Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Threads of Fate's Imbalanced Storytelling

One of the distinguishing features of Threads of Fate is its 2-protagonist story approach. Not in the way that Final Fantasy 6 has 2 protagonists, mind; Threads of Fate handles it a different way. By that I mean that the game has 2 possible protagonists, Rue and Mint, and you choose which one to play as at the beginning of the game. The game’s plot and your perspective on that plot are then shaped by that choice. You still start at essentially the same Point A, and you still end the game’s journey at the same Point Z, but only some of the points along the way are the same. Hard to explain, but I hope you get the gist of it. This wasn’t the first RPG to try something like this. Star Ocean 2, which had come out the year before, had 2 protagonists to choose from at the start of the game, and Seiken Densetsu 3 and The 7th Saga on the SNES had a handful of protagonists to choose from. Nonetheless, this system of Threads of Fate stood out pretty well. Star Ocean 2 and The 7th Saga were virtually identical no matter which protagonist you actually chose, and Seiken Densetsu 3...well, its plot and story perspective did significantly change depending on your chosen protagonist, but one way or another, it was just a pretty generic story that featured characters that were pretty forgettable, while Threads of Fate’s got a really good story with a fun and engaging cast. So ToF is still kind of remembered as a pioneer with this idea, even if it’s not the first to try it.

Overall, Threads of Fate does this well. But there is 1 thing about it that kind of disappoints me: the 2-protagonist story approach is imbalanced. The general promise made by ToF is that both protagonists are meant to be equals in the eyes of the story, neither more or less right for the role, nor more or less important to the plot. While Rue and Mint are not similar people (not by a long, looooooong shot) and go about their quests differently, the general premise of the game is clearly supposed to be that either can be the hero with equal qualification. It’s a neat idea--but it doesn’t pan out in the end. In the end, Threads of Fate is Rue’s story, not Mint’s.

There are several points in the game that lead me to this conclusion. First of all, the game’s central themes, those of the role of destiny and of choice, are much better utilized and reflected upon in Rue’s story of discarding his intended purpose to create a new one, and of defying fate by trying to resurrect Claire (or you could interpret it as him seeing her death as something that was against destiny to start with). While Mint’s story is related to her having lost her destined role as a ruler and seeking to take it back, and thus does have ties to the whole thematic role-of-destiny-and-choice thing that ToF is going for, it’s apparent that Rue’s version of the game is by far the more in tune with the game’s deeper ideas and message.

Rue also gets better character development and exploration. Now, don’t get me wrong here. Let me make something clear:




She is hilarious. She is fun. She is charmingly clever and lovably stupid at the same time. She is unique. She is one of those rare, rare examples of a character type that I normally can’t stand (selfish, obnoxious brat who thinks everyone should bow before her) being made awesome by a character who knows how to play that normally unappealing character type up in the best possible way. Like Pinkie Pie in My Little Pony--hyperactive, bubbly, high-pitched girly-girl types usually annoy the hell out of me, but Pinkie Pie is just funny enough, just random enough, just clever enough, and just complex and noble enough that it works out to my liking her. That’s how it is with Mint--despite being a character type only a few steps away from Earthbound’s ultra-obnoxious Porky, Mint is a consistently enjoyable experience from beginning to end.*

With all that said, though, as a character, Mint cannot compete with Rue. It’s not that Mint has no character depth or development at all--it’s subtle, but it’s definitely there. But Rue is clearly the better character. He has greater and more worthwhile issues to work through, his development is clear and written well, and he’s a more heroic figure as a whole. Mint’s not a bad character and the humor attached to her does count for something, but there’s no contest between who’s a better character and a better hero.

Rue is also more significantly connected to the plot. While he and Mint are both out to obtain the same powerful relic, the Dewprism, to grant a wish, it’s Rue who has the substantial ties to the plot along the way. Rue’s past relates to the ultimate foe of the game and the sought-after relic itself, and the major antagonist of the story, Doll Master, is connected to Rue and Rue’s purpose--both his purposes, in fact, past (the Dewprism stuff) and his present (saving Claire, as Doll Master is the guy who killed her). It’s not that Mint has no connection to the major story and characters or anything, but the biggest actors on this stage, the ones who set the major events in motion and who provide the major opposition that the heroes must overcome, are tied to Rue.

