With Christmas less than a week away, I want to talk about one of my favorite genres of video game: the RPG, or Role-Playing Game. The holiday season always puts me in the mood for RPGs. The childlike sense of wonder I feel during this time of year makes me crave the kind of exploration and mystery that only a deep fantasy RPG can provide. But I got to thinking about what ‘RPG’ even means for a video game. The discussion is everywhere from the forums of GameSpot to YouTube by people like Trailer Drake. This is a hard question to answer, but I figured I’d give my two cents.
The way I see it, the main characteristic of an RPG is freedom of choice. This is where the line is drawn in determining whether a game is an RPG or not. Think about it, the RPG is one of the oldest genres of video game, but it didn’t start electronically. It has its roots off the screen and on the tabletop with cultural phenomena like Dungeons and Dragons. In these games, players would get together, create their own characters, and spell out their own fantastical adventures together. It was literally a game of playing roles, and this tradition of crafting your own story has made it to the digital age.
As a contrast, look at games like Super Mario, or Sonic the Hedgehog, or even Battlefield. These games are fun because each time you play is different and unpredictable. But they essentially consist of lots of little experiences. In each of the many matches, levels, stages, or what have you in games like these, there’s a set goal in mind. Success is binary: you either win, or you don’t. Winning is the end goal.
This isn’t a bad thing, of course. Linear games are very fun provided they aren’t repetitive. It’s just easy to look at something and know it’s an RPG. These games have an entirely different flow. They tend to take place in larger worlds of some sort, and goals are rarely obvious. You can follow the “main story” or you can go build something, or fight something. RPGs are worlds apart from reality. Player agency is king.
If you try to go deeper than freedom of choice, though, things begin to diverge. For example, consider two of the most popular RPGs of all time: Final Fantasy VII and Skyrim. One might guess they’re similar — after all, they’re part of the same genre. They both last for hundreds of hours. But these games approach the same genre in two different ways.
These videos by the phenomenal YouTube channel Extra Credits lay it out pretty well. They point out the same idea of an special divergence in the RPG genre.
Skyrim is experienced from an individual perspective. It has a single, player-customized protagonist. It contains many, many quests, with no particular need to complete any of them. Completing the main story isn’t the end of the game, because there’s lots of other content.
Final Fantasy VII, on the other hand, is more story-oriented. It has seven different protagonists, met over the course of this story. Its overworld is explored differently, and combat has completely different mechanics. Clearly there must be some reason for the difference, right?
As it so happens, there is a big difference. The differences seen from one RPG to another almost always come down to region.
This is why we hear terms like “Western RPG” or “JRPG,” (J is for Japanese). In fact, this is basically the only instance in which a genre of game has been divided by region. That’s unheard of, but it has good reason. The difference basically emerged because the west and the east came up with separate schemes for role-playing video games. We ended up with different interpretations of the same idea.
Western companies like Bethesda Softworks, Mojang, and Blizzard have famously created games like Minecraft, Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, or World of Warcraft. They have no clearly defined “goals,” but tend to focus more on exploration and questing. The idea of “role-playing” is more broad, leaving more room for the whims of the player.
Japanese companies like Nintendo, Square Enix, and Monolith Soft, on the other hand, have seen series like Mother, Xenosaga/Xenoblade, or Final Fantasy. These are more goal driven, and focus more on storytelling, often with many playable characters with certain specializations, and detailed management of stats.
Of course, these definitions are far from concrete. We see a lot of overlap with MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) RPGs like WoW or Guild Wars that are largely unrestricted in terms of goals, but have myriad amounts of playstyles, equipment, weaponry, and so on. There’s also the hit Nintendo Legend of Zelda series (a personal favorite) that blends playstyles. It focuses on a single main protagonist and has equipment mostly for exploration, but also focuses on the completion of a main quest.
This kind of overlap makes perfect sense, because RPGs all have their roots in the Gygax-esque tabletop format. Both involve decision making, encounters with enemies, and stat management. Where they differ is in mechanics and style.
“Western” styles meet with a lot of popularity worldwide because they involve a very broad range of cultures. They’re also more accessible in a lot of ways. Combat is natural, leveling isn’t as crucial, and grinding is rarely necessary. This isn’t to say that one type of RPG is better. It’s just a testament to the point of this post: RPGs and JRPGs are different beasts. This is why it’s interesting to see them interact.
The reason I bring up this whole question is that many people point at games like Zelda or Minecraft and say they aren’t “real” RPGs. My argument is that the question of whether a given game is an RPG or not depends quite a bit on your point of view. And in fact, I think it’s a good thing that RPGs come in all shapes and sizes. “RPG” serves as a sort of banner for various different games from all over the world to unite under. In my opinion, that’s just how it should be.