I love RPGs. Video game RPGs, Tabletop RPGs, just roleplaying games in general are a huge hobby of mine.
But, what IS a roleplaying game. Many people have different opinions. And I have mine. Mine are obviously the RIGHT opinions though, so let’s get started. Let’s start first with some ideas of what RPGs aren’t:
RPGs are games where you play a role! Its right in the title!
UUUUGH. Just ugh. You hear this one every once in a while. Its usually put forth by someone trying to tell me that the Legend of Zelda series is an RPG.
I’ll give you Zelda II, but the rest of the series, just no.
This argument is beyond stupid. The idea that any game in which you play a role is a RPG means that every game, barring a few abstract games like Tetris, are RPGs. I play the role of Master Chief! I play the role of Mario! Its just a dumb idea. Any definition of RPG that encompasses 99% of all video games, obviously CAN’T be the proper definition of RPG.
Any game where you upgrade your character is an RPG!
OK. At least this is a little closer. It gets towards the right track, but its still waaaay too broad. There are many genres that have had upgrades almost since the beginning, the biggest of which is the Action Adventure genre! In which we have yet another appearance of the Legend of Zelda Game series, which people still insist are RPGs.
Repeat after me: UPGRADES ALONE DO NOT MAKE ZELDA AN RPG.
If that was the case Metroid would also be an RPG. Resident Evil is an RPG series. Tomb Raider is an RPG series.
I’d actually argue that RE4 is much closer to being an RPG than Zelda ever was.
Tons of game genres either already had upgrading as part of their MO, like the Adventure genre in general, or borrow some mechanics from other genres to do it now. That doesn’t make it an RPG.
Any game where you can make choices that affect the story is an RPG!
This one is usually thrown around by Western RPG fans, as a way to invalidate Japanese RPGs, which tend to be more linear.
They like to claim that without the choices to affect the story, they aren’t roleplaying, and therefore, aren’t playing a roleplaying game. Which, I can see their point, but they are missing the reason the genre is called what it is called, which I’ll get to in a minute.
But even ignoring the history of the term, they are again, opening the genre up to games that are clearly not in the genre, most obviously the Visual Novel genre.
The visual novel genre is well known for multiple branching endings, even more so than the RPG genre, so how can that be the defining feature of RPGs?
So what is an RPG?
I’m tempted to say that I’ll know it when I see it, but that is a cop out. The truth is, that the term RPG isn’t really what it sounds like it is. It comes from the history of the term. The history of the term with video games didn’t come from Roleplaying, it came from EMULATING TABLETOP RPG MECHANICS.
We owe it all to these.
It came from emulating the stats and growth and focus on that. Saying that it is based on roleplaying is just wrong. You can have roleplaying in a video game RPG, but that isn’t the defining feature. The defining feature is a focus on character power via stats and some form of growth/leveling. Not just that it features it at all, because tons of games do that now, and some genres have always had it in minor amounts, but that that is the FOCUS of the gameplay.
The focus of the gameplay in Persona is in fusing new, stronger Personas with better stats, better skills, and better defenses. The focus of the gameplay in Borderlands is finding better gear and leveling to spend skill points to pump out better stats that pump out better bullets. The focus of the gameplay of Pokemon is breeding, catching, and RAISING monsters to have better stats to beat up other monsters stats.
This isn’t to disparage any game that I claim is not an RPG. The Zelda series is solid. Resident Evil 4 is amazing! Its about the fact that if someone loved Zelda, I wouldn’t say “oh, well you should play Final Fantasy, its the same genre”. Because it isn’t. Now, they might like both. I tend to at least enjoy both, but that just isn’t a guarantee. They are vastly different styles.
What do you think makes an RPG an RPG? Join us in the comments below.