Also, there’s the plain, simple mathematics of the game’s conclusion. If you play through Rue’s side of the game, at the end, Claire is saved. Rue set out to find the Dewprism to grant his wish of rescuing Claire, and though things weren’t quite that easy or straightforward, in the end Rue gets what he wanted and needed. Sadly for Mint, she doesn’t get her wish to gain the power to take over the world, but we wouldn’t exactly expect Mint’s wish to be fulfilled in Rue’s story. But if you play through the game as Mint...she still doesn’t get her wish! At the end of the game, Mint has not acquired the power necessary to rule the world. And what’s more, Rue doesn’t get to have Claire back, either! Just do the arithmetic: in Rue’s story, 1 of 2 people get what they wanted. In Mint’s story, 0 of those 2 people do. Yeah, Mint does, at the end of her version of the game’s story, have a reconciliation of sorts with her sister Maya and can go back home, and you could argue that in the end that’s what she needed more, but it’s still not what she was out for, and there’s no indication at the end of the game that her ultimate ambitions have been sated. She’s still left wanting. The family reconciliation angle is more like a bonus for her than an actual prize, just as Rue’s stronger sense of identity and peace with himself at the end of his story is a bonus for him, while the actual prize is Claire. So it’s uneven.

Even in terms of story canon, the game seems to outright favor Rue’s story by the end. Once you’ve played the game through with both characters, you unlock a final, secret scene, wherein Rue and Claire are living together in solitude, and Mint shows up to drag Rue off on another relic search so that she can get that world-conquering power she’s been hankering for. The living presence of Claire there is a clear indicator of 1 of 2 possibilities. Either the game is outright saying that the true, canon course of the game’s events was Rue’s journey, or the game’s saying that the true, canon course of the game’s events was some combination of Mint and Rue’s journeys, and Claire’s resurrection was 1 of the events of Rue’s side that did occur. The latter possibility is definitely more along the lines of a theory than an interpretation that you can really back up, though, so I’m going to say that, unless somehow proven wrong in the future, this scene is an indicator that it was Rue’s story that truly did occur, not Mint’s.

And hey, if I have to choose between whose personal dream is the more worthwhile, I’ll certainly choose Rue’s. I’m glad Claire is alive, and I would be, honestly, very put out if everything had worked out the opposite way, with Mint getting her wish and Claire being lost forever. Mint just selfishly wants to conquer the world; Rue’s wish is to save the life of someone dear, who perished unfairly and courageously in the defense of someone she cared about. Rue’s wish just plain means more, and I’m glad that he has a chance to see it fulfilled.

My point is just that the protagonist imbalance is there, and the stories of Rue and Mint are not equal. Knowing the full story of the game, there are times during Mint’s quest that kind of feel like she’s intruding on someone else’s personal tale (which is, I guess, actually the exact sort of thing Mint would do). And it’s not a big problem, because the game through Mint’s eyes is terrifically fun and amusing, and the game through Rue’s eyes is well-written and meaningful (and still has a good dose of Mint craziness). I just think it’s kind of a shame that it wasn’t a more balanced story between the 2 protagonists, the way it was set up to be. I’m glad Rue got his wish and found himself along the way, but it would be nice for Mint to get her due, too, yeah?

Well, hopefully some day we’ll get a sequel to ToF, and that game will be focused primarily on Mint, as the first was on Rue. Hey, it may not seem likely, but this is an age where 20-year-old anime like Trigun gets a new movie, 30-year-old anime like Mysterious Cities of Gold gets continued out of the blue, and My Little Pony gets rebooted into one of the best cartoons ever made. Clearly stranger things have happened when it comes to sequels, continuations, and reboots. But until that happy day, Threads of Fate is Rue’s tale, regardless of his sharing the cover with Mint.

* Actually, what she really reminds me of is Princess Elise from My World, My Way, only about 6x better.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4's Adachi Lost the Element of Surprise

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4’s villain, Adachi, was really a very good antagonist, but he would have been a little better if SMTP4 had come out before SMT Persona 3. Not by any significant measurement, I suppose, but...well, if I had played SMTP4 first, then I think that the realization that Adachi was the murderer would have hit me with a satisfying sense of surprise, as I feel the game intends. But after the revelation of Shuji Ikutsuki as a villain in Persona 3, Adachi’s role as the villain was just, well, kind of obvious.

