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March 2, 2011

What makes an RPG an RPG: a universal definition

The human brain is a categorization machine. Cognition as we know it is made possible only because of this fact. By putting things into categories, we understand that those things share certain exclusive qualities.

This is as true with games as it is with anything else. Game genres are categories that make it possible to understand games in relation to each other. Consider the efficiency boost we gain from being able to describe Halo as “an FPS” rather than having to rattle off all the multivariate qualities of first-person shooters. Imagine having to describe the qualities of games like Rogue every time you share a roguelike, rather than simply being able to refer to the category by name.

Yet ultimately, what good is categorization when a category grows so large that the objects it contains cease to have any sensible relation to each other? To the casual observer, it may seem that this fate is befalling the computer RPG, an already-huge genre that risks exploding from bloat as developers indulge the seemingly irresistible urge to categorize their decidedly non-RPGs as RPG hybrids.

Even now, however, I believe the computer RPG remains a coherent category of game. The goal of this article is to present a workable definition of “RPG-ness” that transcends J and W, action and turn-based. What central thread ties together games as disparate as Dragon Quest VIII and Deus Ex, yet at the same time separates them from games like Myth: The Fallen Lords, Heavy Rain, or Grand Theft Auto IV?

It sounds like a riddle, but it’s one I believe I’ve found the answer to. Read on, and you can decide for yourself if you agree with my conclusions. We’ll start by discarding some unsatisfactory alternative definitions.

Playing a Role

“A role-playing game is a game where you play a role.” This definition gets trotted out every time this debate comes up, and just as reliably, it gets shot down.

This definition doesn’t work because–with very few exceptions–you play a role in nearly every video game, regardless of genre. In Half Life, you play the role of Gordon Freeman, a research scientist. In Super Mario Brothers, you play the role of a mustachioed Italian plumber with fantastic jumping abilities.

To make “playing a role” the definition of a computer RPG is to make all games (with isolated exceptions like Bejeweled and Tetris) computer RPGs. This defeats the whole purpose of having a “computer RPG” category in the first place. Thus, we must reject this definition.

Setting

Fallout 1When most people think of RPGs, they think of humans, elves and dwarves running around with swords, casting spells and killing monsters. But that’s just setting. An RPG can take place anywhere. You don’t need elves, dwarves or dragons, as games like Fallout, Persona and Mass Effect clearly prove.

Meanwhile, one would be hard-pressed to argue that Golden Axe or Gauntlet are RPGs. Ultimately, setting proves simultaneously under-inclusive and over-inclusive as a definition of RPG-ness. We can discard this definition out of hand.

Exploration

Exploration is undeniably a core feature of many RPGs. But one can say the same of exploration in modern action games and first-person shooters.

Moreover, exploration is not a universal feature in RPGs. Some RPGs feature relentlessly linear game worlds. The Fire Emblem games—excellent tactical RPGs by any standard—include no exploration whatsoever.

Although providing for exploration of the game world certainly ranks among RPG best practices, it simply isn’t going to get us very far in terms of defining which games do and do not fit into the genre.

Combat

What about combat? Combat is enshrined as the primary (and sometimes, only) mode of meaningful interaction the player has with the game world in most RPGs. One might think that combat provides the unifying link. However, one would be wrong.

The RPG began as an outgrowth of tabletop strategy games—consequently, the genre inherited their laser-brained focus on dealing randomized damage to things. But only a select handful of RPGs, mostly relegated to the subgenre ghetto of “strategy RPGs,” still have something resembling the old grid-based, turn-based tactical affairs of their forbears. Indeed, some of the greatest gems of the genre feature real-time combat and free movement.

oblivion-shivering-isles-preview

Meanwhile, RPGs have increasingly begun to poach from other genres for their combat systems. RPG battle systems now range from Diablo-style clickfests to Bejeweled-style puzzle minigame battles to over-the-shoulder shooter combat. And yet, all of them are still recognizably RPGs. Clearly, whatever RPG-ness is, it isn’t something that resides in any particular combat system.

Numbers Going Up

The cynical reader will be rolling his eyes right now. “Get to the point, Craig. It’s stat progression. RPGs are about making numbers go up. We know this already.” To a limited extent, that’s correct. After all, RPGs are fundamentally about the development of a character or characters. Development is typically represented in-game via stats. You accumulate enough of a certain resource (say, experience points) and the stats increase. Hence, it’s about making numbers go up.

But it isn’t. That’s too simplistic. Consider a hypothetical “Button Clicker RPG,” in which the player presses a button in the middle of the screen and watches a number increase by 1 every time she does. The “click to increase stats” mechanic really isn’t all that qualitatively different from playing a Diablo-alike, but the experience doesn’t have the feel of a RPG.

Why? A few reasons. Perhaps the most salient reason is that our hypothetical RPG has no character. The numbers exist in a void. They represent nothing.Those numbers have to have some significance to the characters’ interaction with the game world. So we have to add to the cynical definition of an RPG: it’s about making numbers go up to develop a character or characters.

This isn’t enough either, however. Beyond all that, the characters also have to be unique, playable individuals who persist in the game world. Consider the old Bungie classic Myth: The Fallen Lords. Units in Myth are, to an extent surpassing most strategy games, unique characters. Each unit has its own name. It grows tougher each time it survives a battle. When veteran units return for the next battle, they are harder to kill and attack with greater speed and accuracy. Sounds like an RPG, right?

Myth

But it isn’t. Each swordsman is a carbon copy of every other swordsman, each bowman just like all the other bowmen. With rare, mission-specific exceptions, the only thing that distinguishes one unit from others of its class is veteran status.

