WARNING: This rant is a bunch of pointless pontificating and will probably be almost as big a waste of your time to read as it was for me to write. Read at the peril of your free time.
So, y’know, no different than every other rant on this blog, really. It may be a new year, but you'd sure as hell never know it from looking around here.
Alright. Fine. Let’s do this.
Readers are sometimes surprised (or scornful) when they discover some of the games I count as RPGs. This happens most often when I speak of The Legend of Zelda series as an RPG franchise, though it’s not the only questionable selection that people, well, question. In fact, if you ask me, The Legend of Zelda series aren’t even the games with the most shaky classification of RPG that I qualify as an RPG. I mean, I’d say TLoZ games are much more definitely RPGs than Startropics 1 and 2, or Deus Ex 2, and no one ever leaps forward to call me a braindead dipshit when I refer to them as such.
Anyway, so, here’s the subject of our rant today: What, in The RPGenius’s opinion and, yes, even expertise, is an RPG? What is the definition of an RPG? What are the concrete standards that make a title an RPG, and not simply a game of a different genre?
Actually, this is the easiest part of today’s rant. The answer is that I haven’t got the damndest idea.
No, really, I don’t. Sure, there are certain impressions, certain indicators that a game could be an RPG, certain qualities that make me say “Oh, yeah, this counts.” But an actual, solid, reliable set of criteria for this determination? I don’t have anything like that.
Whoa, whoa there. Calm down. Put those boos and hisses away, at least for now. Save them for someone who deserves them, like Electronic Arts, or Michael Bay--if you can even tell the difference between them. Look. I don’t have a specific set of guidelines for what makes an RPG, so I can’t explain my reasoning here. But I can at least explain why I don’t have such a checklist.
So here’s Reason Number 1, the biggest cause for my lack of decision: No one else knows what an RPG is. I mean, there’s really just no universal, understood consensus on this. There are individuals--intelligent, thoughtful individuals who have given the matter more than its due consideration--who have concrete ideals to which a game must adhere for it to be an RPG, but as a whole, the gaming community isn’t any better than I am. Look at the Wikipedia page for RPGs. Look at its table of contents. When you get right down to it, the large majority of that page is trying, unsuccessfully, to suss out what an RPG actually is. They list an RPG’s characteristics, but each time they start to explain those characteristics, you start seeing the same qualifiers littering their information. If you want to test this, just look at the first sentence of each paragraph describing an RPG’s characteristics. “Often.” “Typically.” “Most.” “Many.” “Frequently.” “Usually.” “Some.” Nearly every time an RPG characteristic is named, and described, some qualification is made that not all RPGs contain this element, or the following sentences will note prominent examples of when this rule is not present. Yes, not every aspect of any game genre is black and white, there’s always going to be exceptions and such, but, well, put all of that section of the Wikipedia page together, and what are you going to get? You’re going to get a general idea of what RPGs can be, usually are, but that’s as far as you can go with that. And hey, what do you know--that’s exactly where I am! I’ve played over 300 video games, the large majority of them have been RPGs to some degree and in some form, and I’m as clueless as a newcomer who’s just tried to take in that large, indecisive internet dictionary page.
The rest of the Wikipedia page isn’t any better. It’s all about the genre’s history and means of classification, but really, all that the folks at Wikipedia seem to be able to do is recite others’ opinions and criticisms about the subject, relate how perceptions of RPGs have changed from what they were, but not offer hard definition, nor official classification, nor a strong idea of what the genre has transformed into.
Compare it to the Wikipedia page for First Person Shooters. The page starts off with a clear, fairly precise, concise explanation of what an FPS is. Compare that to the opening of the RPG page: ”A role-playing video game (commonly referred to as role-playing game or RPG) is a video game genre where the player controls the actions of a protagonist (or several adventuring party members) immersed in a fictional world.” Uh, yeah, not exactly precise; they basically just described, what, 70% of all video games ever created? Plus, where the RPG page can do nothing more than launch into characteristics, which it goes back and forth on, the FPS page’s first section is a clear, informative, and largely unambiguous definition of the genre.
Wikipedia mirrors the gaming community as a whole on this issue. Anyone can easily recognize a First Person Shooter, and they can tell you exactly why they know it’s an FPS. And they can tell you why another game is not an FPS. And they can give you a pretty accurate explanation of what an FPS is. But an RPG? A gamer can probably recognize it, and they can sort of point to some aspects that probably make it an RPG. And they can maybe tell you when another game is not an RPG. But they are not likely to give you a detailed, hard explanation of what an RPG is. They have a general idea, an overall impression, but no detailed and concrete definition. Knowing an RPG, I think, is, for most gamers, and most developers, a case of intuition, not scientific classification.
