What’s an RPG?

A good sign of how much a game or story makes me think is in how many tangents my first-draft analysis of it grows. Spec Ops: The Line had, I kid you not, some twelve tangents, some of which played into thoughts I already had been considering. In this particular case, it’s touching on my growing notion that the genres we used to talk about games are a dreadful pile of crufted leftovers from our time as a fledgeling industry that we should strive to spurn in the hope of having a clearer, better dialogue about what it is we try to do. In essence, I want the language of our conversation about games to eschew obfuscation. Right now, one of the terms that obscures more than it illuminates is RPG.

RPG has a clear abbreviation: Role Playing Game. It’s an inherited term from tabletop gaming, where a player plays the role of an elf, or a wizard, or a machine gun toting Arthur Fonzarelli from the borders of rimspace (thank you GURPS). In the tabletop context, it’s not a great term, but I’m not trying to solve everyone’s problems here.

I think part of it is that we identify videogames by a sort of grab-bag list of qualities and not by what can conceivably be called their genre. It is not their style of narrative, their themes and tones. We give things vague terms that refer to perspective (first-person, side-scroller, isometric), their problem solving mechanism (puzzle, matching, shooter, point-and-click), some core emotional aesthetic (horror), their reaction speed (action, real-time, turn-based) and even country of origin (J-), and then we pepper in a handful of other near-random terms like RPG, Shmup, Bullet Hell and the enormously ambiguous adventure. These are terms that are useful as trying to categorise farm animals by values like brown, herbivorous, milkable and dead. You can, generally speaking, exlude or include most any individual animal, but you can’t say ‘I like brown non-dead animals’ in any useful way.

Movies genres are defined, usually, by what the viewer experiences, the core emotional reaction they’re expected to get. There’s thriller and horror, there’s mystery and there’s romance and comedy and all these groups are there to make sure you’re aware of the emotional interaction you have with the movie.

The Extra Credits guys – as a fucking footnote in another piece – talked about the many ways in which a person experiences a game, and then went on to not explain this exciting, interesting, idea, choosing instead to talk about why Final Fantasy 13 was shit and Skyrim wasn’t (hint: because FF13 was a shitty game made by a pack of chimps). There is almost no hint about the title ‘RPG’ about what it is you’re going to play – there’s merely the implication that you’re going to probably get a game which features some of the following:

  • A narrative of some description.
  • Characters that advance in power.
  • Some illusion of independence.
  • Some form of exploration.
  • Some form of character customisation.
  • A secondary customisation system (usually gear) that lets you both change ‘how’ you do things and ‘how well’ you do them.
  • Some repeatable content you can do to improve your characters’ advancement.
  • Choices in the pacing of the narrative.

Yet in that lineup, consider that many games that are highly regarded as RPGs don’t have them at all. Final Fantasy 6 is to my flavour the last good game in its series, and in that, the gear system is almost worthless for customising your character; the vast majority of what they can wear that improves them is the Esper and Relic systems, while every character can wield one of a small number of weapons. Characters are finely defined and that lets the story push their character arcs to follow a narrative. Curiously, this let FF6 indulge both a sense of choice and a tightly-defined character – if you brought a team of Sabin/Cyan/Celes/Locke into a dungeon you’d get a different style of play than if you took Umaro/Terra/Mog/Setzer.

I don’t want to indulge the conversation further on good ‘JRPG’ games, because it’s a sparse field and I could almost finish it by just naming the handful of ones I’ve really enjoyed over the past ten years (it starts with Skies of Arcadia, a massively underrated gem). Instead we’ll talk about Assassin’s Creed, because that franchise, for all of its deep and abiding flaws, is probably the best thing that the triple-A gaming industry’s made in the past five years, certainly the best thing they’ve done on purpose.

Sorry, Mirror’s Edge.

Anyway, the Creed games have an instant input-response method (action), a fixed, linear narrative in which the player has zero agency, with an unknown event needing explanation (mystery), and a defined character whose methods you will be rewarded for replicating (role-playing game). This is the strangeness of the days in which we live. If you want a game where you want to play to a role, then you don’t go to the games labelled roleplaying games; you go to games like Assassin’s Creed and Sleeping Dogs. Those games that define your central character, then give you a way of measuring just how much like that character you’re behaving – those are the real RPGs of the day. Ironically, the games like Skyrim are games where what you really can do is create a person, then explore the world, and finally, choose the narrative.

One can consider Spec Ops: The Line as an RPG. I mean, it’s not a shooter because that’s just how you overcome short-term challenges, the mechanism of your two weapons. Fights are done to a checklist, with a handful of choices based on what you think the character would do. You have to manage a limited resource, but one resource comes back very quickly. You occasionally get puzzle fights, where you have to target the sandy regions to stun enemies and prey on their weaknesses. The game even spends large parts of the narrative hammering and moulding you, the player, into the mindset of both Martin Walker, and the mould of a typical Shooter Game Player, to make its inevitable Aeris Dies moment all the more of a savaging to your psyche. Heck, it’s even got a party you can give orders! About the only major thing it lacks is exploration – SO:TL is more linear than even the tightest of the NES-era RPGs. Hell, it’s more linear than a bowl of spaghetti being eaten through a vice.