Veterans, in turn, only show up in the next battle if the battle permits units of that type to be used. So even though you’ve successfully kept Malcolm the bowman alive over the course of five battles, if battle six doesn’t give you bowmen, you’ll never see Malcolm again. Even the most rudimentary RPG takes pains to make your characters your characters, and not just temporary, interchangeable instances of a particular unit type.

Story

So RPGs are character-centric—they are about progression of characters. Based on that fact, maybe you think I’m going to conclude that RPGs are therefore really all about the story. But I won’t, because they aren’t. Not exactly.

While it is true that story is important to the RPG genre, it’s a particular kind of story that ultimately proves central. It’s about the character/party as your avatar, and your quest to shape that avatar. (That doesn’t have to be the game’s central plot, mind you—it just has to be part of the arc of the story, as told by you playing the game.)

Consider this idea for an RPG: you play an elderly man, an alchemist living in a small town. One day, a band of thugs visits the town and demands tribute. Your town, being poor and small, cannot afford to give the thieves the tribute they demand. Under cover of night, they retaliate by secretly poisoning the town’s well with a flavorless, colorless, slow-acting toxin. As the game begins, every last person in your town—including your character—has ingested a lethal dose of this poison.

Realizing what has happened, the player character scrambles desperately to concoct a serum to counteract the effects of the poison. He does so in time to save his own life. However, he only has enough ingredients to save himself. Even then, the best he can manage is to ward off the poison’s effects for a few months, buying himself time to either achieve revenge or find a cure.

Over the rest of the game, your character grows steadily weaker. Combat is exhausting—far from making him stronger, each encounter saps his vitality further. He lacks the energy to learn any new skills. Your character is clearly dying from the poison; the only question is whether he will successfully achieve his objectives before that happens.

Now, ask yourself: fully apart from whether this is a satisfying story or not, is this an RPG story? Here we have a persistent character with unique skills starring in a straightforward revenge tale set in a fantasy setting. We even have the classic trope of the protagonist leaving behind his wrecked hometown and setting forth into a dangerous world, which serves its usual purpose of allowing us to play the character in a way inconsistent with his backstory.

But we’re missing something. This character begins the game as powerful as he will ever be. He follows a steady downward trajectory. He will not grow; he will shrink. There is something about this that flies in the face of RPG-ness.

And it isn’t just because the numbers aren’t going to go up. The reason this ruins the RPG quality of the game is that it removes the player’s capacity to shape the character. RPGs are fundamentally creative games: even the ones about killing and destroying everything. Because even those RPGs aren’t really about destroying. They’re about building and shaping your character, your party, your avatar. Exploration, quests and monsters—those are the rough stone from which you mine resources to build your characters. Inheriting a complete character and trying only to slow his descent into oblivion, while potentially interesting, just doesn’t give the player the power to develop him.

It’s that creative power to mold and develop your avatar over the course of the game that makes an RPG an RPG. It is, in effect, a sort of self-improvement by proxy.

But we’re still not done—even that doesn’t tell us the whole story.

Choices With Consequences

RPGs are also about making consequential choices. This dovetails with our conclusion above, though this may not be entirely apparent at first. There are some choices that obviously affect a character’s development in all RPGs, whether those be exploring, making tactical decisions to win battles, selectively upgrading gear, collecting loot, or distributing stat points.

But upgrading, winning fights, and collecting new items to gain power over the course of the game are features of many games that are absolutely not RPGs. Half Life (along with just about every FPS before and since) features a story arc in which the player grows more powerful through the collection of new weapons (and, consequently, abilities). That isn’t enough.

What makes these events significant in an RPG is that they come about through consequential choices made by the player. In turn, the choices themselves are made consequential largely through scarcity and the need for specialization. Want to pump all your character points into strength? You’re going to have to forego the benefits of putting those points elsewhere. Want to create a wizard character? You’re going to have to make significant trade-offs to make that happen.

Those aren’t choices you see in Half Life. You’re never asked to give up your MP5 to get the Gauss Gun. You’ll never face a choice like deciding whether to take a permanent hit point loss in order to learn new offensive abilities. The player is never required to specialize his character in any respect. Everything the player character finds, he instantly masters.

These same limitations hold true for party-based RPGs as well. Characters in the party are created with different strengths and weaknesses. Though the party may be well balanced, it will be well balanced because the different attributes of the party complement one another, not because the party members are all Gordon Freeman do-everything behemoths.

Even RPGs with rigid character progressions still enforce scarcity and specialization throughout the game by forcing the player to manage limited resources. Most strategy RPGs, for instance, only give experience points on a character-by-character basis, thereby forcing the player to make constant trade-offs between risking the safety of weaker characters and allowing them to fall behind relative to the development of the other characters.

Consequential choices can go well beyond these sorts of pedestrian considerations, of course, and that’s where the RPG genre really shines. Even in areas where choices seemingly have no measurable impact on the development of your character’s stats and capabilities, a hard decision that other in-game characters remember can influence how you’re viewed by others in that world, affect the state of your party, and even change your character’s story.

Sadly, I can’t include this last point in the definition of the RPG. Player-driven character development in a qualitative, non-stat-based way is far from universal in the genre. And this article is descriptive, not normative: it seeks to see RPGs as they are, not as they should be. That second, perhaps greater, task will have to wait for another day.

Conclusion

A game is a computer RPG if it features player-driven development of a persistent character or characters via the making of consequential choices.