I don't know how many of you have seen a Russian nested doll, or matryoshka doll as it is also known, but they are very interesting to look at. The largest of these wooden figures can be taken apart to reveal yet another doll. This second doll can also be pulled in two to reveal another doll; this usually continues until four or five wooden figures have been uncovered. The RPG genre is just like these dolls, holding within many different subgenres. While it is nice to have a good deal of variety, it can be a little tough to point out what is an RPG and what isn't.
When someone says that a game is an RPG, what is the first thing that pops into your head? Do you think of the classic Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games with their turn-based combat systems and random encounters? Do you think back on your most recent raid into The Molten Core? Imagine yourself hacking enemies up with Link's Master Sword? Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs, Action RPGs, Tactical RPGs, Western RPGs, and Japanese RPGs are just the start.
The subgenre of MMORPGs seems like it would isolated, but even it's not free from division. Aside from the differences of the fantasy and sci-fi MMOs, there are both the normal pay to play and free to play MMOs. This is likely the least divided subgenre of RPGs thankfully, as it is fairly well defined within itself. Over time things may change and this genre could become as bad as the rest.
Action RPGs are problematic. They seem to be a label for anything that seems like an RPG, but doesn't follow the standard patterns of combat in traditonal RPGs. The prefix of the word action adds a feel that the game should be less decision making and more direct control. Games that would be Action RPGs would be Kingdom Hearts, Secret of Mana, and Alundra. These games are easily taken into the subgenre without question, but often games that blend genres get more resistance. The Legend of Zelda series for example; it is as much of an RPG as Alundra or Kingdom Hearts. It easily could wear the mantle of an adventure game as well, but that does not stop it from qualifying as an RPGs as well. Now add in games like Mass Effect, Too Human, and The World Ends With You and you have an even greater mess. These games include fast-paced action, adventure, and role-playing elements. Where does the game pass a point into or out of the realm of being an RPG? Does it require hit points or a certain amount of dialogue? The Action RPG subgenre will continue to become a more blended one as other genres crossover into role-playing. First-person shooters have done it, puzzle games have, and even some consider the rhythm game Patapon to be an RPG in some aspects. In this ever diversifying genre, I imagine that things will continue to stay cloudy.
The subbranch of Tactical RPGs is not immune to diversity either. For the longest time, this subgenre was simple and straightforward; characters moved along a grid to attack others in turn-based fashion. These were the days of Shining Force and later on Final Fantasy Tactics. Now things are evolving here as well. Not only do we have what could be dubbed the traditional Tactical RPG, we now have games featuring real-time combat such as Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings and the upcoming Blue Dragon Plus. These two titles feature RPG elements with those of Real-Time Strategy games like Warcraft III and Starcraft. Also newer games are trying to blend the tactical side with traditional RPG elements as seen in Archaic Sealed Heat. ASH features the grid seen in most all Tactical RPGs, but when engaging in combat, battles consist of menu-based turns like a Japanese RPG. Throw in some Tactical RPGs featuring mechs such as Front Mission and Zoids Assault as well as off-the-wall titles like Operation Darkness, that stars Vampires, Werewolves, Army soldiers, and Nazis.
Western RPGs seem to be a little better defined, but that's mainly because they are not as plentiful. Games like Diablo, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are all well-defined as RPGs as they are more open-ended with a strong focus on character customization. Many of these RPGs could easily find a home in the Action RPG area, but not all of them meet those requirements, so another subgenre is questionable.
The final area of focus is the classic Japanese RPG arena, the home of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Some would argue these staples of the genre never mix things up. This couldn't be further from the truth. Dragon Quest might not shake things up to much, though the recent on-rails RPG, Dragon Quest Swords sure did a good job of being different. Final Fantasy has changed things up often
over the years, especially the love it or hate it Final Fantasy XII. It broke every rule and had gamers dubbing it an offline MMORPG, as if that made sense. Sure it played like the combat system of the online eleventh installment, but how does that make it an offline MMORPG?
Those were the cookie cutter Japanese RPGs. Let's back away from those games for a minute and look at some other RPGs to hit recently. What about Persona 3, where does it fit? It's an RPG with high school simulation and dungeon crawling combat. Should RPGs that feature dungeon crawling be in their own subgenre? What about roguelike games such as Izuna and other Mystery Dungeon titles? They can easily be another subgenre. Let's not forget Harvest Moon titles. They seem like a whole subgenre themselves. Are these games Japanese RPGs or something totally different? There is no perfect formula for defining an RPG, so we just have to go with what our instincts tell us.
If this breakdown has told us anything it's that there is a variety in the genre of RPGs unlike that of any other. Sports games are easy to define, as are fighting games. They have specifics that make them easy to identify. RPGs really can vary from person to person. One person's RPG is another's adventure title. What looks like a FPS to me might be an RPG to you. No other genre offers as much and has as much to debate about, but that's why we love the genre, isn't it? We all have different interests, so with all of this nesting, we can all be happy. Right?