Thursday, December 1, 2011

What Makes an RPG?

Please note that this article has been published last year on our old Media Center before.
So some release dates and games mentioned may not be up to date. However the topic itself remains newsworthy since this years RPG releases did not bring any change in the industry.

Let me start this article by telling you straight off the bat that I do not actually intend to answer the above question. The question “what makes an RPG?” is something that has been occupying Internet message boards since, well, the creation of Internet message boards, and to my knowledge, the answer still hasn’t been provided.

Looking objectively at the term Role Playing Game, it would seem pretty self-explanatory: games in which you play a role. But it can be said you “play a role” in most games where you control a character. Even in the Mario games you play the role of a plucky Italian plumber trying to rescue an abduction-prone Princess from a persistent reptile, but very few people would consider these platform games to be RPGs.
Some people will tell you it’s in the mechanics: your character needs statistics to indicate his/her strengths and weaknesses, which can be improved by gaining experience points and leveling up etc.; however this is a system that is becoming so increasingly prevalent in other genres (including racing games), that it cannot be a deciding factor.

Others will tell you it’s about creating your own character, choosing your job, your strengths, your skills etc. by yourself, instead of controlling the character(s) that the game has made for you.
The problem with this is that, even if you create your own character, you’re still stuck to the templates the game offers you, and you still end up playing the same character (from a personality point of view) -although many games offer a Good vs. Evil system to spice things up a bit. In other words: some people will insist RPGs are about freedom of choice.

This discussion has become especially ardent now that there is an ever-growing chasm between Western RPGs (WRPGs) and Japanese RPGs (JRPGs). Western RPGs seem to favor the latter school of thought: putting heavy emphasis on character creation, dialogue trees and wide-open worlds. Japanese RPGs, on the other hand, tend to be more linear, more story-driven and heavier on (turn-based) combat. Lately, Western criticism of JRPGs has been growing stronger and more frequent, often accusing JRPGs of being in a “rut”, of not evolving and of being too derivative.

In one notorious case, Daniel Erickson, Writing Director for Bioware, creator of the Mass Effect and Dragon Age RPG series amongst others, called out the newest installment of the popular Final Fantasy franchise for “not being an RPG”.

This was based on the fact that Final Fantasy XIII did not allow the player to make any choices, create his/her own character or even deviate in the slightest off the beaten path. And although FFXIII was indeed an extreme example of linearity (the game was hurt more by the lack of side-objectives than by its abundance of straight and narrow pathways if you ask me), most JRPGs aren’t all that different.
This debate has recently culminated in a series of advertisements running in Japan for upcoming WRPG Fallout: New Vegas (Bethesda) that openly attack several of the oft criticized elements often found in JRPGs:

To those of you not versed in the lore of reading squiggly things, the signs say something like this (from top left to the guy in front):

1) When the player is still weak, so are the enemies. That’s way too convenient!
2) I think the Hero should have other objectives besides vanquishing Evil.
3) When did games become about spectating!?
4) What’s the point of playing again if there’s no change to the story?
5) Playing the game on a fixed scenario is like living your life on rails.
6) Grinding decreases motivation!!
7) Don’t you think games are trying too hard to be realistic?
8) The Stage is set. You are free to do what you want!

Now, the point of this article is not to analyze why Westerners like their RPGs in such a different style than the Japanese (I hope to be bringing you an article on that in the near future though); however allow me to satisfy my inner Nerd for a moment by offering my view on the arguments above, which present some rather flimsy logic in their attempt at trying to get WRPGs to gain popularity in Japan.
I should point out in advance though, that I have of course not yet played Fallout: New Vegas, but I am assuming from what I’ve seen of it so far that it is not going to digress all that much from what Bethesda did in Fallout 3.

1) When the player is still weak, so are the enemies. That’s way too convenient!

Of course this does not make sense by any real world standards, but the very simple fact of the matter is that, from a gaming point of view, this is a necessity.

