Updated: Feb 19
Please don’t disturb me while I’m plotting to overthrow you
The term RPG is bandied about a lot these days, so much so that it’s nearly lost all meaning. It’s derived originally from tabletop role-playing games, sometimes referred to as TRPG or pen and paper, like Dungeons & Dragons. In these games you choose your character’s race, class, skills, etc and define their personalities through, well, actually playing the role (accents are optional). The latter aspect obviously isn’t directly transferable to electronic media, so instead it’s common to see branching dialogue and large decisions about your character’s past and moral standing. Those components coupled with skill trees, open world environments and open gameplay combine well together to create the RPG as we know it. With more and more modern releases going the route of adapting these mechanics and features, the line has blurred.
So, with that in mind, how do we actually define an RPG? Besides that, how do we define a good RPG, what are the essential parts? Is God of War (2018) an RPG because it has coloured item drops and levelling up as a progress marker?
A den of stinking evil
There is an argument to be made (albeit a weak one) that any video game you play is an RPG, as you inhabit a character and you play that role. Understandable in a way, but there is far more to this genre than simply controlling an avatar, hallmarks going back to the days of the tabletop. One defining characteristic for me is a rich, lore-filled world. Look to any “true” role-playing series and you will see wonderfully realised worlds, lore dripping from every innocuous book or scroll you can pick up. Any game with a well-fleshed out mythology scores big points for me in representation of the genre. A great example of this would be The Elder Scrolls. Regardless of how you feel about it or Bethesda’s more recent… practices… The franchise contains some of the most meticulously crafted folklore you will ever see. What’s more is that all this is accomplished in-game, with Bethesda having released very little in the way of books and other related media releases.
The likes of Horizon: Zero Dawn accomplish this really well, the sense of being part of an entirely different world with different history is palpable. This is a critical pillar in another important aspect, immersive world-building. It is hard to play a role, when the world you inhabit isn’t believable, boring or otherwise not escapist enough. I look to the first Dark Souls as possibly the ultimate example of this. Lordran is simultaneously grotesque, beautiful and endearing. You need not look further than the Painted World of Ariamis or Anor Londo and it’s twisted take on Roman Catholic cathedrals to know that you’re in a far off and dangerous land. For me, the levels of openness are not strictly essential to be able to immerse myself. For example, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings did not boast a true open world, instead vying for smaller hub areas. This worked extremely well and can sometimes be the smarter choice - A smaller world with more detail or a larger, emptier world? This is perhaps a question faced by many developers. A well-polished world is going to require some degree of sacrifice.
A swift kick in the morals
For me, what it essentially boils down to you is the level of freedom you’re afforded. This goes for everything, in terms of gameplay style, affiliation with factions, alignment, etc. If you have the freedom to truly define your character and who they are, that, at its core, defines an RPG in my opinion.
For instance, I’m currently playing Pillars of Eternity - a CRPG in the vein of the Infinity Engine games, spiritual successor to the great Baldur’s Gate. While I have yet to finish it, I do have an understanding that the story is pretty much linear in that the quests are the same for everyone, however, it’s about the journey and not the destination. As I have already experienced there are several ways to complete quests, to reflect different personalities you can cultivate. You can respond aggressively and stoically, and complete quests in a similar manner, or alternatively be honest and benevolent. This creates a great opportunity for role-playing - It’s perfectly doable to be the honourable Paladin or malevolent Wizard. This presents huge replayability and proves to be a wonderful example of the power of RPGs - You can become anyone you want. Good, bad, somewhere in between.
This level of freedom is why this genre speaks to me far more so than others. I come from a strong background in playing Dungeons & Dragons, where you can do basically anything. You can follow the DM’s (Dungeon Master - The one who drives the story) story or send it on a different course, and an RPG done well will instill a similar feeling. Not that of feeling smothered, but liberation.
Live by the sword, live a good looong time
As I touched on, freedom is a large cornerstone of the genre and this applies to the gameplay, as much as role-playing freedom. A lot of modern titles that receive the RPG tag have skill trees - usually they come in three and present different skills and abilities. There is a fundamental flaw with this, often it is easily doable to acquire all skills in every tree by the endgame, and the benefits can be generic or generally useful. As a result you don’t become too locked in to a particular playstyle due to its overarching benefit, as opposed to more specific and granular advantages. While this is very much true for some more contemporary games, this isn’t the rule and there are great examples of the opposite. Skyrim for example has a very open levelling and upgrade system, where your talents develop practically - The more you use Stealth, the more stealthy you will become.
While ultimately getting to a position where you can do anything is empowering and gives you freedom, it can also be stifling and have a negative impact on replayability. If you can do everything in one go, why play it again?
You point, I punch
I hope this doesn’t come across too much as “old man yells at cloud”, I very much enjoy and love some modern RPGs. The term has become blurred and there is difficulty in defining it for the modern context because of it. The genre has simply moved on in my estimation. It has broadened it’s horizons and no longer is exclusive to just games where you micro-manage parties of characters. No, it encompasses far more than just that now and perhaps it’s time for people like me (i.e. people stuck enjoying things from the past far too much) to move on and accept this. The genre’s light application of hallmark game mechanics to contemporary games has led to a surge in popularity, and thanks to that the CRPG has made a comeback - New versions of old things I like, yay!
Everyone wins with this modern definition, and I have finally learned that.
Image one taken from the Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition press kit here
Image two taken from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim press kit here
Image three taken from the Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition press kit here
Image four taken from the God of War (2018) press kit here
Image five taken from the Torment: Tides of Numenera press kit here
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