What Is an RPG? I Don’t Know and You Shouldn’t Either.

I was making my rounds through GameFAQs’ forums today, and I happened upon a post that was accusing all western RPGs (“WRPG”) of being nothing but shooters. The original poster continued the fight saying that the word RPG has been interpreted too broadly and that it should only apply, more or less, to turnbased games, as that has a combination of player controlled variables as well as uncontrollable variables. I personally, think that his argument was utterly insane, but it was interesting to see the various people try to hit a real definition of an RPG. I’ve been playing RPGs for a very large portion of my life and I don’t think that I could hit a real definition for the genre. The problem is that the genre is vast and incorporates a huge variety of games, and sub-genres. There are the aforementioned WRPGs, Japanese RPGs (“JRPG”), strategy RPGs (“SRPG”) and action RPGs (“ARPG”), among others and these sub-genres can mix and match with each other. The issue is that each of these sub-genres have their own conventions and all of them have evolved over the years. This isn’t even mentioning the development the rest of the industry, which led to a widespread incorporation of RPG elements in pretty much every genre. So today, I’m going to try to explain why it’s so difficult to define an RPG as a cohesive genre.

No swords, no sorcery, no RPG?
*Also, epic foreshadowing

Firstly, I suppose I’ll explain how misleading the term RPG is. Technically, this stands for “Role Playing Game,” but this is a very inaccurate assessment of what the genre is. It’s because of the literal meaning of RPG that some people assume that almost any game can be an RPG because you play the role of a character. Some people use the literal meaning in the exact opposite way in order to restrict the genre by saying that no game can be an RPG unless you have sufficient control over your character. These people tend to argue that the more restrictive JRPGs aren’t real RPGs because they often stifle player in how they customize and interact with and as their character. The truth of the matter is that absolutely nothing can be gleaned from the literal meaning of RPG. Neither interpretation is correct. A game that limits character interactivity and customization is not disqualified as an RPG, and a game that simply has you playing the role of a character most certainly cannot be an RPG. The problem is that RPG is not a word that has its roots in the video game industry. Instead, the industry borrowed it from table top games and the like where the literal meaning made sense.

Is this an RPG? You tell me.

Where you have to go if you want any semblance of a definition of RPG is to the two broadest categories or sub-genres as I referred to them before: JRPGs and WRPGs. These are the two main types of RPGs, and the literal meaning of both is just as misleading as the literal meaning of RPG. J stands for Japanese RPG and it refers to a very specific style of RPG that evolved in Japan. W stands for western and it refers to a very specific style of RPG that evolved in the west (Europe and the USA). These letters do not mean that game was made in Japan or the west. Japanese developers have made WRPGs such as Demons’ and Dark Souls and western developers have made JRPGs such as the plethora of throwbacks you can find on your local app store like Cthulhu Saves the World. Simply coming from a location doesn’t mean a game follows a certain style and many gamers have not been able to reconcile this point.

Seriously, it doesn’t matter where it was made. If you call this a JRPG, you’re wrong plain and simple.

So let’s look at what makes a JRPG first. The archetypical traditional JRPG is Dragon Quest. If you ask  anyone about what a JRPG is, they will likely talk to you about turnbased adventures with three to five party members, who line up in a row and they will tell you about a large overarching story to save the world. Other elements such as anime tropes, or lack of choice may come into play in the description, but that’s the way people envisage traditional JRPGs in a nutshell. The problem is that this traditional view of JRPGs was never comprehensive of the entire genre. For example, many JRPGs have balked at the idea of turnbased battles, such as the popular Tales series. These games can be partially considered ARPGs because they rely more on action than turnbased strategy, but they are JRPGs nevertheless. Then there’s the fact that the genre is vast, encompassing incredibly innovative games such as The World Ends With You, as well as dogmatically traditional games such as the Dragon Quest games. To say that all JRPGs need turnbased combat, or bright anime-inspired graphics, or need big stories would be inaccurate and would cut out a large number of games that are blatantly JRPGs. Sure, you’d be hard pressed to find a JRPG not somehow inspired by anime conventions in some way and that is the biggest connecting point between most JRPGs, but the degree of incorporation of these conventions fluctuates to such an extent from the obscene (Atelier games) to the very minor (Final Fantasy VIII). Add into the fact that many games that aren’t RPGs rely on anime conventions and many of those games have minor RPG elements, and you can see that simply being anime-inspired isn’t determinative.

I don’t see anime inspiration here. I don’t know what you’re talking about. 

