RPG is a very broad category that covers many different games with very different systems and mechanics. Most game genres have clear cut definitions. FPS games are all about running around and shooting things in the face from first person perspective. RTS games are all top down perspective strategy games that do not use a turn based mechanics. The definitions are basically right there in the name. But Role Playing Games… You don’t actually role play anything when you play a video game.
The name of the genre is carry-over from the pen and paper based roots of the genre. The original RPG’s do entail actual role playing. These are games that require bunch of people to get together, sit around the table and pretend they are barbarians and wizards, while rolling handfuls of dice. They are governed by complex rules intended to simulate real world situations such as combat. The rules were designed so that different people could play different characters with various skills, strengths and weaknesses. They added randomness and luck into the equation to make things exciting. There was nothing about these rules that was endemic to the RPG. They were simply there out of necessity – to provide a workable framework against which the players and game masters could work of. What made RPG games what they were, was the actual role playing – people getting into character, and having imaginary adventures together.
When we decided to port RPG games to video game platforms, we couldn’t really implement the that particular social aspect of these games. We also could not really carry over the concept of a game master, or the free-form, open ended world where the only constraint is the GM’s imagination. So we ported everything else – among other things, the rules. And so CRPG’s tend to include the following:
- A set of skills or attributes that define the character
- A mechanism to advance these skills/attributes by gaining experience either from quests or from combat
- Inventory system that allows you to carry, modify and sell items
- A mechanic which allows you to add non player character followers to your party
- A system that allows you to converse with NPC’s that inhabit the game world
There is nothing RPG specific about these things though. Skills and attributes exist because that is the only way to simulate things like expertise and proficiency in a pen and paper environment. In a computer game you can easily make a warrior visibly stronger than a scholar without actually ever exposing any number stats to the player. On the other hand inventory screens and dialog screens are simply a factor of the weakness of our chosen medium. In a real RPG talking to people, or picking up items is something you naturally do during the course of the game. After all that’s what you do in real life too – you walk around, talk to people and sometimes they give you stuff you can put in your pockets.
So originally CRPG games were simply an effort to emulate pen and paper experience in an electronic medium. They were sort of a bastard baby spawned by the unholy matrimony between Role Playing and technology. But this is no longer the case. The bastard child grew up, graduated and gained a whole new audience: people who have never actually sat around a table and never rolled dice while scarfing down potato chips, drinking Mountain Dew and quoting Monthy Python. These new players did not know what the pen and paper experience was – but they did have opinions on what was and wasn’t fun to do in a video game. And so RPG genre evolved into the shape it is today – an amalgamation of different engines, systems and mechanics.
For example, how is that Mass Effect 2 and Torchlight are in the same genre? The former has no inventory and mostly a vestigial skill/experience system. The later is pretty much missing everything other than inventory and skill/experience system. And yet, most people would put them side by side on the same shelf.
The five characteristics I mentioned above do not really apply to all video games considered to be RPG’s. Not all games have all five of them present. Furthermore, games can contain several of them without actually being classified an RPG. For example, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. had quite an extensive inventory system, but most people consider it an FPS. The Secret of the Monkey Island had an inventory management component as well, but it was a point and click adventure. In Half Life 2 you would often team up with Alyx and/or participate in rather complex scripted conversations. But no one can really claim HL2 is an RPG.
Of course you can say that the last 3 items on my list are irrelevant. What makes an RPG is numerical attributes, skill points, experience and leveling up. But it seems that even this stance can be challenged. Both Fable III and Final Fantasy XIV seem to be abandoning traditional level up dings and character sheets in favor of more organic character progression. They will hide the numbers from the player, and allow their characters to grow and become stronger based on their in game decisions. Both these games are sequels to established RPG series. And it is usually rare for games to switch genres between sequels.
I guess what I’m trying to say here, is that RPG is very amorphous and vague description. There is no clear cut definition of an RPG. When asked, most of us simply uses their gut feeling to see whether or not a game is an RPG. Is Mass Effect 2 one? How about Torchlight? How about an experience-less Fable III?
Fuck if I know.