It’s kind of weird, because in general, there really isn’t much of a connection between Adachi and Shuji. Sure, they’re both villains, but that doesn’t mean much by itself--types of villains are as varied as types of heroes. And these 2 guys don’t really have much in common. Ikutsuki’s an insane fanatic who wants to bring forth the end of humanity for reasons that are vague and hurried past. Adachi, on the other hand, is a cold and self-satisfying murderer, a sadistic monster who kills for kicks. Adachi also may not exactly be of entirely sound mind, but there’s no question that he’s ultimately mentally competent and aware of reality and self--he’s not a villain because he’s crazy, like Shuji, but rather simply because he’s a malicious, murderous asshole.

But there is one aspect of personality where Adachi and Shuji do meet, at least somewhat: their cover identity. Shuji Ikutsuki spends most of his time in the game pretending to be a helpful leader/mentor to the protagonists, a friendly and quirky fellow who loves a good terrible pun. And Adachi, well, he’s not exactly the same, but he’s pretty similar in the regard that he’s an ever-affable, quirky, helpful guy. He always seems ready to provide a lead for the protagonists to follow, and his comical laziness and slacker attitude does for him what terrible puns did for Shuji--it sets him apart in a lightly amusing, harmless way.

And that’s what did it for me, what gave Adachi away. They’re both playing the trustworthy, peculiar adult. Even if their true selves aren’t particularly comparable, Adachi and Ikutsuki’s quirky, seemingly harmless cover personalities are similar enough in the role they fulfill and how they subvert any suspicion you might have had about them that, after seeing Shuji’s betrayal in Persona 3, I knew early into Persona 4 that there was a good chance that Adachi was up to no good.

It’s a damn shame, too, for a couple of reasons. First of all, if I had to have the surprise of either Shuji or Adachi be spoiled for me, I’d rather have seen Shuji coming than Adachi. Frankly, Shuji Ikutsuki’s betrayal is a real low point in the otherwise generally terrific SMTP3. It comes from nowhere, it’s poorly explained, it lessens his character by replacing the character we know him as with an inferior individual that we don’t have a chance to explore, and it comes off as just being conveniently inserted because the writers needed some way to characterize Aigis and add the drama for Mitsuru and whatnot. Ikutsuki’s betrayal doesn’t feel genuine, is the problem, and until the utterly absurd plot twist at the end of The Last Story, Ikutsuki’s backstab might have been the least believable, poorly done betrayal I’d seen in RPGs. With this, the surprise of Shuji being a villain just adds to the negative. Adachi, on the other hand, is well-developed in both his personas, and has many aspects of his cover personality that you can actually see connecting to his true, nasty self when you’re looking for them, so instead of feeling like a character who pulled a 180, Adachi as a villain feels like simply seeing the other half of the same coin. For him, the intended surprise of discovering that he was the murderer all along would have been a cool and enjoyable moment.

The other reason that the surprise would have benefited the SMT Persona 4 situation more is that SMTP4 is in large part a murder mystery.* In that kind of story, the major, climactic point in the tale, the huge part that everything is working up to and everyone is fixated on, is the revelation of who the dastardly dog was what did the dirty deed. It was substantially more important to the type of story Persona 4 is to be taken by surprise by the true nature of Adachi than it was for the somewhat more general storytelling style of Persona 3.

It’s not a big problem, or anything. Adachi’s still a solid villain. The revelation of him is still handled well. I can still appreciate the virtues of the story even if I saw it coming. But still, I think it would have been that much better of a twist if it had caught me by surprise as it was, I think, intended to, and I also think I wouldn’t have normally seen it coming. But after seeing Shuji Ikutsuki pull the Helpful, Amusing and Quirky Adult = Evil plot twist, it was easy to see the possibility that Adachi was up to no good just as Ikutsuki had been. Too bad.

* Although as a murder mystery it kind of sucks. Damn fine RPG, don’t get me wrong, but its presentation and process of the whole solve-the-murder aspect ain’t exactly Agatha Christie.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

General RPGs' Genre Definition

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 with 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.