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The Changing Face of the RPG: What Makes an RPG


Alright, alright, I know I've already created several "series" of editorials -- groups of editorials that share common topics. But I couldn't help but begin a new one. Since we are relatively on the eve of the release of a new era of consoles, I thought it only wise to begin to examine how the concept of the video game RPG has developed over the past few years and where it might be headed. And I've come to one conclusion: things are changing. Okay, so that's obvious. So let me try to be more specific. I'll write on each significant development that I've come across. Today's topic is probably the most overarching of all the ones I'll cover: what is it that defines an RPG, and how does this definition change?

Many assume without question that the foremost characteristic that defines what is an RPG is the quality and nature of its story. It is the story that draws players into RPGs, and a well-written story is a prerequisite for the many other things that RPGs are known for, such as convincing character development. However, is a well-developed story the only thing that defines what an RPG is? After all, there are plenty of games out there that have great stories that we don't call RPGs. So what is it that those games that we do call RPGs have that makes us label them as such?

There are plenty of games out there that have great stories. The Metal Gear Solid games all sport well-written stories. Does that alone make them RPGs? Certainly not. While the RPGamer's love for these games in addition to RPGs is often evidenced by the frequent discussion about these games on RPG message boards, most gamers certainly wouldn't call these games RPGs, which would lead one to assume that there is something other than great storywriting that defines RPGs. But what could that be?

If there really is some other thing that defines an RPG, it must be something about RPGs' traditional style of gameplay. Is it the RPG's traditional battle system, where characters take turns fighting the enemy? Certainly, games that feature turn-based fighting are considered RPGs, but it is not necessary for a game to have this to be considered an RPG.

Other than what's been already mentioned, it seems as if the only feature that is unique to games that we call RPGs is the careful planning of the development of characters' skills and abilities. Whether this is carried out by a traditional "level-up" system, a more subtle and progressive system where awards are given for completing menial tasks, or any other system, the general idea employed is the same: perform some task ("earn experience") and receive rewards. If this, along with story development, is one of the few necessary conditions that must be fulfilled in order to qualify a game as an RPG, what is to prevent games like those of the Metal Gear Solid series and others from being considered RPGs? After all, Solid Snake can perform pull-ups (a task) to get stronger (a reward). If these are truly the only characteristics of an RPG, then a plethora of games, especially those that will be released in the future, could more or less be classified as RPGs. As companies have gradually begun to increase the quality of their story-writing in games, and RPG developers have been attempting to find ways to construct their battle and character-building systems to be more subtle and accessible, the line between RPGs and non-RPGs has blurred.

Ten years ago, the definition of a video game RPG was comparatively easy to put into words; practically all of them featured Final Fantasy-inspired "ATB," or active-time battle systems, the traditional slay-monster-get-experience-level-up mode of character building, and more engaging stories than then other types of games in the time period. Today, things have changed on almost every level. The traditional characteristics that define RPGs have been rewritten or even abolished, and games of other genres have become more likely to borrow RPG elements and implement them into gameplay. The implications of this will probably be most significant and much more visible on the next generation of consoles. Both the technological advances of those systems and the and the (albeit slowly) increasing ingenuity of game developers will help to create games that transcend traditional genre specifications. At the very least, they will make it more difficult to classify with certainty Game A as an RPG or Game B as an Action/Adventure title absent any new definitions of what an RPG is. Unless, of course, I'm completely missing a characteristic that defines what an RPG is. Rebuttal, anyone?

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