But that’s not to say that’s true for all people. Like I said, plenty of sharp folks, hardcore RPG fans, do have a set definition in their mind of what an RPG is, and they’ve shared it, and it works for them. Some people insist it’s any game where you play a role, which I guess is technically accurate going by the name. Some people have a system where each RPG quality is worth a certain number of points, and a game has to have enough of those qualities to reach a certain point threshold where it becomes an RPG. And some people are Chris Avellone, who states, "An RPG is a game that provides character progression, opportunities for exploration, the ability to confront or fight adversaries and obstacles to achieve rewards, and, most importantly, gives choice in everything from character construction to action and dialogue choices in the game, and the game reacts to those choices in measurable ways."
I’m glad if these things work for them. Hell, it’s not like they’re wrong, most of the time. I’ve seen some folks get creative enough with RPG definitions to be too nuts to get behind,* but overall, it’s all fine. If someone wants to believe that any game where you play a role is an RPG, well, I think that’s nuts because it essentially means that the genre spans like 98% of all games ever made, but on the other hand, how the hell do you argue with that logic when the name of the genre is role-playing game? The RPG Consoler, a fine blog that has a far more organized, systematic, and professional vision of RPGs than my own raving mess, has a very tidy and workable system for determining whether a game’s an RPG, and power to that, it’s good. And Chris Avellone is to RPGs what Isaac Asimov is to science fiction, Agatha Christie is to murder mysteries, Steven Hawking is to science, Fred Rogers is to morality. If RPGs were ice cream, Avellone would be the flavor Cookie Butter.** If Chris Avellone says a game’s an RPG, I’m sure as hell not gonna deny it.
Still, my perspective is just...different. Extremely broad, sweeping definitions don’t do it for me. But neither does quantifying RPG qualities and how many a game must hit before it’s an RPG. I’ve just...there’s always an exception. Almost always, there’s more than one. What I mean is, well, here, let me list out some of the ways I’ve seen people argue that a game is not an RPG, and why I think that’s not enough of a reason to bar a game from the genre.
Character Advancement: Many people claim that if you don’t advance your character’s abilities and/or stats in some way, it’s not an RPG. Typically this means leveling a character up, although something like Final Fantasy 10’s Sphere Grid or the level-it-as-you-do-it system for The Elder Scrolls 4 also qualify. This is a major argument against counting The Legend of Zelda and Startropics as RPGs--Link doesn’t increase advance his abilities/stats, and neither does Mike. Only...well, they sort of do. I mean, their hearts are essentially HP, and for Link, it goes up in 2 ways. He gets more of it when he beats a dungeon/boss, and he gets it if he explores enough and completes certain sidequests (by finding and/or earning enough Pieces of Heart to make a new Heart HP for himself). Same with Mike--hearts (HP) go up by completing objectives and by finding them through exploration.
Uh, well, that’s...RPG-like. I mean, getting more hearts = getting more HP = increasing a stat, right? Link and Mike are rewarded for beating dungeons and bosses with this stat increase, and for exploring. Well, in Mass Effect 2 and 3, Shepard only actually gets experience and levels up after the conclusion of a mission; he or she does not get experience for each enemy killed, only for the mission success itself. That’s essentially the same thing as the Pieces of Heart that you get for helping NPCs or beating minigames (and sometimes the reward requires you do both). And in Deus Ex 1, a major source of the skill points you spend on advancing JC Denton’s abilities comes from exploration, finding certain key nooks and crannies. Yeah, you get it from other, plot-advancing sources, but most non-mandatory skill points come from exploration alone. JC does not get them for killing enemies. Well, if it takes JC a few times of clever exploration to earn enough points to qualify him for upgrading one of his skills, how is that any different, really, from Link taking a few times of clever exploration to earn enough Pieces of Heart to qualify him for upgrading the only stat he can increase? And likewise, if it takes Shepard a couple small side missions to advance to a new level rather than just tallying the number of enemies he or she kills, how is that any different, really, from Link taking a few times of sidequest completion to earn enough Pieces of Heart to qualify him for upgrading that same single stat? Same with Mike, only when he’s rewarded for exploration/plot advancement, he gets a full heart each time, but that’s basically as if he just leveled up then and there. If I don’t count The Legend of Zelda games as RPGs for this issue of character advancement, I really can’t Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3, or Deus Ex 1, either, and those are officially recognized and seldom questioned members of the RPG genre.
