Genres in video games are already confusing mazes of definitions. Action games, adventure games, platformers. As gaming technology develops, some genres slowly become obsolete, such as top-down racers and on-rails shooters, yet we as an industry cling to ancient terminology and archaic descriptors for modern games: what exactly is a Role Playing Game, and how can Western and Japanese versions of the same genre differ so dramatically?
Traditionally an RPG would have taken the form of a pen and paper game, like the timeless Dungeons and Dragons. It may also be live action, known as LARPing, yet no matter where you look the basis for such games will be individuals assuming the role of an imagined or pre-created character.
If this is the sole prerequisite for a game to be considered to be an RPG then almost every video game is one, as players have been assuming avatars for the past thirty years, from Pacman to Mario. Instead of having a human game master however, the actual game environment and ruleset becomes the limiter and director of the role-playing. We no longer bother to classify a film if it has sound or color as practically all of them do, so what on Earth is the point of having a genre called RPGs within a field almost entirely made up of them?
The purest of RPGs in computer gaming are titles such as Elite. You can role play as a trader, a pirate, a bounty hunter, a bastard, or whatever. With the absence of a structured story or any real exposition, the player is invited to use their imagination and the game environment to make up and enact the player-directed narrative and continue it with their in-game decisions, which is continually reinforced and progressed by the game outputs. The player creates a part of the fiction themselves within the playground of the game world.
In the same vein, MMORPGS follow this concept. They grant a great deal of liberty to the player and allow them a lot of freedom over the control, appearance, actions and fiction of their avatar.
I think that most Western RPGs are correctly classified so too. Planescape, Fable, Fallout and Mass Effect all adapt significantly to the inputs the player makes and subsequently create a tailored experience for each player based upon the actions they take.
There are some games which appear to offer everything that an RPG requires, such as Red Dead Redemption. You are granted relative freedom and can make John Marston be a hunter, a merchant, an asshole or a saint. But ultimately, if you want to progress through the game and access new areas you must engage in the main missions. Although there is a degree of superficial choice (and thusly ‘role-play’) in these, you cannot really change anything of significance.
Players will interpret their character differently from one another; much like readers will use their imagination to perceive a protagonist in a book for example. However, my version of John Marston, a shrewd, unforgiving and untrusting former outlaw is all well and good whilst I’m controlling things, but when the story, mission and cut scenes conspire to make John do things I would never want to do (be foolish enough to trust character X, when for me, Jon would never have fallen for such an overt trap) it ruins the whole point of the role-playing dynamic. Therefore, Red Dead Redemption is definitely not a RPG, it’s something else.
Similarly, what many consider to be true RPG titles, like Final Fantasy, Skies of Arcadia and Dragon Quest do not adhere to this notion of what constitutes an RPG. Somehow over the past few decades the term RPG is strongly associated with features such as turn-based combat, fantasy settings, inventory screens, upgrade trees, fighting parties and enemy stats.
Oddly, very few of these types of RPG (most commonly labelled as a JRPG) actually include the key role playing features. Cut scenes occur with no player input. Players have relatively little control over dialogue trees. The player merely exists to advance the inevitable progression of the character, and consequently each player will come away with a very similar experience. The game is therefore didactic in its presentation of the controllable character.
Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2 and Fable all grant the player so much freedom, not only in combat approaches and financial activities, but in NPC interactions, armor choices, morality dichotomies, who lives, who dies and even whether the whole fucking world survives or not. JRPGs just don’t offer this degree of player input. In fact, many of the features people consider traditional to RPGs are outright missing from Mass Effect 2. Gone are the complications of inventory management and unnecessarily deep equipment choice, putting the focus squarely on role playing. Rather than removing the so-called “RPG elements,” that reviewers often refer to, the fat has been trimmed off.
As so eloquently put by Kombo Features Director Eric Frederiksen “Japanese RPGs can be fun (even though I’m not the biggest fan). They present a carefully crafted story to assemble by grinding battles and wandering dungeons. Talking to characters is mostly incidental and the decisions you make are answered mostly with “Yes” and “Could you repeat the question?” The battle systems vary from game to game, but little freedom is offered in terms of your characters’ abilities, looks, or interactions. I’m tempted to start calling them Cinematic Turn-Based Nonsense Games.” (Ed. Note: I said Combat rather than Nonsense. Either works.-EF)
So basically JRPGS have been mislabelled and are, in essence, no different to the majority of action/adventure games in terms of form. It’s only the presentation that differs. Red Dead Redemption, GTA and BioShock all present a number of role-playing features, from choice-making and freedom to combat upgrades and visual customisation, yet all three are lacking in true role-play. There is no overall, coherent scope to unite these features together to allow the player to impose their own mind upon the character, to mould it into something personal to the player. Of course I’m not saying this is a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, and the cut scenes, stories and characters would not be as fantastic as they are without the careful dilution of the RPG elements.
Nevertheless, JRPGs follow this formula precisely. Although they offer role-playing opportunities on some levels, ultimately the story and form is too narrow and scripted for the games to be considered RPGs at all. Who better to summarize the argument than Daniel Erickson of the RPG experts, BioWare:
"You can put a 'J' in front of it, but it's not an RPG. You don't make any choices, you don't create a character, you don't live your character. I don't know what those are - adventure games maybe? - but they're not RPGs."