What is a Role Playing Game (RPG)?

Today I was reading some piece of writing on whether Pandora’s Tower should be considered as part of the amazing Wii RPG trifecta alongside Xenoblade: Chronicles and The Last Story, and an interesting, yet misguided, discussion on “what makes an RPG” ensued in the comments section. These people were clearly more knowledgeable about the topic than the random internet trolls that often lurk around forums trying to wreck havoc on the peace of mind of readers, and one of them linked to a piece that tried to (and failed to) make the argument that JRPGs are not RPGs (link here: http://alphatown.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/what-is-an-rpg/).

I wrote a response to his post, but what I originally envisioned as a short blurb evolved into a longer text. As the author apparently did with other comments posted to his piece (this is an assumption I make going off the “I left him a reply” comments in the original Pandora’s Tower piece and the lack of comments in the author’s argument), he might delete my comment. So, I decided to answer here in my space.

Below my response.

Read halfway, saw were you were going with it, and got bored. Anyway, since you want to take the “commonly accepted usage” approach, let’s do that.
What you do here is try to work out a definition of what is or is not an “RPG”, and that works wonderfully when you’re trying to include something in, or exclude something from, a group. This is specially true when there are no UNIVERSALLY agreed upon definitions – and by universally I mean that 100% of the people involved agree. Because “RPG” is such a loosely defined term, I could counter your argument by saying that the definition of an RPG should be something along the lines of “A game where the player takes control of a character and takes an active role in a spatial narrative which may or may not involve story. The space in which the narrative unfolds must be mimetic (digital media application) in nature – that is, the world must be consistent with its own internal rules”. And so, by that definition I include Modern Warfare and Catherine in the RPG list.
You did just that, but instead you excluded certain elements from your definition. Your argument is “it’s not an RPG if it has a leveling system because God of War has a leveling system and that’s not an RPG and it’s not an RPG if it has a story because Bioshock has a story and that’s not an RPG”. It’s quite an elementary argument to take, and it proves nothing beyond how you personally want to define RPGs.

But let’s go back to commonly accepted usage.

Assuming that you are one of the posters in the Kotaku discussion (see http://kotaku.com/5893763/does-this-rpg-carry-its-own-weight), it can be assumed that you don’t see JRPGs as RPGs. If you’re not one of the commenters, by your exclusive definition of the genre we can surmise as much. However, here are some commonly accepted usages for the term RPG:

The Final Fantasy series is a series of RPG. Most gamers, reviewers, critics, and people in the industry agree – with the exception of fringe purists. The same is true of the Dragon Quest titles, the traditional Phantasy Star titles, the Lunar titles, the Tales titles, the Suikoden titles… you get where I’m going with this. Whether you like it or not, games where players take control of puppet personas and guide them through a story that unfolds in a narrative space, and this space has rules which include XP, leveling systems, parties, and all the other elements you attempt to debunk in your piece are, by common usage and by common definition, RPGs.

In the past two gaming generations a divide in how people label RPGs has come to the forefront. This is because western developers have had a different approach to designing RPGs. Instead of letting players control a puppet in a story told in a semi-linear way, they favor an approach where players can create their avatars and instead of favoring story over narrative space, as Japanese developers do, western developers favor narrative space over story.
Certainly, we could take battle mechanics into play, but there are so many interpretations of what “RPG fights” “should be”, and so many other elements that go into making an RPG, that it almost renders this particular issue moot. Whether you see “RPG battle systems” as having to be closer to the early Final Fantasy’s Wizardy-inspired menu-driven systems or to Fable’s more action-driven scenes, battle mechanics are second, or even third, tier elements to what make an RPG.

And so, these shifts in design approaches have made reviewers, critics, developers, and the gaming industry in general (once again, except the most hardcore skeptics) label games like Lost Odyssey and Eternal Sonata, which favor story over spatial narrative, as JRPGs and games like the latest gen Fallouts and Fables, which favor narrative space over story, as WRPGs.

An interesting perspective, and one that might be worth considering, can be seen in Daniel Floyd’s and James Portnov’s latest Extra Creditz episodes (see http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/western-japanese-rpgs-part-1), where he correctly explains that the JRPG and the WRPG are sub-genres of the same umbrella genre “RPG”, much like “epic” and “sonnet” are both subsets of “poetry”.

Now, I do agree with you that set definitions are needed – if only for accuracy of labeling when reviewing – but these definitions must not be set in stone. They must be able to adapt to new developments. If you were a console gamer during the late 80s and early 90s, “RPG” meant Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger. These labels have since changed to JRPGs. If you were a PC gamer, then “RPG” really meant Wizardy and Septerra Core, and these are now “WRPGs” or “PCRPGs”, depending on who you ask. And then there are “Tabletop RPGs” (which actually pioneered the term) and “MMORPGs”, all which are defined by certain traits, NONE of which are less valid RPG traits because hybrid games decide to incorporate one or two of these mechanics.

In the end, you know what’s funny? You say you’re not a purist, but you say that the only true RPG experiences can be found exclusively in some dungeon crawler games and JRPGs (presumably you’re thinking of Shining in the Darkness?). Holding these beliefs make you a purist, whether you want to acknowledge it or not. And being a purist is nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and their own personal definition of things. you are entitled to think whatever you want and believe whatever you want. They might be wrong and factually inaccurate, but you’re entitled to them anyway.

About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on March 17, 2012, in Video Game Commentary and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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