What makes an RPG an RPG? Is it the stats? Leveling up with experience points? Health items and loot? The expansive genre spans from real-time action RPGs to turn-based strategy RPGs, and many a debate has been held on what should be included in the list. But by oft-ignored definition, an RPG is (quite obviously and literally) a role-playing game. However, the meaning veiled behind those three unassuming letters is usually trivialized at best, and is frequently forgotten altogether.
Japanese RPGs are especially infamous for ignoring their own genre’s connotation. After all, what makes Final Fantasy XIII more of a role-playing game than Red Dead Redemption? I mean, which game lets you decide whether or not to shoot a bartender in the leg, tie him to a horse, and run headlong off a cliff? (If your answer was Final Fantasy XIII, I would very much appreciate a link to a video of that sequence). Stepping into the shoes of John Marston is much truer to the idea of role-playing than watching Lightning make all the choices for herself. So is “RPG” a useless term? Has it lost any semblance of its proper meaning? Why, of course not! Well, not yet, at any rate.
You see, RPGs are straying farther and farther away from the ancient source that originally granted them existence; namely, Dungeons & Dragons. I won’t go into a long, boring history of the series (mostly because I don’t know it all myself) or even take an obligatory crack at how its participants have no life, but it’s common knowledge that this early pen-and-paper role-playing game gave breath to the crazy genre we know and enjoy. I’m told that back in those days players would craft characters from scratch by forming their personalities, choosing their races, and debating whether a Winged Helm of Almighty Screaming Fury or a Hood of Mildly Spiteful Deception would be cooler for Dorrdarrakk the Dwarf Lord.
Once the game was set up and everything was ready, the players would assume the roles of their characters and set forth on a journey. That is to say, they partook in a bona fide role-playing game. Although I have yet to experience a pen-and-paper RPG for myself (I’d rather leave mathematics to computers that I can later blame for shafting my virtual dice rolls), I have spent many happy hours playing World of Warcraft in the guise of elves and gnomes. There are indeed RP servers in the game, which I use extensively and exclusively. Typing out a character’s every word and illustrating his actions and movements is almost like writing a book, albeit with less quiet solitude and more jerks that think dancing on tables while simultaneously saying “lol” is a regular laugh riot.
But not everybody wants to make up a story in a virtual sandbox run by (not always intelligent) players. Luckily for them, Western RPGs have been hard at work simulating the classic D&D formula in video games, spawning games that have been greatly inspired by the ruleset. Most notable have been Bioware’s efforts, with fantastic products such as Knights of the Old Republic and Dragon Age: Origins. As long as it fits within their lenient parameters, these games let you create a character however you like, be it a heroic woman who resists the controlling ways of the Jedi or a morally bankrupt Dalish elf who just wants to get by.
However, unlike the totally open-ended pen-and-paper method, a Bioware title becomes the gamemaster to deliver a story that, at its core, is linear in nature. Branching paths and multiple endings are important factors, and you naturally can’t type anything you want as you could in something like World of Warcraft, but a nice list of dialogue options helps you to shape your character into whatever you see fit. The details of your character and his or her decisions are left up to you. In short, these stories can be told with plenty of player interaction and character building along the way.
Yet there’s another Bioware game I have yet to mention. A game by the name of Mass Effect. This futuristic RPG took a more action-oriented approach to the genre, putting the player in control of a spaceship commander named Shepard. Now, the trouble begins with the dialogue wheel. Rather than picking from a list of full responses, this convention only offers a few vague remarks to choose from, and there’s no guaranteeing that Shepard’s spoken reply will be worded the way you intended it to be. The voice acting poses another problem: it becomes impossible to create a unique character. Some people may appreciate the more cinematic approach to a lead protagonist that speaks out loud like everybody else, and ordinarily I’d agree. But in this case it limits the player’s creativity and becomes somewhat less enticing. I can be a mean Shepard or a nice Shepard, a male Shepard or a female Shepard, a reasonable Shepard or a clinically insane Shepard; but I still have to be Shepard.
“Okay, yeah, so it’s one game where you can’t dream up some wacko to play as,” you say. “Live with it, you persnickety dumbbell!”
Although I do take offense at your tone, I’ll still explain my reasoning. The trouble is that the majority of RPGs are being attracted to a more action-focused design, one that emphasizes flashy combat and downplays role-playing. And Mass Effect’s brand of gameplay, love it or loathe it, is leading the charge in the industry. Take all the hullabaloo concerning Dragon Age II for example (if you count a relatively minor fraction of perturbed Dragon Age fans to count as hullabaloo). The sequel to Bioware’s award-winning fantasy RPG is adopting the dialogue wheel and voice acted character ideas, forcing the player into the role of a hero named Hawke and claiming to be more (surprise!) action-oriented this time around. Bioware’s first venture into the MMORPG, The Old Republic, is on-board for similar changes as well.
It’s not just Bioware, though: bunches of other RPGs lean heavily towards such tendencies these days, including Fallout, Fable, Gothic and even Dungeons and Dragons itself. The recently announced Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim seems to be the last beacon of hope for the deeper side of RPGs, but even that series is light on character interaction. It would appear that an already too-small gathering of games has dwindled to an amount just shy of zero.
I have nothing against linear plots, fast-paced combat, or voice acted characters, but I do believe that the imagination of players is underestimated. I don’t care to play as Shepard, I’d rather not spend time with Hawke, and if I end up having to travel through Skyrim as a pre-designed hero, I might have to kill someone with a blunt object. Player freedom is more than just making critical choices during moments of truth; it should also include playing the role you want to play. Looking back at the olden pen and paper days paints a very different picture than the current state of RPGs, and I can’t say that I’m entirely pleased with the changes. It’s perfectly possible that I’ll enjoy the quality games that are coming out, freedom or no freedom, but if I can’t conquer the quest of Dragon Age II as Dorrdarrakk the Dwarf Lord, it just won’t be the same.