What is a role-playing game?

It occurred to me that the central component of the conflict in ideology between those who regard the evolution of e.g. Bioware’s and Bethesda’s games as a good thing vs those who call it “dumbing down” comes down to the core idea of what they think an RPG is.

I once read that a role-playing game is about inventory management. That is the central component of what the game is. So the game is all about acquiring the best gear so that you can defeat your foes. It’s about levelling up so that you’ll be strong enough to wear that armour and wield that weapon. It’s about exploring dungeons to find the loot – the purpose of combat, the purpose of questing, it’s all to find gear with bigger and better stats. Inventory management is the game; absolutely everything you do is to that end. Your skill, as a player, is deciding what to use, how and when.

That came as a surprise to me, because I’d always taken the term “RPG” at face value: role-playing game. My introduction to the genre was via Morrowind, and I accepted its premise easily enough: “live another life”. I was playing dress-up in a virtual costume. It was Cowboys-and-Indians in my back garden – only I wasn’t five years old any more and the “cowboys” were Imperial soldiers. I asked how I was supposed to play the game; what I was supposed to do. “Oh, anything you like. You choose.” I therefore understood that RPGs were games about choice. You choose to fight or run away. You choose to explore the dungeon or walk on by. You choose to rescue the princess or do the kidnapping. It was like those Choose Your Own Adventure books that were popular when I was a kid. Acquiring gear, fighting, looting and even exploring were therefore peripheral. The game was about making decisions – therefore every action was leading towards a point where the story would branch one way or another.

Someone who plays games regularly might see either, or both, views as being really obvious. However, it does explain some of the differences in terminology that either camp uses.

For instance, for someone in Camp A, a game like Torchlight would be a prime example of an RPG. You run around a dungeon, collecting loot. To that person, the Mass Effect series would barely qualify as an RPG, with its auto-levelling options. By contrast, the Camp B player wouldn’t really think of Torchlight as an RPG at all (“it’s a lot of fun, but you don’t really decide anything plotwise”) but would regard Mass Effect as the ultimate RPG because you spend almost every minute that you’re not watching cutscenes talking to people and making decisions.

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong to this, but it does explain in my mind why one camp might call a game “not a real RPG” while the other camp is bemused because it’s obviously an RPG. It just means something completely different to what the first guy meant.

I suppose the only way the game-makers get to resolve the issue is just to include options for both types of player. To the Camp A player, having lots of customisation possiblities means more ways to choose one item over another and give their character an advantage – the core of their game – but they’re not so interested in keeping the game moving at a fast pace. To the Camp B player, time spent choosing between two identical-looking silver swords is time not spent advancing the story to a moment where they can make a game-changing decision – that’s playing the game, levelling up is just distraction. Luckily, games such as Skyrim and Mass Effect 3 have really borne in mind both types of player, giving options for either style of play. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter if people don’t agree on what “RPG” means so long as everyone is having fun.


3 comments on “What is a role-playing game?

  1. Game Banshee has these discussions every once in a while (usually when poorly executed, highly anticipated titles like DA2 come out) , and it is interesting to see the answers that people offer up. Given the website’s target audience, most people seem to feel like decision making is a core component but still classify Mass Effect as more of a shooter/RPG hybrid (that is heavier on the “shooter” with each sequel) than an all out RPG. One thing everyone can decide on? Pretty much everyone will agree that Baldur’s Gate was the pinnacle of cRPG success. Most would also agree that Planescape:Torment sits right up there with BG.

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