Another example of that same thing--The Magic of Scheherazade. Nobody will argue that it’s not an RPG if they’re familiar with the game (though not a lot of people actually are). Well, in The Magic of Scheherazade, you can level up through defeating enemies via Experience Points, as most RPGs...BUT, if you reach the end of a chapter in the story underneath a certain level, the game will automatically level you up to that point anyway. Additionally, you can only get to a certain level in each chapter, and after that point you won’t receive any further experience, which prevents you from becoming so strong that there’s no challenge. You see, there is a little player control of what level you’re at in The Magic of Scheherazade, but the game WILL take steps to make sure you’re never too weak or too strong. Well, isn’t that sort of the case with the heart increase of Link and Mike after hitting plot objectives like beating a dungeon and moving on to the next part of their story? The mandatory increase in HP ensures that they’re never so weak that it’s impossible to win, while the hiding of optional HP increases that take exploration to find ensures that you have a chance to make them stronger, and that in itself is limited by how much of the world Link and Mike can explore at that point in the game so that neither ever become too strong.
Of course, you could argue that only giving the player 1 aspect of a character to improve (Link and Mike’s HP) does not provide enough choice to the player for how the character advances and defeats the purpose. I see where you’re coming from with that, but again, if you disqualify The Legend of Zelda for that, then I feel like you have to disqualify a lot of other games firmly cemented in their existence as RPGs. I mean, think about it--how much control over your character’s advancement do you really have in, say, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, or The Secret of Evermore? Your character abilities and stats in many RPGs are determined by little more than what level you’re at; you don’t actually have much say in what they are yourself. You can choose a character’s equipment and that makes some difference, but then, you can do the same thing in many Legend of Zelda games, and even, to a much more limited extent, in Startropics. And what about games like Fire Emblem, where character advancement at level up is determined by probability? No one questions Fire Emblem as an RPG, yet your ability to influence your character’s growth there is limited to just hitting a reset button and trying again, hoping that you’ll get what you want next time. And the same is true with some Shin Megami Tensei games’ demon level ups, only those are even more randomized than Fire Emblem’s. How can you disqualify Legend of Zelda games and Startropics because of the rigidity of their character advancement when other “true” RPGs can have just as little player choice, or even less?
Certainly character advancement is a major RPG characteristic, but a make-or-break quality? I can’t honestly think of it as such, because if it is, it disqualifies a ton of games from the genre that even officially are considered RPGs.
World Map/Exploration: Surprisingly, a major necessity for an RPG for some people is a world map, the idea that you can explore the world in a relatively free sense, traversing from one major location to the next on foot, ship, airship, or whatnot. I don’t know why this is such a big sticking point for some people, honestly, I never would have thought it would be, but as with character advancement, saying a game is not an RPG if it lacks this trait disqualifies a hell of a lot of bonafide, populace-approved RPGs from the genre. I mean, there’s no world map or world exploration in any of the Fire Emblem titles I’ve encountered. Nor in Deus Ex 1 and 2, nor in several Nippon Ichi games such as Disgaea 1, Phantom Brave, and Makai Kingdom, nor in Legend of Grimrock, nor in Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, nor in Torchlight 1, nor in Baroque...the list goes on. I’ve not heard of anyone criticizing several of those games as not being truly RPGs; they’re all officially known as such, so far as I’m aware.
What qualifies as a world map, while we’re on the subject? Some people would say that it has to be either something along the lines of Final Fantasy 4, Lunar 1, and Lufia 2, where, outside of towns and dungeons, you walk/sail/fly around the land to your next destination, or Fallout 3, Crystalis, and Lords of Xulima, where you explore an extremely large geographic area on foot. That’s fine and good, but does that disqualify point-and-click world maps, such as those for Final Fantasy 10, Final Fantasy Tactics, Kingdom Hearts 1, Solatorobo: Red the Hunter, and Crimson Shroud? Because that would be a lot of games widely accepted as RPGs being crossed off the list. And considering that Grandia 2 and Planescape: Torment fall into this category, you’d also be losing some of the very best games ever made from the RPG genre, which’d be a damn shame. Plus, there’s the confusion of a few games whose world maps are almost the same as a point-and-click deal, like Secret of Mana and Sailor Moon: Another Story--you can fly overhead, but there are only certain set landing points for each area of the world, so it’s sort of right in between being a regular world map deal and the point-and-click setup.
