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It seems this shouldn’t need to be explained, but the gaming industry and community seem intent on reducing the term RPG to complete meaninglessness by describing absolutely everything as an RPG. I’m going to clarify some things by explaining some core ideas and concepts in the hope that the term RPG might actually be used only to describe the games it’s actually meant to describe instead of becoming another Rogue, if it hasn’t already. As a quick disclaimer, of course there are grey areas, as with all discussion of genres in every medium but we should nonetheless strive for a clearer definition of what is and what isn’t an RPG.
Defining the RPG
So what is an RPG? Well simply put, it’s a Role Playing Game. A game that is designed around the idea of Role-Playing, usually they use systems (the statistics we’re all so familiar with) to both create and enforce a degree of separation between the player and the character to force said player to think and act as the character, rather than themselves, to succeed. It’s important to note the word usually in the previous statement because RPGs don’t necessarily need stats. In fact they don’t necessarily need dialogue or combat or any other specific set of mechanics to be RPGs, so long as what systems they do have are built around this concept because, and this is important, an RPG, much like a Puzzle Game, is not a mechanical genre.
Sure, there is the obvious stuff like Pillars of Eternity where the dialogue choices and combat work together to provide plenty of opportunity to think and act as your character in both scenarios. Wizards don’t choose to study magic for no reason after all, they have a history and/or personality that lead them to it. It’s just as possible to have an RPG that’s a racing game, having dialogue impact the disposition and performance of the other racers: more or less aggressive, maybe you drugged them so they do badly, maybe even tying what upgrades are available to your dialogue choices. The timid character probably isn’t going to favor big burly murder machines so your options for racing are limited to things a timid person might use. It’s also possible to just ignore everything that isn’t the dialogue and use clever writing and AI collaborating behind the scenes to turn a visual novel into an RPG. All they need to do is convince the player to create and maintain a character instead of trying to find the “best” ending, so it should, for example, acknowledge if you’re being really two-faced. That would basically just be Pillars of Eternity with all the combat pulled out.
So What Isn’t an RPG?
On the opposite extreme, there is an element of Role-Playing in Darkest Dungeon, despite the complete lack of player dialogue. No, it’s not the combat and the stats, it’s the decisions you have to make that determine your entire playstyle. Do you try to keep your party alive and allow them time to heal? Do you dispose of them as soon as they get a troublesome condition or quirk? Do you maliciously abuse them by throwing them into the dark to farm money and simply abandon the dead or permanently disabled veterans while taking the rewards? The game also goes out of the way to acknowledge that you’re doing these things with the sanity and quirk systems. Beyond the simple mechanical changes, it tests your willingness to spend time and money resting your characters and your willingness to work around potentially negative habits they develop. Would I call it an RPG? No, I’d say it has RPG elements, but Role-Playing isn’t the game’s focus and takes a backseat to the combat and dungeon crawling.
Many, many games are called RPGs that are in fact no such thing. The industry seems to have latched onto the stats and leveling systems that generally come with RPGs as the defining metric instead of focusing on what purpose those things actually serve. Borderlands, despite my love for the series, is not an RPG, action or otherwise. The stats and math are used to enhance and flavor the shooting within the characters predefined personalities and playstyles, not to encourage or allow Role-Playing. Claiming Borderlands in an RPG is like claiming Portal is a First Person Shooter because it’s in first person and you shoot. However, looking at what purpose the mechanics serve we see the obvious, that Portal is a puzzle game using a FPS mechanic to enhance and reinforce its puzzle solving gameplay.
The Witcher series? Not so much, despite ticking all the RPG “boxes” such as dialogue choices, quests, stats, leveling systems. You are Geralt, everything you do is something Geralt would do. You aren’t asking, “what would my character do?” because the answer is “any of the options I have.” The focus is on telling their story and exploring the complex interactions from Geralt’s perspective, not Role-Playing of any description. Even preset characters in pen and paper RPGs still require interpretation and legitimately attempting to think as that character for decisions to make sense because you have infinite options. The limited nature of the decisions in The Witcher don’t really fit that kind of gameplay. Yes, you don’t technically have to Role-Play in pen and paper RPGs, but neither do you have to in any RPG, just like you don’t have to shoot in first person shooters or race in racing games, but that doesn’t change what the mechanics were designed for.
JRPG vs Western RPG
It is also worth talking about the idea that JRPG and RPG are different genres. They are. The term JRPG is a kind of misnomer, because the games don’t necessarily need to be Japanese such as Septerra Core and are not RPGs. People see the stats and label games RPGs without actually paying attention to what purpose the stats serve and just assume RPG, which is the source of said misnomer. JRPGs are generally much closer to Anime than RPGs. They’re about watching set characters with set personalities experience a set story in a set manner, you’re just along for the ride. Whatever choice they offer, if any, usually has a single correct answer as a way forward like the social links in Persona 3 and 4. Most JRPGs have more in common with The Last of Us than with Pillars of Eternity. This is not to say JRPGs are in any way bad or inferior, they aren’t, just that the name of the genre is misleading.
Why the Name Matters
One final point before my conclusion, “you’re playing a role and thus this is a role playing game” is a pedantic and unhelpful thing to say. It would be like me saying, “every game is an action game because you always have to take action.” That’s not what either of those terms mean, and those interested in having an actual discussion will concede that point.
Now, there are reasons this is important. So far as I am aware, there is virtually no meaningful discussion on RPGs as I just defined them and what things help or harm them and how they might be improved. One reason is very simple, nobody is using the term correctly so RPG casts too broad a net for anyone to talk about them without spending 20 minutes defining it first or using the terms traditional or isometric to talk about that specific kind. I can’t discuss why Fallout 4 isn’t really an RPG or is a really, really bad RPG and how various things harm the experience from that perspective because people see the mechanics they associate with RPGs, call it an RPG, say that they liked it and so it’s a good RPG, and refuse to continue the discussion in any meaningful way. It’s difficult to talk about mechanics I’d like to see in RPGs, for example more visual novels that fit that description, or what RPGs could steal from visual novels because it’s “not an RPG.”
Furthermore, while RPG should indicate a very specific type of game even if the actual mechanics it uses vary wildly, it has instead been taken to mean: leveling system, stats, and maybe you get floaty numbers in combat. This describes large swathes of all the games ever made and so is an utterly useless descriptor, as it robs people of a way to talk about actual RPGs and RPG systems that don’t conform to that notion.
So, next time you are about to refer to a game as an RPG or read one being talked about as an RPG, ask yourself “should it actually have that label? If so in what way does it justify having it?” Also, you can’t leave the term RPG to stand on it’s own as a catch all descriptor because while it says a lot about what purpose the mechanics of the game serve, it doesn’t say much about what those mechanics actually are. It needs to be defined. There is no denying RPG is a broad genre, just about any set of mechanics from a combat free visual novel to an action focused Dark Souls almost completely devoid of story/dialogue fits into the genre. Let’s not make it broad to the point of uselessness by including things that steal surface elements without regard for what purpose those things actually serve.
You wouldn’t call Lord of the Rings a horror story because it has ghosts in it would you?