What Even Is An RPG?

Honestly, I’ve been wondering this for a while: what even is an RPG?

This didn’t come up randomly, I was taking a short break from working on projects and I clicked on a crossover link from the Onion AV Club to Kotaku’s selection of their choices for best game music of 2017. One of their selections was Xenoblade Chronicles 2, a game that I’m very much enjoying, that has some of the more traditional kind of Yasunori Mitsuda ecclesiastically themed tunes, but the article linked to Kotaku’s less than favorable review of the game, by Jason Schreier. I started reading it, and pretty quickly was turned off to the read. It’s not that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 isn’t without flaws, and many of his criticisms are correct (in fact, it’s a clear step back from the superior gameplay, visuals, and systems of the Wii-U’s Xenoblade Chronicles X) it’s that he appears dead-set against not just the game, but the franchise (which he also admits having disliked the first title so much he skipped the second) and seemingly also the kind of game it is (games that prioritize a certain kind of character micromanagement) and wished that it were literally a different kind of game with totally different management and systems (Xenogears). I read at least one comment defending his position, that he’s a learned scholar of the community (he’s had books published on gaming) and that his specialty is RPG’s, but it seems–if not intellectually dishonest–then at least poor judgement to decide to review a sequel of a game you disliked (that you could tell from trailers clearly used the same mechanics you disliked in the first title) rather than handing it off to a more neutral party. It feels like these criticisms of the game, and its sub-genre, might be better suited for an editorial.

Part of this is just a game journalism problem. There’s no real definitive standard for who reviews what, or why, and it differs greatly according to each outlet or magazine. Additionally, it’s hard, when you are working within that industry, not to be subconsciously charmed by the influence of marketers and game developers. The simple fact is that everybody in the industry wants everyone to be successful. And while outlets like Kotaku and Polygon have insulating policies to avoid an over-influence of bias, the lack of such standards at other gaming outlets makes coverage seem much more inconsistent, and less fair. To that end, I’m kind of glad Kotaku posted an article with a very clear and stated bias; there’s no ambiguity about where Schreier is coming from, and why. Additionally, I suspect Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the worst sort of game to have to review (I’m not yet halfway through the game, and have literally no timetable with which to accord to, to play it, and am probably already approaching the 50 hours Schreier crammed to get to the end on his deadline; games like this are not well made for review cycles, even when reviewers heap them with ebullient praise (some of which can falter in the endgame to a degree that practically destroys their value)) and in a prior life I reviewed many similar titles, and often had to check my frustration that the games were taking so long, when I’d have been paid the same amount for a review of a game that took eight hours to investigate all the content.

So I don’t particularly blame Schreier for what I feel like are pretty unforgiving portions of his review. But what I really wanted to focus on was this question that seemed to arrive for me as I worked through this cycle of  reviewer frustrations: what even is an RPG? One person who commented on the article mentions hating MMO-like tedium in his single player RPGs. Honestly, that’s kind of what I’m coming to the game for; an MMO-like experience as a stand-alone game, without having to rely in any way on other players, or the vagary and lack of individual characterization that MMO games have for the player character. So I’m literally coming to Xenoblade Chronicles as a series for the exact kind of things that this commenter, and perhaps Schreier, appear to disdain it for. Yet, Xenoblade Chronicles, Mass Effect, Dark Souls, The Witcher, and Bravely Default are all considered to be of the same genre, and appear to be judged along the same criteria, when some of these couldn’t be farther in gameplay and style from each other.

“RPG”, during the 80’s and early 90’s console era had what feels like a very particular meaning and pathway to that meaning. “Role Playing Games” of this era seemed less about any sort of role-playing or character embodiment, as they did about the mechanical systems employed by tabletop role playing games of the same era. Essentially, these games functioned as auto-driven statistic-comparison engines, using the same mechanics as a Dungeons & Dragons-like tabletop system. The table-top player character engaged in a series of limited turn-based actions whose effectiveness is decided by applying a randomized modifier to a statistically-based value, used as an “action” (so an attack is a base “attack” or “strength” stat value with a randomized “dice roll” either added to, or multiplied by, that number) in order to produce a value that is then measured against a similar value the enemy has to determine the effectiveness of the action (for instance, an attack roll–plus the base character attack stat–minus an enemy’s armor statistic, equals the amount of damage taken from the enemy’s hit-points). In a game like the original Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest titles, character development followed a similar progression to Dungeons and Dragons, where new abilities came with stat increases as characters reached “higher levels” by gaining experience points for defeating foes. I’m being a little pedantic, here, but I feel like it’s worth stating literally what we’re talking about when we mention RPG’s.

