Musings: On the State of the RPG

Bioware co-founder Dr. Greg Zeschuk and his opinion on haters

One of the biggest trends in the video game industry for the last several years has been the melding of traditional role-playing mechanics — experience points, leveling up, skills/perks, classes — into other genres. I think we really have Call of Duty 4 to thank for this, as it spawned (pun not intended…but if I caught it and left it in is it now intended?) the modern multiplayer-shooter framework of persistent character progression. On the single-player side it’s a little harder to say wear the launching point was, but it certainly exists in the modern era — Borderlands is a good example.

Similarly we’ve seen mechanics from other genres creeping their way into RPGs. The easiest example to point to (and the one I’ll deal with most in this post) is the Mass Effect series. Bioware’s sprawling space opera has at this point become a cover-based third-person shooter (a la Gears of War) glazed with a fine coating of traditional RPG systems. There are a lot of people out there who will argue that because of this Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 in particular, is not a role-playing game.

This is a preposterous conclusion.

Thanks to their Dungeons and Dragons heritage, RPGs — Western RPGs in particular, but more on that later — have come to be defined by their systems: statistic-based combat and character growth, skills, loot, classes and the like. Sure, these are all part of a long lineage of classic games, of both the pen and paper and video varieties, but they are only a singular part of that experience. There is a reason they are called “role-playing games” and that is because they are meant to create a world in which the player can (duh) play a role.

To define an RPG solely by these number crunching systems is to hold an extremely narrow opinion. Mass Effect 2, for example, is more of a role-playing game than most. The player assumes the role of Shepard and maneuvers through the narrative, making decisions to their liking.

This is by definition, role-playing.

So now Bioware haters will say, “well duh, I play the role of a soldier in Call of Duty, but that doesn’t make it an RPG!”

That’s true, it doesn’t, but you’re also not actually role-playing in Call of Duty.

In a game like Call of Duty, a finely crafted, cinematic, thrill-ride experience, your merely inhabiting the character as it progresses through their preplanned narrative. At no point are you involved in decision-making to shape this narrative, a function a true RPG, like Mass Effect, offers.

Now, I’m also not proposing games with simple binary moral choices are also covered under this new definition of RPG. A game like InFamous which offers the player the occasional good or evil choice doesn’t have the depth of decision making found in a Bioware title, for example. The best aspect of Dragon Age 2 was the ability to mold your character’s personality along with their decisions. Want to be a bloodthirsty thug in all scenarios? Go ahead. Rather be a sarcastic prick? Sure, you can do that to.

Ultimately, what’s most important in the modern RPG is the existence of choice. Role-playing means making the decisions — in conversation, combat and character growth — that you want to make and affecting the narrative thusly. Does adding experience and leveling up to Call of Duty make it any more of an RPG? Of course not. Does removing loot from Mass Effect make it any less of  on RPG? A similar big, fat no here.

These points seem fairly obvious, but believe it or not there has been a massive Internet hubbub about it for years now.  The problem we’re running into is the clash between this more modern semantic definition that I’m proposing and the image of the genre as it has developed in gamers’ minds for decades.

For many years the mainstream (read: console) RPG was defined by products of the East, mainly Final Fantasy. These Japanese RPGs are pure experience grind and narrative exercises. The player has no choice within the story and even sometimes within character growth. You’re not playing a role here any more than you are in Call of Duty.

This brings up a whole other issue: the difficulties of modern video game taxonomy. I would classify Mass Effect 2 as an RPG, but there are plenty of people who would call it a shooter. Who’s to say which of us is right? [On second thought, screw those people. It’s an RPG! That’s the whole point of this post!] This situation is becoming more and more common.

One of the solutions I’ve seen is to classify games by more traditional literary standards. In their best of 2010 coverage, IGN had best sci-fi, fantasy and horror categories rather than the typical shooter, RPG and adventure stuff. This type of classification only works for narrative based games, however, as it clearly has no room for fighting, racing or puzzle games. These are given opportunities to shine in other categories — best multiplayer or retro-design, for example — but it is not a taxonomy that would work in a year-round, medium-wide scenario.

But I digress. This is a separate issue, for a separate post.


Now that the systems that have come to define role-playing games — experience points, leveling up, classes, persistent character growth — are par for the course in almost any game, the genre we’ve come to know as the RPG can no longer be defined by such. The modern RPG, therefore, should be defined by the choices the game offers its player, not by the presence of these statistic-based systems.

I’m in no way proposing an overhaul of genre divisions. The taxonomy of games has been built into this medium for about 25 years now and changing the way we think about genres divisions is futile. Some people, however, just need to be a little more open-minded when it comes to burgeoning evolutions of their favorite genres.

About Matt Gerardi
Matt Gerardi is a journalist and musician. He also happens to write about video games.

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