADOM ( Very much diversity, a number of different winning conditions (sort of), and always a different experience. Character variety is huge. The graphisc are excellent: My imagination is sufficient for me.

  6. Lanfordyc said, on March 25, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    thats for sure, brother

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