How is a WRPG different you might ask? Well WRPGs evolved primarily under the strict tutelage of Dungeons and Dragons and some games took a very long time to shrug off its overt influence. Despite few games actually using dice rolls as part of their systems nowadays, Dungeons and Dragons’ legacy still informs an insane amount of WRPG tropes, and, as a consequence, so does Tolkien’s works. As part of this legacy, WRPGs have traditionally focused on character choice and character creation more so than JRPGs. This is how people can tell Mass Effect is a WRPG at a glance; although there are many reasons for that. The problem is that, once again, WRPGs don’t fit into that cookie cutter mould all the time. Sure, we can all agree that the most D&D inspired game about knights and dragons is likely a WRPG, but there are many games the sit on the edge, straddling several genres. This is especially true of WRPGs as part of how the genre has evolved has led to many games that move into other genres, and WRPG elements are what are mostly poached for other games.

There is literally no game that’s more of a WRPG than this.

The adoption of RPG elements into other genres is a recent problem in identifying exactly what an RPG is. Nowadays, it is rare for pretty much any game to not have some form of RPG element. It is an easy way of charting character progress and giving the gamer an incentive. As such whether it is Call of Duty, Devil May Cry, Star Craft, or even Metal Gear Solid, most games have some sort of built in RPG elements. Does this make these games RPGs? Of course not, but the problem isn’t about the games that are clearly not RPGs but the ones that straddle the line. What about Mass Effect 3? You have a lot of choice, character development, minor RPG elements in character building and weapon customization, but nothing huge. Is this game an RPG despite the fact that most of the overt RPG elements save for choice are minimized compared to the action packed gameplay? Is it simply an ARPG? Most people would consider Mass Effect 3 an RPG, but an argument could be made that it’s simply a third person shooter with RPG elements, and that is why the adoption of RPG elements into other genres has made defining an RPG even harder.

Skill trees, item stats, customizable characters, but it’s still probably not an RPG. 

Internally, there is the problem of the ARPG that I mentioned. This sub-genre has existed from a very early time and it is the most undefined sub-genre of RPG. A stands for action, but not much more can be gleaned from the name. Games such as Kingdom Hearts and Kingdoms of Amalur are probably the most clear form the ARPG takes. The problem is that action isn’t very well defined and most ARPGs are essentially hack and slash games with RPG elements. So how far does action go. Is it limited to hack and slash or does it apply to the burgeoning field of shooter RPGs such as the revamped Fallout series? If shooter RPGs aren’t ARPGs, then what are they? Are they simply bare WRPGs or are they third person shooters with RPG elements, and how many RPG elements does a game have to have in order to be considered an RPG? ARPGs have always straddled the line between RPG and action game and with the adoption of RPG elements into other genres, this line has become considerably more blurred.

Original gangster. 

So what’s the solution? Should we restrict the definition of RPG in order to preserve the genre? Maybe we should broaden it in order to acknowledge the fact that many games now sit on the line of RPG and action game or shooter. The fact of the matter is that nobody knows what exactly is an RPG anymore. Sure some games are easy to point at and say “that’s an RPG,” but it is increasingly hard to pinpoint. At this point, the best way of defining an RPG is to say “I know it when I see it,” but this is subjective and will change depending on the person. Relying on traditional conventions simply isn’t enough anymore, as so many games are moving past the traditional experience. Sure, I can tell you Eternal Sonata is a JRPG based on JRPG conventions, but not every game is so cut and paste. Even when a game seems straight forward, how many conventions does it need to have to be considered an RPG. If it has a traditional turnbased battle system, but doesn’t rely on anime tropes and doesn’t have any customization to speak of, can it still be considered an RPG? Maybe, but it seems like people are going to need to deal with cases like that on a case by case basis, and there is likely to be argument over the internet.

Fewer customization options than Borderlands, partial real-time battles, but it would still probably be considered an RPG over Borderlands. 

So what’s an RPG? I can see a game and be able to make a judgment whether or not its an RPG, but I sure as hell can’t even begin to objectively define the genre. It’s simply too broad and it means to many different things to too many different people for anyone to get an actual definition. I would have a very hard time confidently defining any sub-genre of RPG no less the main genre itself. No one element or collection of elements can come together to definitively define the genre, as there are simply too many exceptions and too many games that refuse to be so easily defined. The waters are muddy here and I don’t think you should listen to anyone who thinks that they can confidently define something so immense.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer


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