Monday, March 29, 2010

Just what is the "RPG" genre?

Now picture them on my shoulders in the standard angel-devil arrangement.

I've found that the term "roleplaying game" is typically. . .okay, you know what? SCREW the academic writing style. This isn't advanced theory, this is blazingly obvious crap that almost nobody's noticing because the bar for game design & analysis is set so damn low.

There are two big meanings to the phrase 'RPG'. First one's the literal game where you play a role, I went into detail on this a year ago and what I wrote then still works fine as an intro. The second definition is used to describe a whole genre, mostly in the context of video games. People use this label reliably, they just can't give a decent explanation for what it actually means; hence the boatload of whinging over whether Mass Effect 2 is an RPG or not.

Seriously, it's simple. "RPG" games have strategic gameplay that revolves around building a powerful character. The redundancy in that definition's deliberate- a way to emphasize how the terms that make up the "RPG" acronym have little relation to its meaning in this context. We use it as a label because Dungeons and Dragons effectively invented this kind of gameplay. (It didn't invent roleplaying games in the original sense of the word- they've arguably been around thousands of years- but it *did* come up with the best format yet for exploring them.)

"Strategic" gameplay means actions with direct consequences that play out over the long term, whereas the other end of the spectrum is "tactical" actions with immediate short-term results. When you do things to get xp, or go through your loot looking for better equipment, or pick one branch of the talent tree instead of the other- it's all stuff you do because it's how you do a good job of making your character stronger.

Is Mass Effect 2 an RPG? Yep! Doing sidequests for the extra xp, stopping to hack a terminal or probe planets for minerals, and choosing how to spend squad points are all cases of RPG gameplay. So are all the times where you did or didn't do something because you wanted more Paragon or Renegade points. Shooting enemies in the face so that their shields will drop and Samara can Throw them, that's action gameplay.

Now, picking dialog options because that's what you want to say to a character? Taking a renegade interrupt action because you wanted to make that Krogan Clan Speaker shut his arrogant mouth? That's playing a roleplaying game in the original sense of the word.

This actually leads into a matter that I *would* consider an advanced-level game design topic. Mass Effect 2's a great example, but hundreds of other games (such as recent editions of D&D) have faced the same question: How do these three kinds of gameplay (Strategic character optimization, tactical action, and narrative-focused roleplaying) overlap with one another? The answers depends on the game, but it'll usually go one of three ways:
-Segregation: You're either doing A *or* doing B, rather than taking actions that're significant for both aspects of the game.
-Conflict: A and B are blended together in a way that diminishes both experiences. (In Mass Effect 2 certain dialog options are the "right" ones for a player who wants a high Charm or Intimidate score, which undermines the experience of choosing what to say based on how you want the story to play out.)
-Synergy: A and B are blended together in a way that enhances one or both aspects of the experience.

The dilemma a game designer faces is how he can implement the aspects of the game so that they overlap in ways that cooperate rather than conflict. It's a question I've been dwelling on alot for the past year or so, and I'm sure I'll write out some of the answers I've come up with at some point in the future. For now, these are the games I'd identify as having the best synergy- they've taken 2 aspects of the trinity and interwoven them in ways that are more mutually beneficial than any other instance I can name.

Action and RPG: Resident Evil 4
Action and roleplaying: God of War
RPG and roleplaying: Fantasy Craft

I hesitated when adding God of War as an example, because it doesn't give the player choices as to how the narrative proceeds. But then I realized that the point of roleplaying gameplay, as I conceive it, is about participating in the story; the point is to engage you enough that character's actions (the ones that matter to the story) also be your actions. Some games (Deus Ex, Mount and Blade) do this by having an avatar who can act like the player would; God of War does it by prodding the player to act like their avatar would.

Yeesh, and now I've veered into a third topic. I should do these rants more often.