Insomnia | Commentary

The RPG Conundrum

By Alex Kierkegaard / March 17, 2008


The purpose of this article is to clarify my RPG reviewing policy, in light of the astounding revelations seen in my recent article on the subject. So yes, from time immemorial all electronic games touted as RPGs have had more or less nothing to do with role-playing, but then how are we supposed to treat them when we are obliged to review them? There are two options here. The first would be to simply stop calling them RPGs and come up with all-new genre names for them, and the second to keep using the old genre names, but tacitly agree to regard them as misnomers. For reasons of convenience, I chose the second option.

At this point a few clarifications should be made, but before we deal with those we must first clear up the issue of the so-called "action RPGs".

Ask yourself: What is it that makes people label a game an "action RPG"? Without a doubt it is the main character's ability to evolve as the game progresses, according to choices made by the player. If the protagonist of an action game gains experience or skill points/levels/hit points/whatever, and if the player has some control over how these are distributed, this, to the average person who plays videogames, means that the game should be labeled as an action RPG. But then why is no one calling Devil May Cry 3 an action RPG? It has character classes and levelling, and your character can learn all sorts of new skills, as well as acquire and equip a large amount of weapons and items. So in what way is DMC3 different from something like, say, Crisis Core -Final Fantasy VII-?

The answer is: "Square Enix didn't publish it". Laugh all you want, dear reader, but I am telling you that this is how it is. It is time we faced the fact that in the world of videogames the publishers don't just simply own magazines, websites, and legions of fans: They also own the goddamn genres.

So let's move past this nonsense then, we who are intelligent enough to realize that the name of the publisher should have nothing to do with the genre label we choose to attach to a game, and agree that Devil May Cry 3 and Crisis Core -Final Fantasy VII- should both be viewed as "stat-heavy action games". But now of course I've opened up another can of worms, and must explain the difference between "pure" and "stat-based" action games.

What people need to realize is that ALL ELECTRONIC GAMES HAVE STATS, and therefore also all action games. The difference is that in some of them the stats are more prominent and more visible than in others. Take Pong, for example. If I were to say that "Pong is a pure action game", no one would disagree with that statement. The paddle is fully controlled by the player, and it is therefore solely the player's reflexes that determine whether he wins or loses a match. Hence Pong is a pure action game.

However at this point we've already made a mistake, and it is indeed a very grave one. Because it's NOT "solely the player's reflexes that determine whether he wins or loses a match" -- it is also the physical properties of the paddle. The paddle cannot go across the screen as fast as the player may want it to, therefore its top speed and acceleration also play a part in whether he wins or loses. Of course these attributes cannot be affected by the player -- the only thing the player can do is control the paddle within the given parameters and give it all his best. But what if with each win he was awarded a number of skill points, which he could then distribute among the paddle's various attributes: size, shape, speed, acceleration, ball-bouncing strength, etc. Wouldn't that new feature suddenly turn Pong into an action RPG?

First off, the answer to that silly question is "no". Pong would not become an RPG simply by adding the ability to "level up" your paddle, for christsake -- what it would become is a more stat-heavy action game.

Can you now begin to see the difference between "pure" and "stat-heavy" action games? In pure action games, all properties of the player's avatar (which could be anything from an anthropomorphic 2D sprite or 3D model to a car, an airplane, a monkey, or even a simple paddle) are fixed by the designers, and remain unchangeable for the duration of the game. The player therefore must get used to these constraints and learn to do his best within them. The better he becomes at controlling his avatar, the better he will do in the game.

In stat-heavy action games, on the other hand, it is not only the player who becomes better as the game progresses, but also the avatar! It is therefore the combined skill of the player AND the avatar that conquers the game! (Hence the element of strategy in determining the best way to develop the avatar throughout the game.)

Street Fighter II, for instance, is a perfect example of a stat-light action game. It makes use of avatar stats to a far greater degree than Pong, but to a far lesser degree than something like Diablo. Here's how it works.

