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What Makes the Game - Part 2: Where am I from?

Joshua "twentytwo" Wall

This all begins with a little word called "Convention". As a word, it is a little odd in that it can be used to describe two very different things. First of all, it's an accepted practice: if I blow my nose in public, some might consider it as rude as sneezing on them. Such things are unconventional, as you are expected to have a certain code of conduct. However, this concept does separate slightly from its second interpretation: as the general custom or usage of a particular set of things. Hip-hop is considered to some as an unconventional music style and this unconventionality extends to the way in which its listeners might carry themselves. The style of dress and preferred greetings tend to be somewhat unconventional. However, to them, it is conventional. Though the practice isn't accepted by our mainstream culture, it is accepted as the general custom associated with that subculture. A counterculture cannot be conventional by its definition, but it would be silly to say that it isn't conventional or it couldn't be categorized so easily into a culture of its own. To be extreme, I'll use another example: a gun is a weapon. Its conventional use is to shoot things; but using that fact as justification to do so is not conventional. You can see how quickly this becomes confusing.

I think what we need here is a little history lesson...

Back in the early 80's, the game market wasn't doing so well. A massive avalanche of poor-quality games were manufactured in order to make as much money as possible on this newly invented fad called Games. When all hope was lost, a little company called Nintendo appeared on the scene and introduced the world to the NES, which once again made Games popular for the home market. Once again, companies desperately sought to fill this little console with every single game they could ever imagine in order to raise a profit. Thus, it managed to survive. However, with so many types of games on a single system, the need for a series of categories to describe them became more than apparent. As such, Nintendo, and their magazine Nintendo Power, attempted to create a set of standardized genres in order to give us a means by which to understand the kinds of games we like and to seek out others like them. They, as well as the other pioneers at the PC front, helped to identify and thereby establish these conventions.

Action games were built on the premise of real-time conflict. Winning at an Action game depended on you as the player being a certain place at a certain time and being able to know when to act and when to be patient. All kinds of these games were released. Every game sought to have that fast-paced Action title. After a while, these games had become so conventional that we stopped having to refer to them as Action games at all: it was assumed. Almost all games are Action games. Final Fight was an Action game. Mario, Street Fighter, Zelda, Megaman, Secret of Mana, and Gradius were all Action games. The genre had become so inclusive that it no longer served its purpose: to describe a specific category of games. What arose from its ashes were Twitch games based on fast-reflexes, Platform games involving jumping from location to location, Fighting games that involve tournaments and brawling, Shoot-em-ups which involved vehicles shooting at each other or spaceships blasting at aliens and asteroids, First Person Shooters that are simply shooters in a first person perspective, and the list goes on. Action games exploded and gave us the games that we have come to know and love. Through breaking the old convention, we managed to create a bunch of new ones. The hard part was letting go...

Adventure games are built on exploration and discovery. These games used to be more popularly implemented using Text, which resulted in the now infamous Text Adventure. Currently, MUDs are implemented as Text Adventures. Novels are Text Adventures and my favorite type of novel, the Choose Your Own Adventure series, was another example as such. I remember some that had a rudimentary level-up system used to keep track of various routes you can take in the story - It was quite fun. At the core of the Adventure game is the creation of a world, a set of characters to interact with, and a series of events that you got to navigate through in order to reach a conclusion: in simpler terms, it had a setting, a cast, and a plot - or a storyline. This genre was most notably infamous for the one thing that still drives people crazy: the collection quest, in its many glorious forms - like having to get three medallions to obtain a powerful sword needed to fight your enemies, or saving seven maidens who one by one, until the last, turn out not to be the princess of the castle. The greatest example of this was, obviously, the Zelda series, which by Nintendo's categories is labeled, even to this day, as an Action Adventure game.

Strategy games are another fan-favorite. The basic concept of the Strategy game is to collect a set of resources like items, spells, defensive materials, or various abilities, and to then try and prevent yours from being used up before you can whittle down the resources of the opposing team(s); you build up in order to knock down, waiting to see who survives the chaos. Some of the most famous Strategy games known are Chess, Chinese Checkers, Stratego, and Risk. Almost all Strategy games have as a core some relation to battle, war, and conflict. However, they rarely ever have a real story behind them. In battle, a story isn't necessary. All that's required is that you develop the strength of the team in order to survive each following turn until the resolution of the conflict is reached. This is true for Real-time Strategy Games like War Craft, as well as the more turn-based Strategy games like Disgaea, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Fire Emblem.