The thing is, neither of those two game styles is bad, it’s just highly divergent. What we think of as an ‘RPG’ has moved to the side, and it’s going to fall to the ‘RPG’ providers like Squaresoft to move with it. If they want to offer a squad-based storytelling avenue like Assassin’s Creed, then they need to set aside the trappings of their older, more nostalgic games, and start focusing on those core elements that made those games good. I don’t think people liked Final Fantasy 6 because it had great graphics or because turn-based statistics-measuring combat is fun, but because those elements didn’t interfere with the really core components people liked. The framework provided with the mechanics was good enough – but games like World of Warcraft started out trying to replicate the simple turn-based mechanics with its swing-timer, and found that players weren’t engaged with it.

The strange thing is that Final Fantasy 13 and its generation have been striving to replicate the feel of MMOs that are, at the same time, generally doing their best. The mechanics of a single-player game can be tighter, can have better and more responsive controls, can be more tailored to the individual content – and yet the Final Fantasy franchise seems to have its head up its arse trying to pull old mechanics forwards and not focusing on those elements that made their earlier games good.

The fact is, the last game that was able to make classic, mid-90s JRPG mechanics work really well was Pokemon Black & White – which thrives on its enormous competitive angle (which is complex and improved by being turn-based) and it astoundingly deep reserves of marketable assets. The isometric, tactical-position family, like Devil Survivor use turn-based combat well. Yet that style of combat makes the player remote, it distances them from the experience – while games like Assassin’s Creed and Infamous make you feel the actions of the character around you. Simply put: Try dispensing with the last vestiges of turn-based combat.

I wonder if it’d be appropriate to literally just bring Final Fantasy 6‘s plot structure forwards. Mystery girl with an unexplained past, one of four superweapons created by an evil superpower, brought to a remote location to recover an ancient device of some power that breaks the control held over the mystery girl. Rescued then by a down-to-earth utilitarian, she’s drawn to helping the anti-empire forces in which she meets a pair of conflicted brothers that represent responsibility and freedom, a tryptich of grandparent/parent/child, her sister representing ice to her own fire, and at least one yeti. Focus on those characters, and then make the mechanics more like an Assassin’s Creed or Prince of Persia style game, with timing-based combat that lets you move freely and block in real time. Include in it some element that adds a feeling of ‘turn’ to it – like, say, special attacks with a cooldown on them, and you might keep that pacific speed that some players prefer, reducing combat from being too frantic and then remove the startling transition from Not Combat to Combat.

What you then want to do, is what Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood did. When you give a player a goal, give them extra incentive for achieving things in a way that best befits the character. In numerous places in ACB, a player could get the 100% sync bonus by doing things in the way that Ezio would have done them – by playing his role better. This called the player to achieve things as Ezio would – and you start looking at the game as those characters would, in pursuit of those bonuses. It’s a player manipulation: If you just told me that it was a mission requirement, I’d get mad and stop trying. By making it a secondary goal and then telling me, passive-aggressively, that a real Ezio could do it, I found myself playing like an actual Assassin, even resetting missions to get them ‘More Ezio.’ That is: The game made me play like the character and in the process feel like the character.

An RPG should not be about mechanics that were used, once, to get you through a good story. An RPG should be about playing the role, about experiencing the narrative and the emotions of the characters within that narrative. There is room for JRPG style character-driven plot work, and quite frankly, I want as much of it as I can get. Not to my own detriment, though – I have no taste for bad games, even in a style I like, otherwise I’d have given Deadlight a far nicer response than I did. We need to break the expectation that RPGs have stats and levelling systems and instead focus on something other than ticking off checklists to increment numbers.

I cried, once upon a time, at an 8-bit chiptune opera. It seems somewhat wretched that since then the same legacy has done nothing but make me feel embarassment or loathing.


  1. The qualifications for games like this seem to be falling further and further down, to where the only thing you need to be considered some form of RPG is customisation of character – you don’t even need the feigned sense of path to be chosen – unless you count certain romance aspects… I really don’t get it, and I feel like I’m an old lady on a porch with a cane shaking it at kids that walk by talking about how awesome Mass Effect is while being almost completely unable to tell me why… I’m going back to listening to Celes’ theme and crying my eyes out because of the nostalgia it makes me feel, rargh.

    1. Well, I’m not about to diss on Mass Effect and say it’s not an RPG at this point. I will say that a number of JRPGs (really, I practically just mean ‘everything Squaresoft does right now’) have become excessively linear spectacle-based games which hold onto bad ideas for legacy reasons.

  2. The problem to me is that they’re holding onto the wrong ideas. They’re letting go of the idea of character development in a way that pushes the story and have instead focused more on revolutionising the battle system and making the graphics shinier. Yes, it still holds some of those things that we love from classic Final Fantasy games, but in general they’ve lost their way, and will continue to do so as long as people keep buying ’em, so I guess it’s moot.

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