RPG and…RPG

May 25, 2010

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.

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True Freedom in Games – Non-mandatory content

March 7, 2010

A lot of gamers love games that allow for a lot of freedom. Freedom in choice, freedom in where to go, freedom in customizing the ingame-avatar. All the concepts indeed help to make a game experience more open, putting the player into the game as if it really was his personal adventure. But there is one aspect that developers (or publishers?) are either too afraid or too unwilling to take on. There exist obvious counter-arguments to using the following concept, but it really goes against the sense of freedom within a video game. I´m talking about mandatory content.


Mandatory content means that no matter what you choose to do, you WILL see said content. One example would be old point’n click-adventures, where you have more than one solutions for a puzzle, but in the ends it will lead you to the same goal. Another example would be The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, where you can decide if you want to tackle the shadow temple before the spirit temple, or the other way round. It gives you that choice, increasing freedom within the game, but at the same time it doesn´t matter, because no matter how you decide, you WILL see either temple. There are more, much more examples, but almost every modern game that, at some point, gives you the choice to decide where to go, is doing the same.

So what is that true freedom that this article´s title points towards? That true freedom is not about having the choice to go to or do whatever you want. It is the choice not to do something, full stop. There are two recent games that greatly demonstrate that concept, even if it could be much more expanded. One is Mass Effect 2. Of course, you´ll find your typical mandatory scenes that you have to see. But depending on how you decide, you will not see half of the game. Or even less, if you consider sidequests. Some people will finish that game in under 20 hours, whereas other gamers will take well over 30 hours. It is totally up to your own decision of how much you experience. The other recently released (in Europe) game that shows of the concept of non-mandatory content is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. The game uses a very fascinating psych-profile where, depending on your answers, the ingame-content changes. To give a harmless example from the very beginning of the game: Depending on your answers, you´ll either enter a diner and talk to a police officer, or, you will visit a small pub and talk to some middle-aged woman. However, you will not see both. That´s because either the other building isn´t there at all or its door is locked. There are many more of such content-altering choices, but the point is: You will not see all the game´s content in just one playthrough.

These superior concepts for freedom in videogames are, of course, a tough choice to make for developers. That is, because these guys basically have to put effort into creating assets and scenarios that many gamers will probably never see. It is both stressing on a personal level (“man, there I created this beautiful piece of story, and not everybody will see it. Why create it at all?!“) as well as expensive on a financial viewing (“why pay someone to create something that won´t be seen by everyone?!“). That is also exactly the reason why it almost never happens. The only non-mandatory content you´ll often find are smallish sidequests that bear no relevance to the overall plot. But non-mandatory content that heavily inflicts the main plot of a game? Very rare.

It is a pity that so few developers/publishers take the risk of creating this true sense of freedom, as it makes a gaming experience much more meaningful. It feels completely different when you know that you explored something by free will…or chose not to do so. I talked about a rather futuristic solution for that concepts problems, but it really is possible even today. It just takes the will to create such a unique experience. Until we get something better, you´ll come closest to true freedom by playing Mass Effect 2 and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.