Thoughts VS Opinions Defining an RPG From Other Video Games.
Giving definition to something makes it easier to interpret what the object is to another person. If I said an animal broke into my room, then that could be interpreted as a cat or an African elephant being in my room. Defining an object is a necessity for communication, and yet, I see a lot of people struggle in defining what an RPG is, or what RPG elements are. In some cases it’s like the definition for Discrete Mathematics, where gamers could look at something and say, “Yeah, that’s an RPG,” but don’t go any further since the definition is so vague. Why do we call some video games a RPG while others are not? Why do we consider Mass Effect more like an RPG than, say, Mass Effect II or Dead Space? Similarly, what are RPG elements, and why do they pop up in so many video games that are not RPGs?
Before I can answer what an RPG is, I would have to define my view on what game genres are. Outside of RPGs, we have games classified as action, strategy, and adventure games. We further classify these games in sub-genres such as first person shooters, real time strategy, or horror games. Most of us could look at a horror game like the Silent Hill series and say, “Yeah, that is a horror/adventure game.” But how do we recognize this, and define it differently from an action-horror game like the Dead Space series?
I’ll look at three games that have action elements to explain this. The games used in this example are any Mario game on the NES, Starcraft on the PC, and any Call of Duty shooter game. Now why do I consider these games having action elements? You could say that Mario and Call of Duty are action games – but Starcraft? That is a strategy game! But you would need to respond fast by sending your troops to attack a Zerg horde in Starcraft. And the ‘action’ tag doesn’t fully describe the difference Mario has with Call of Duty. A Mario game is about timing your jumps and moving across platforms, while a Call of Duty game is about aiming down a gun and shooting bad guys.
The two key words from above are “action elements.” What are these? I think of them as the raw challenge a game delivers to provoke an experience for the gamer. An action game focuses a lot on reflex-based challenges: Timing your jumps right; getting perfect accuracy with an AK-47; and responding fast when your bases are being attacked. Each of these challenges require quick reflexes from the player, but further define the game from being unique towards the other. The Mario games on the NES are “platformer” action games due to the necessity of timing your jumps; whereas Call of Duty is a “first person shooter” action game that requires precise accuracy with a gun.
So what makes an RPG? To be honest, I think a lot of current games borrow so many challenges from RPGs or mix them in with challenges from other game genres that finding a vanilla RPG is tough these days. We classify Diablo as an RPG, but also an action game since it requires reflexes from a player. BioWare claims they make RPGs, yet they rely on dialogue puzzles from an adventure game or use action elements for the combat of their game. Bethesda’s Elder Scroll games have a similar hybrid RPG like BioWare games, but also give the player a choice in completely forget the main story so the player can go explore somewhere else in the game-world.
Like other games, we’ll have to look at a previous generation of a game to find a definition. We call Halo a first person shooter action game because it’s based around similar challenges found in old games like DOOM or Wolfenstein 3D. So for me, I look at an old RPG to find what kind of challenges define it, and what better RPG to look at then the grand-daddy Dungeons and Dragons? Probably the closest game in our generation like Dungeons and Dragons would be Dragon Age: Origins – closest, but not exact.
Picture Dragon Age: Origins with its party and inventory management, and character development. The game is close to a vanilla RPG like Dungeons and Dragons, but it needs to be modified. First, take out all the pre-generated characters that BioWare gave us and replace them with rolled up characters the player makes along with their Grey Warden. Next, remove the real-time combat with turn-based combat so characters taking turns based upon initiative order. Finally, reduce the dialogue puzzles of the companions and NPCs and crank up the challenges of exploration. Now you have a vanilla RPG, one that emphasizes party and inventory management, character growth, exploration, and turn-based combat.
A similar question that could be addressed here is on defining RPG elements, and why they show up in so many video games that are not RPGs like Dead Space or God of War? Similar to “action elements” defined earlier, “RPG elements” are taking the challenges of an RPG and putting them into a game that doesn’t rely on those challenges. God of War and Dead Space are action-based games, but they require the player to upgrade their items so they do more damage or open up combos. RPGs tend to have a challenge of building a character that suits the player’s style in a game, so they could solve any challenges the game gives them.
Most video games released today are hybrids of several challenges from various game genres. Dead Space has challenges from shooter-based games, RPG elements with upgradable gear, and exploration challenges from an adventure game. Similarly, while Starcraft is labeled as a strategy game, its technically a real-time strategy game that relies on challenges from action games. So a video game that claims to have RPG elements might borrow some challenges, but not every challenge from an RPG.
We all have ways of defining video games from each other. Nothing is set in stone defining what an RPG is, unfortunately. For me, I define games based upon the challenges provided with them, so I think of RPGs having the challenges of character development, inventory management, and turn-based combat. I also think video games borrow so many challenges from RPGs to add more depth to a game. Such as how Dead Space borrows the challenge of inventory management and character growth of an RPG, but not the turn-based combat or party management.
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