Why Is It So Hard To Define an RPG?

I made this comment on RPS. Normally, I’d hold my posting to better standards, but I am tired and headachey and have only had one proper meal in the past three days.

This is just me, but I always had the idea that an RPG was a game about role-playing, and that being turn-based and all that other nonsense were just abstractions that we never needed to begin with (no reason to have a dice roll regarding the success of a rat’s dodge; the AI, physics, and engine calculation of my sword’s swing can handle that now).

I’ll try to get into my justification for that simple claim in a moment, but, first, I do wonder… why would anyone think any differently? The RPG is a role-playing game. It describes itself in the title. I like to think I can actually trust the English language enough to assume that a descriptor like that is quite literal. Presumably, a game that facilitates role-playing more than another game is the better role-playing game, right?

I’ve been thinking about this in part because, when I think about it, I did more role-playing in STALKER than I ever did in most RPGs. The skills and classes of those games limited me to a role, rather than letting me truly be the person I wanted. Granted, STALKER wouldn’t let me play as a pacifist, but that’s more because one wouldn’t actually find a pacifist in a place like the Zone, only a pile of monster shit. It is a game that dumped me in a world, set forth the rules of that world, then let me be whoever I wanted to be.

The stuff we generally think of as RPG mechanics are often unnecessary! Being turn-based, for instance, is the only way to keep a DM sane. Having dice rolls is the only way to keep people from being mad at the DM when he calls the outcome of a thing–it’s a bit harder to dispute a dice than it is to dispute a guy who randomly decides whether you hit or miss, after all.

The other night, a friend got all huffy with me when I said I was quite happy with where The Elder Scrolls was heading. He said it was becoming less of an RPG because it was getting streamlined. I suggested that instead, a lot of the skill stuff was being offloaded into other areas (or removed because they figured out how to do it better–see classes). Skyrim was, I argued, slowly evolving (I realize that the use of the word might be provocative, but considering that role-playing is inherently a part of the immersive sim, and that the IS removes abstraction, then surely it must be an evolution of the RPG, no?) into an immersive sim, which is really what Bethesda has always wanted to make.

My friend was a bit upset.

For him, the stat elements in Daggerfall and Morrowind were what made it an RPG. For me, and, I presume, Bethesda, who has made a game less dependent on stats and more dependent on simulation with each release, it was the idea that Bethesda could put you in a world and let you be whoever you wanted to be.

I guess I feel like people really want stats-based (or stats+turn-based, or stats+turn-based+isometric, or maybe something else) adventure games. Maybe they’d like a degree of choice, but that seems secondary to their primary interest, which is in a stat progression system (hi JRPG fans! It’s the only way you can consider your genre an RPG!). It’s why people seem willing to call Borderlands an RPG, when it’s no more of an RPG than Darksiders (in Darksiders, you gain souls to unlock abilities; in Borderlands, you gain XP to level up to get a skill point to unlock abilities). Ultimately, it seems as if a lot of people, particularly those who would moan about Skyrim being less of a game than its predecessors, are so focused on specific elements of RPGs that they don’t really pay attention to WHY those elements are there, or why they’re no longer needed.

Computers can simulate all sorts of things that dice rolls previously controlled. Now we can do things like fluid classes instead of saying “okay, you are a rogue so you can learn these things, and for no reason whatsoever, that guy over there cannot.” Those elements were a result of RPGs being tabletop games and running on computers with crappy processors. We don’t have those limitations any more, so the abstraction can be removed and people can focus on role-playing without having to worry about the excess stuff.

I’m not saying that the stats-based (or turn-based or isometric) game should die, just that I really wishthat the people who whine about RPGs shedding their previous limitations would shut up. It’s nice to see that they’re really trying to let people truly immerse themselves, not only in a world, but a role.

No matter what you say, you can’t really immerse yourself in the other RPGs. The second that you level up (yes, I get it, Skyrim does this too–I said it was an evolution of the RPG, not its apogee) or watch XP numbers fly in the air or watch your character do something for you… you’re not immersed. The game is being a game and pulling you out of the experience. Sometimes, that’s awesome. Sometimes, I want my games to be gamey.

But, yeah, um, this is getting long, so I’ll just finish it up with this: by being immersive, Skyrim’s actually a better RPG, because it’s removing as much crap as it can between the player and the player’s role. It’s not necessarily a better game–after all, The Witcher 2 has better graphics, writing, voice acting, sound design, art design, and a bunch of other details–but it is a better RPG, because there’s nothing stopping you from being the person you want.

Why would there even be a debate on what the RPG is?

(Also, Skyrim has more levels, skills, and perks than The Witcher 2. It’s a bit funny that I’ve heard people say Skyrim is dumbed down because of a reduction in skills, but The Witcher 2 is the year’s best RPG).

    • Infinitron
    • January 1st, 2012

    This entire blog is a ploy to troll the RPGCodex, right?

    • Like… the entire website? D:

      I guess it could be, but that’d involve a lot more work. As it is, I don’t think I’ve ever even visited the RPG Codex. Anyways, I’ll probably rewrite my post a bit, since I posted a more coherent version on Kotaku.

    • Rathorial
    • January 2nd, 2012

    I actually think this blog post is more coherent than your Kotaku post, mainly because it addresses points that people will get ready to argue if you summarize this.

    What’s really sad is that the people who think Skyrim is less of an RPG are really asking the series to stay more of the same…yet at the same time you know they’ll argue for more innovation. It’s the paradox of the average gamer on the internet.

    Now that I think deeper on this topic I’m kind of blown away how people are totally unable to make the contextual connection for different genre games in terms of character progression. I mean think of all the character action games that were at least able to shed the exp terms in favor of collected demon souls that at least match the aesthetic of a game like Devil May Cry. You then use the souls to get access to different combos, weapons, weapon upgrades, and stances. While I don’t mind the whole exp and other related terms for table-top role-playing, it’s sad their is more experimentation with character progression in other genres, or games labeled as other genres.

    As for WRPGs, I honestly do feel things are looking up in that that you’re seeing more of them approach your “class” as something you don’t just get to pick, but can be flexible in taking parts of other classes. Deus Ex Human Revolution does this with praxis points and augmentation similar to the original, Skyrim with ability proficiency and perk trees, and Kingdoms of Amalur looks to do the same thing with their fate-weaving system and destiny cards. I also love that Kingdoms of Amalur is tieing their story to choice. In their world everyone’s destiny is written for them, rather than being able to able to change their own fate with their choices and actions. You the player are killed at the beginning, and are awoken by the Well of Souls, and since your fate ended with death…you are a loophole, where everything you do from then on goes against fate, and all those affected by your choices will also have their fate changed. I think it’s actually a rather elegant way to establish to the player that their choices will actually matter in this world right from the beginning. Also…I’m kind of excited for Amalur because it looks to make a not so clunky melee action/rpg combat system. I just hope I get more games like this in the future for RPGs, and other developer if they insist on taking RPG elements, try not to rip them wholesale from D&D, and contextualize it with their world for better immersion.

    In general I just wish there were more open games that tried to put me in a large world like Skyrim, or what you’ve said about STALKER. I find that I’m getting a bit bored with the very linear very scripted games made so often right now. I like Witcher 2 or Deus Ex Human Revolution sized worlds if developers don’t want to go bigger, but I want more emergent gameplay with dynamic systems that specific scripted events in my games.

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