These stats could be augmented by adding gear (armor, weapons, accessories) in the same way as they do in the tabletop games. And while a tabletop RPG has the potential for customization and improvisation–the categories of skills, abilities, and attributes can be fudged by the game’s Game Master, or Dungeon Master, who tells the story and facilitates the system to match any action–in practice, this is often undermined by power-gamers who min-max their characters (adjust their stats during creation and the leveling process to minimize traits that they aren’t likely to use to gain experience, usually those related to the literal “role playing” or improvisational part of tabletop RPGs) who tend to play by an astoundingly austere and system-based form of these games, especially in games that prioritize combat over social interactions. This type of Power-Gamer gameplay is the functional model for traditional computer and console-based RPG’s. In lieu of the collaborative story element of gameplay (where the game/dungeon master writes an open-ended story the players influence with their choices), video game RPG’s have linear, fixed progression stories that became the early vanguard for rich, character-based storytelling in games.

So RPG, as a video game system, has been embodied by a number of these gameplay systems: stat-based character progression, action effectiveness determined by stat-based randomized “dice rolls”,  gear that augments stats progressively along with level progression, strong linear storytelling. While all of these elements have traditionally meant “RPG” (and turn-based gameplay has at times been added or removed from the list) things have gotten much more muddy in the contemporary era. In the late 90’s with titles like Castlevania Symphony of Night‘s stat and gear progression using RPG-systems, you started to see action games described as having “RPG elements”. This has only expanded, and the integration of “RPG elements” now even affects AAA shooters, and their online competitive game progression. The Metal Gear series is a great example of how this kind of progression went mainstream.

Metal Gear as a series has always had strong linear storylines (sometimes to the series’ detriment, with story overpowering gameplay) but starting with Metal Gear Solid 4, it began to build into the back-end upgradeable weapon systems, and Metal Gear Solid Peacewalker made those numbers visible, along with stat based character progression and systems. By the time Metal Gear Solid 5 came around, but for the game’s clear action elements and history, anyone could have placed it into the same RPG category as The Witcher 2/3, or Bloodborne/Dark Souls III, especially following the ever increasing action elements of the Mass Effect series.

Perhaps another element of RPG’s is the perception of anachronistic content. RPG’s are rarely set in a realistic present, and those that are (like Obsidian Entertainment’s Alpha Protocol, or even Ubisoft’s The Division) rarely do well, as players seem frustrated that they aren’t playing a shooter or action title (and the “RPG elements” of even those…). RPGs seem to favor fantasy and space opera as a holdover from the tabletop origin of the genre.

What this makes for is a terrible mish-mash of gaming conventions that are assumed to have a singular meaning and value by being held in the same category. In many respects, it just no longer works. To hold Xenoblade Chronicles 2 to the standards of Xenogears is a comparison of a granny smith apple to a red delicious (let alone less popular apples, like a winesap, or gravenstein) they’re both technically the same fruit (and like the development of RPG sub-genres, all edible apples resulted from the cultivation and breeding of different strains for their best traits) but the qualities of each is so different you’d likely never try to hold one to the standards of the other. Let alone compare either game to The Witcher 3; and indeed, when I first played The Witcher 2, I thought, how is this not categorized as an action game? Games that might once have been considered “Action-RPGs”, like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, seem to effortlessly cross genre boundaries. And really, I’m not meaning to pick on Schreier’s review, it just happens to point towards the general problem of broad genre associations or categories that were once much less flexible, but are still treated as such.

I suppose what I’m saying is that game mechanics are no longer categorical; and a shorthand of categorical identities of games is fairly useless without more adequate and specific qualifiers. What is an RPG? At this point, by the original standards, it would be nearly any contemporary action game, and it seems to have more to do, these days, with sci-fi and fantasy, than it does with actual game mechanics.



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