Sure it would be much smarter of the main bad guy to send his level 99 monsters at your level 1 Hero as soon as he sets foot outside of his home village, but that wouldn’t make for a very enjoyable game, would it? It would only lead to unnecessary player death, and it would not pose a challenge in any kind of way.
I guess introducing strong enemies is a good way of showing the player he is going somewhere he’s not supposed to be going yet, but you’re pretty much destroying the sense of freedom like that as well, aren’t you? I sincerely doubt Fallout is going to work any differently, and I daresay it wouldn’t benefit from it if it did.

Most WRPGs I’ve played have a system where monsters get stronger as you do (instead of having a fixed level per area), Fallout 3 being no exception, so it’s a weird argument to make against JRPGs in the first place.

2) I think the Hero should have other objectives besides vanquishing Evil

Fair enough. I have recently grown rather tired of the “Band of Heroes Rescuing the World” shtick myself as well (blame FFXIII for that), so there is some merit to this point. The vast majority of RPGs will have you fight something or other, and it’s hard to convince the player to fight if the other party isn’t evil in some way. Most WRPGs are, in fact, about some Evil Force threatening the world/galaxy, so again this is not a very strong argument. Fallout is a series that is mostly about personal survival though, so I guess we have to give it credit for that.

3) When did games become about spectating!?

I so much want to say “blame Hideo Kojima for that” but I’ll try to control myself.
This obviously alludes to the fact that JRPGs tend to be heavy on cutscenes and long dialogues, a characteristic that is inherent to the fact that they tend to be more story-heavy than WRPGs. Fallout 3 was not very story-heavy. You know which recent WRPGs were story-heavy? Bioware’s Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age Origins! Which, I might add, featured lots and lots of dialogue to wade through. At least cutscenes in most Japanese games nowadays can be skipped…

In other words: if you want to put heavy emphasis on story in an RPG, you’re going to need exposition and dialogue, which will involve you staring at the screen and reading a lot. If you want to go around and actually do stuff, you should play something that does not focus on story, which immediately rules out the vast majority of RPGs from any country.

4) What’s the point of playing again if there’s no change to the story?

I don’t know, ask the millions of people who’ve played Super Mario Bros hundreds of times. Okay, so that’s not an RPG. Then try asking the thousands of people who’ve played classics like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger over and over. A good game will make you come back, regardless of whether the story can be changed or not.

5) Playing the game on a fixed scenario is like living your life on rails

Who says we don’t? Well, let’s not get into arguments about fate and destiny and the like. Again, this is related to story-telling. You cannot expect to tell a good and coherent story when the player can go wherever he wants whenever he wants. It’s a decision you have to make when you create an RPG: focus on freedom, or focus on story?

6)    Grinding decreases motivation!!

This is the sole point I wholeheartedly agree with. I hate grinding with a passion, and JRPGs tend to have way too much of it. I guess the Japanese get a kick out of it, but it can totally ruin a game for me. You know what is a fairly effective way of keeping the player from having to grind, by the way? NOT throwing high level enemies at the player party (see point 1).

7)    Don’t you think games are trying too hard to look realistic?

Now this one baffles me, it truly does. Did they even look at the game they’re trying to sell here? Are you trying to tell me that it’s somehow not trying to look realistic?
Don’t you think pretty much all WRPGs are trying to look realistic nowadays?
Are you aware of the huge amount of JRPGs that adapt a cartoony look, even now?
I’m serious here, where is this question coming from!?

8)    The Stage is set. You are free to do what you want!
Okay, this isn’t really a complaint as much as it is a catchphrase, and it is definitely what WRPGs use as their main selling point. I guess this is fine. There’s nothing wrong with offering freedom to the player, but it is wrong to assume that this is the only way RPGs are supposed to be.

More than anything, this advertisement seems needlessly depreciative of a perfectly fine genre. I appreciate that WRPGs have their own way of looking at things, and that JRPGs tend to be on the exact opposite side, but you have to understand that things probably came to be this way because that is what each respective region’s gamers desire. Perhaps an aggressive approach is necessary when it comes to helping WRPGs gain ground in the land of the Rising Sun (God knows there seems to be little demand for them), but I can’t help but feel that this advertisement could have conveyed its message in a slightly less radical tone.
I love Western RPGs, and I love Japanese RPGs. They both have their merits and demerits, but to try and sell one by debunking the other is not a very constructive way to get the people “on the other side” to see things from your point of view.