If the player picks Blanka and goes up against Ryu, each hit he lands will knock off some of Ryu's health. But if he picks Chun Li instead, each hit will knock off less health, because Chun Li is weaker. It is not the player who suddenly became weaker when he picked Chun Li, you see -- it is Chun Li's fault! The game may not show each avatar's strength attribute directly, and when the player hits Ryu he may not see hit points flashing on the screen, but all these calculations certainly happen -- they form the game's physics model, in other words: its "battle system". These numbers are the essence of the game! These numbers determine the essence of the game!

So all action games have "battle systems", and all avatars have stats. The difference is that in some games the avatar's stats are customizable by the player, and the underlying calculations more visible to him.

But as I explained in my RPG article, none of the above has anything to do with role-playing. Indeed, a role-playing game doesn't even need to have a battle system -- let alone an extremely complicated one, with lots of numbers flashing everywhere. (Take for example an RPG in which the player controls a patient in a straitjacket locked up in a hospital's psychiatric ward. All the player can do is talk to other people, and the game ends when the doctors proclaim him cured and allow him to leave. The whole game then would be about convincing the doctors that you are sane, solely through dialogue. No battles, no nothing.)

So anyway, the point of all this is to explain why on this website we will not be using the term "action RPG" to refer to games like Diablo or Crisis Core. All the so-called "action RPGs" will simply be treated as regular action games: either pure, stat-light, or stat-heavy. (Even the Elder Scrolls games are little more than stat-heavy action games, the only difference being that progression through them is not entirely linear. The main plot, however, is still virtually unchangeable by the player, hence they cannot be viewed as RPGs.)

So this takes care of the fake "action RPGs". Here, then, is how we'll treat the rest of the genres that have traditionally contained the term "RPG" in them:

Western CRPGs & JRPGs: These will be treated as strategy games with an added exploration aspect. If both strategy and exploration aspects rock the game will get a high rating. If both strategy and exploration aspects suck the game will get a low rating. If one of these aspects rocks and the other sucks the game will get a medium rating. Secondary factors such as quality of the story, atmosphere, graphics, sound, etc. will modify the final rating, but not very significantly.

SRPGs/TRPGs or Tactics games: These are more or less pure strategy games, and will therefore be treated as such.

ARPGs: Whether 2D or 3D, and from Ys to Dungeon Master to Diablo, these games, once more, have nothing to do with role-playing; they are simply stat-heavy action games with a strong exploration aspect, and will therefore be treated as such.

Computer-assisted RPGs: The single-player modes of these games, as well as the multiplayer modes which do not include a human gamemaster, will be treated exactly as Western CRPGs & JRPGs -- i.e. as strategy games with an added exploration aspect. The multiplayer modes that include a human gamemaster, on the other hand, will be treated more like board games than electronic ones, because they do not really qualify as electronic games (human beings are doing all the important work, therefore the success or failure of each session will be determined pretty much solely on the quality of the players' efforts -- think of these modes as "RPG construction tools" rather than actual, full-blown videogames).

MMORPGs: For all intents and purposes these games will be treated as real RPGs, in which instead of assuming the role of someone of significance to the story, you are controlling an immortal peon in a world full of immortal peons (and there is really no story worth talking about -- either prefabricated or collaboratively created).

RPGs: On Insomnia, the pure, unadulterated "RPG" label will only be applied to games that deserve it (i.e. to narrative-driven games in which the player's choices "shape the direction and outcome" of the story) so that when you buy them you'll be assured that actual role-playing will be involved. So far the only non-MMO electronic game I am personally aware of that deserves to be called an RPG is Deus Ex, and even that is not a pure RPG, because there is a heavy action element.

Action RPGs: See above. The only true action RPG we have so far is Deus Ex. When another one comes out I'll be sure to let you know. (Word to the wise: Don't hold your breath.)