In a recent argument on the web, fans of RPG-games heavily argued about what makes an RPG an RPG. That typically developed into the usual WRPG vs JRPG-discussion. Each of these, western and eastern RPGs, feature very different contents, focus on totally different key aspects. But what is it that makes us call them “role playing games”?
Most popular example on the WRPG-side is Mass Effect 2, the second act in the ME-trilogy, released earlier this year. The argument started when some people criticized Mass Effect 2 for having abandoned most of its predecessors RPG-traits and devolved into just another action-shooter. It´s needless to say that JRPG-supporters hopped onto that opinion. That lead me to thinking about what it actually is, this…”role playing game”.
In my opinion, role playing means that I am actively playing part in a game. For example, where in a shooter like Call of Duty I´m just following scripted events, in games like Oblivion or Mass Effect I´m actively influencing how the game proceeds. I can change it. Make decisions. Some bigger, some smaller. That´s what role playing, to me, is about: Creating your own adventure by playing a role within the game.
JRPG-fans now seem to have a completely different view at things. There seems to be a connection between the term “RPG” and these typical minigame-like combat-systems that JRPGs have. And stats. And grinding. And random encounter. And so on. Here, RPG describes game mechanics. However, there´s also some JRPG-fans that would explain “role playing” to mean “playing the role of a pre-defined character”. Like “you cannot influence anything, you are just playing this character and guide him though his role”. Both of these views are heavily flawed as far as I see it.
Tying certain gameplay details to the term RPG is turning the term ad absurdum. RPG means role playing game. There is absolutely no connotation of what kind of game mechanics that means. Secondly, calling the guiding of a pre-defined character through a set story role playing also ridicules the terms meaning. If that´s what a RPG is, then almost all games out there would be RPGs. See Call of Duty. It still can see how someone could use the term RPG in that way, coming from tradition. But where it gets really ludicrous is when people try to take away that term from a game like Mass Effect 2.
I think I´ve never before played a game where MY decisions allowed me to experience an adventure that individualized. When a player reaches the end of ME2, everything up to this point will have been his personal experience. There is an overarching story, sure, but it is all the different attitudes you can choose from that really bring your Shepard to life. It´s true that ME2 left a lot of ME1´s typical RPG-mechanics, and I hope we´ll get back some of them for ME3, but at the same time, ME2 was such a great role playing-game in the very meaning of this term that I couldn´t care less. In ME2, I became Shepard. I influenced how I talked to people, how I proceeded the story, how I changed the story depending on my very choices. I think I wrote that in my ratio-article about ME2, but ME2 really felt like a “true” RPG. Because IF there is any kind of game mechanic that should be associated to the term RPG, it is choice.