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The Blurring of the Line: Role-playing Games and Action Games

by Arcana

[Pre-note: I said my next editorial was going to be about the blurring of the line between video game universes and reality. Sorry, I lied.

Also, though I refer to Mr Gover's editorial, I do not intend to attack or disagree with his ideas. I am trying to bring across a new perspective on games.]

Aaron Gover listed a few things on his RPG "wish list" that I found interesting. I read them over, along with other editorials such as Mr Langworthy's "The Action-Based Character" and the rebuttal by TetrisGod. In TetrisGod's rebuttal, he brings up mention that Mr Langworthy should play an action game if he wants little character development. In Mr Gover's editorial, he wishes for a number of options, including more interactivity in the battle system such as the "Boost" button for Guardian Forces.

As I read these, I'm starting to think: wouldn't these things start making RPG's more like action games?

I can hear you all scream, "OH MY GOD! No! This is impossible! RPG's like action games? No WAY! Action games suck!" But soft! Let us analyse the picture! Are action games and role-playing games that far apart?

I'd like to start off with an example from the ages of Nintendo Entertainment System gaming. Ninja Gaiden, an action game, was one of the first games to feature "cinema scenes", which are the predecessors to the modern-day FMV. Cinema scenes consisted of static (or minimally animated) shots of the characters' faces, where they would exchange dialogue or talk to each other. In the case of Ninja Gaiden, the main character receives a telegram from his father about some urgent mission, and the story soon evolves into a gigantic conspiracy. In between these cinema scenes, the player battles through a level to further the story.

Most people will say the defining line between role-playing games and action games is the storyline. If it has a story and has good character development, it's role-playing. But, even as far back as Ninja Gaiden, many action games bucked this trend. And role-playing games sometimes had almost nonexistent stories and character development. Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy had next to no character development, and a story that would rival the great Super Mario's "Save the Princess from the evil Bowser". Now, when we play games, we see action games with deep stories that are just as good as the RPG's.

What's the second defining element of a role-playing game? The battle system. Turn-based, you say. Well, not anymore! Star Ocean: The Second Story sure isn't turn-based. Final Fantasy has bucked the turn-based trend ages ago in favour of an Active Battle System. Menu system, you say? Well, to be honest, there hasn't been a game without a menu system of some sort. But let us look closely. Final Fantasy VIII's Gunblade trigger sure isn't a menu. It's a button that relies on manual dexterity and timing. Boost is an attack where you have to pound on a button as quickly as possible. Hmm, sounds a little like Street Fighter? Just a little bit!

Oh, but wait a second! Role-playing games also involve equipping your party with weapons and armour, right? Oh, but look! In "Thief: The Dark Project" for the PC, you could buy items and equip different arrows. In Tenchu, you had different pieces of equipment like swords and grappling hooks. Even in Quake, you get to change weapons on the fly!

You say that role-playing games also involve stat-building or experience building of some sort? Well, the Adventure of Link for the NES has experience points but not a speck of menu-based combat. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, a skateboarding game, even has stats that influence your character's abilities that can be built up if you perform good tricks.

Hold on a moment. Role-playing games involve moving around on some sort of map, where you don't have to use manual dexterity to fly past obstacles! Hmm, not quite true anymore! When you play any game where you can see your enemies on the map, you tend to use that "dash" button to try to run past them in any way possible. You use those reflexes to respond to any movement the enemy makes. Drat! They saw me! Better hide around the corner. Okay, step by step (good thing I bought that analog controller), I'm going to go... okay, THERE! Full blast! I've passed them! What was I playing just a moment ago? Yes, it could have very well been an RPG. In Xenogears, you can jump! Oh, I sense the jumping from platform to platform to get around! Hop-hop-hop, I feel like Mario! That's not very role-playing like, is it?

What did I miss? Did I miss anything? Although I used different games, you'll find a few with ALL these elements mixed in. Ultima IX: Ascension has a story, jumping around, weapons, and statistics. Jagged Alliance has statistics, a storyline, real-time combat, and weapons/armour.

Now, the million dollar question. Is this all really a BAD thing?

I don't think I'll supply any proof as to whether this is a horrible thing. Maybe it kills the so-called "old-schoolers", who are under the impression that today's games have less options, less thinking, and not enough exploring. Maybe it'll harm the "new-schoolers" who want to get the story first, foremost, and most of all, NOW, and dislike those silly "jump-jump" games.

But then again, maybe not. Maybe it increases the player's thinking skills. The timing is critical! What if your character hit an enemy on a body part based on the movement on a randomly-moving cursor? Should you time it so your slash is at the torso, running the chance that your opponent will block it, or should you wait and hit the head, but at the risk of opening yourself to an attack? Maybe the next skill you should get will be an ability to focus your attacks on one area. Maybe, instead of getting into a standard battle every time you touch an enemy on the screen, you can assassinate them from behind with your katana if you sneak up on them. You start thinking of what you, as a character, can do. Who knows where role-playing games will end up. Maybe we should all start practising skateboarding runs in "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater" because we just might have to ride a half-pipe or a compete in a magic carpet race in Final Fantasy IX.

Or maybe we should play more chess (did I say chess? I meant Final Fantasy Tactics!) so we can anticipate the next wave of strategic games that depend on the position of your party members, what skills your main character has, and the weight of the armour he's wearing. You'll want to take into account all the factors, including the obstacles in your path, the type of attack you execute, and the counters the enemy may have.

Keep an open mind, but be aware of this shift. Don't insult other games because "they're not like RPG's. Games are becoming more and more alike. Don't call "Final Fantasy VIII" a "fake RPG".

What's a real RPG, anyway?

But come to think of it, what exactly does "action game" mean? ^_^

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