The backbone of this world map question revolves around the theme of world exploration, and some people don’t quibble over world maps so much as they claim that an RPG must have exploration of its world. In fact, this is 1 of the few RPG qualities that the ambivalent Wikipedia page on RPGs seems adamant about being necessary. That seems mostly reasonable, but would that disqualify a dungeon-crawler like Baroque? Besides the central settlement of Baroque, the game is a large, randomized dungeon. You can explore each floor you come to, but is that really exploring the game’s world? I mean, if the world you explore changes every time you step foot in it, why is exploring it such an important deal? You’re not uncovering anything with specific design and thought beyond a randomized formula, no concrete world wherein your explorations mean that you know it any better. Also, there’s world exploration in plenty of titles that most everyone agrees are not RPGs. There’s plenty of it Grand Theft Auto games, and hell, even simple games like Mario titles involve a certain degree of it. I mean, you can say that just finding bonus levels and warp zones in the original Super Mario Brothers doesn’t qualify as world exploration, but then that begs the question of how far of a degree does exploration have to go to in order to be considered an RPG? The world exploration in several RPGs, such as Dust: An Elysian Tale and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, is certainly no stronger an aspect of the game than it is for many non-RPG platformers.
Combat: Oh God, combat. This one’s so damn divisive sometimes. I’m not going to get into it much. Some people claim an RPG battle system must be turn-based, like Earthbound or Breath of Fire 1, but that would disqualify a ridiculously huge amount of RPGs from the mix, including such important mainstays as Chrono Trigger, several iconic Final Fantasies, Kingdom Hearts, and the Baldur’s Gate games. Some are more lenient on what the combat system has to be, accepting action RPGs and strategy RPGs and whatnot, but insist that it be menu-based, which would eliminate a ton of great RPGs like Fallout 3, Dust: An Elysian Tale, Alundra 1, and Terranigma. Hell, just the insistence by itself that combat must be a constant component of the game seems shortsighted--it’s hard to deny that Sakura Wars 5 is an RPG (at least, a hybrid RPG), yet there are only, what, half a dozen battles in the whole game? Character advancement isn’t even related to the battles; your party gets stronger through your out-of-battle interactions with them. Similarly, Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle has only about 5 battles in its entire course, battles which are not especially long like Sakura Wars 5’s are. They’re an after-thought to the game’s true focus, which is plot and especially characters. You certainly couldn’t classify Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle anything but an RPG, but combat is almost nonexistent within the game.
Story and Characters: Some people, myself certainly included, view RPGs as primarily being centered around plot, characters, themes, all the intellectual aspects of storytelling. Generally speaking, this is true of the genre, and it’s that fact which drew me to RPGs to begin with, and which keeps me firmly rooted in their midst. Nonetheless, even though I believe an RPG should focus on such things and I hold it against any RPG which does not deliver a satisfactory storytelling experience, my grudge does not extend so far as denying a game classification as an RPG just because it does not adequately prioritize its plot and characters. I’d much rather play an RPG with a rich and rewarding story, such as Shin Megami Tensei 1, or a rich and rewarding cast, such as Tales of Legendia, or better yet, a game with a rich and rewarding story AND cast, like Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, but that preference does not mean that a game like Lagoon, or Orcs + Elves, or Rune Factory 1, games that have barely any story to tell and/or any depth in their cast, are not still RPGs. I may not LIKE the bland, barely present nature of Legend of Grimrock’s story and its lack of any significant cast, but it’s still pretty clearly an RPG. Additionally, plot and characters are not solely the property of RPGs--Silent Hill games are heavy with such elements, as are games like The Last of Us, Full Throttle, and (sort of) Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Being story-based, having a cast with importance, these are integral parts of an RPG, but they’re not the only qualifier, nor are they strictly necessary (though if you want a GOOD RPG, they are).
And so on and so forth. I could go on, but I think you’re getting my point here. There’s really no 1 magic quality that makes a game an RPG or not, in my opinion, nor is there any specific formula or combination of aspects that do. Any time someone proposes a stern guideline for what is and is not an RPG, I invariably see exceptions to this proposed rule, games that are disqualified that people by and large agree are indeed RPGs, sometimes even the individual proposing such a rule. Likewise, these strict guidelines often let in games which most everyone agrees are not RPGs, again, sometimes including the individual proposing the rule. So for me, what is and is not an RPG is just kind of an undefined, general impression that is aided, but not dictated, by things like stats and world exploration and item shops and turn-based battles and story and characters and all that jazz. If it has some of those common traits, then I probably will categorize it as an RPG, but I keep an open mind and go with my gut feeling on the matter, too. That’s what works for me. If you disagree, that’s fine, but I’m comfortable with how I approach the matter, and I’m going to keep doing it my way.
* I had a friend a while back who could pretty eloquently argue that most racing games are RPGs. I don’t agree because that’s crazy, and he himself didn’t actually believe that either, but he did make a much better case for it than most arguments I’ve seen for why one game or another is or is not an RPG.
** If you have never had Cookie Butter Ice Cream before, for the love of God go find some and have it. Put it on some apple crisp or a pie or something. I don’t say this about anything, but I say it now: Cookie Butter Ice Cream is scrumtrulescent.