Puzzle games have always been the rage. These games are usually based on the idea that a series of blocks, crates, boxes, spherical things, lemmings, or whatever, have to be in a certain place for an obtuse and completely unnecessary reason. Puzzle games are challenging because they offer us an abstract problem that tends to change the way we look at finding solutions. We approach solving them like we do Word Problems: figure out what we want to solve, separate the items we have at our disposal, determine viable solutions, and apply each possibility until one of these reach the desired conclusion. In a way, these act like Strategy games, which is why one can, possibly, say that Chess is a Puzzle game. Almost anyone who has ever played a game has played the quintessential puzzle game, Tetris. Those that have been around a little longer know of the more classic kinds like Lemmings and Minesweeper.

Card games are kind of like an offshoot of puzzle games, in that they operate on the same basic principle of trying to produce patterns from variously organized objects. Though this was true in the beginning, it hasn't quite managed to stay the same, especially with the introduction of collectible card games whose cards are no longer generic. In the same way that Adventure games and Puzzle games have changed over time, so has this particular genre. The most common Card Games use the standard deck, like Poker, Blackjack, and Old Maid. As for video games, they've typically tried to transfer over the same basic content, but with some additional little things. For instance, you slowly build up your money, trying to purchase things or gain access to a game with higher stakes. Over time, Card games have come to be lumped in with Gambling games and thus you end up with Casino games labeled as Card games. However, there are still a few that can still be called CGs, or card games, like Pokemon TCG, YuGiOh, or Megaman Battle Network (a real-time action card game).

And, at long last, there is the Role Playing Game. As a genre, it holds its roots in pen-and-paper games like Dungeons and Dragons. Before these appeared on the scene, we had these things called Board games. Role-Playing Games were unique because of how the game was played, or it's gameplay. In Board games like Sorry, Life, or Monopoly, you were an abstract peg or symbol of opulence, which was bound to a linear track towards an end, or fate, that was unavoidable. But, in a Role-Playing game, you were an actual person who lived an actual life and could die, fall in love, have the freedom of choice, and the results changed wildly based solely on who you played it with. You would literally Role-Play, or play the part of someone else. As far as Board games go, there were some, like Clue, that came close: just not close enough. Dungeons and Dragons was a mix of war games, contained strategy elements, included puzzle and problem solving, and had the greatest aspects known to adventure. For those that played it, it was the greatest game ever made. It was everything at once, containing all aspects of life itself.

When Video games became popular, the idea of moving the pen-and-paper experience to the computer was first introduced. The most famous of first-attempts was Azkabath, which would later become Ultima. With that, such great games soon followed for the home market such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Over the years, a whole generation of people has been captivated by what it offers.

Role Playing Games let you play the part of someone else. Kind of like playing the part of Mario who fights to save the Princess, sneaking around a facility in order to uncover a sinister conspiracy as the great hero Solid Snake, or hunting dangerous robots as the infamous irregular hunter Megaman X. Wait a minute... that's not right...

What exactly is an RPG, anyway? Dungeons and Dragons offered the power to take on the role of someone else. Video games, by their very nature do exactly that. Interaction now requires Role-Playing. Dungeons and Dragons offered conflict in the way of fighting. If all we did were to fight, we would call it an Action game. Dungeons and Dragons offered level building, gaining of resources, building up and breaking down... something that is clearly the definition of strategy games. It offers exploration, collecting items and information, choosing one path over another one, and following the path of an engrossing story. This is an Adventure game. It also offered puzzles to solve... which sort of defines itself. But RPGs are about Character Development, right? Slowly growing and changing until you reach a different... form? Oh wait, that's Tamagotchi...

Is it possible that a long time ago, we took a game that we really loved and decided that it had to exist in a different form? In doing so, we overlooked the fact that it really wasn't necessary to keep the moniker that originally described it so well and so differently. Rather, we chose to keep this convention out of the simple fact that in losing it, we might have to let go of what we've become accustomed to. Doing so would mean sacrificing the thing that separates us from everyone else and would disregard its origins. No one wants to let go and have his or her past be forgotten. It's hard to let it pass away.

As with Action games, Role Playing games have become an all-engrossing genre. Once this happens, it's meaning becomes moot and it loses its purpose-and-effect. Visually, they are RPGs. Control-wise, they are RPGs. But the Gameplay that is supposed to define them and make them unique isn't RPG. We will continue to justify their existence because when we look, we can see them. Maybe looking is enough; maybe that shallowness is all that we require. It just feels to me that I'm grasping on to an illusion - like grabbing at one's shadow. I see it, therefore it is. At some point, I have to let it go. I have to accept it for what it is and move on.

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