I recently read about an interview with Greg Zeschuck, co-founder of BioWare, that the team believed RPG’s were becoming less relevant in today’s market. This seems a bit odd, coming from one of the foremost developers of RPG’s like Baldur’s Gate & Mass Effect. However, according to Zeschuck, it isn’t so much that the team is tied to the RPG genre as they enjoy making games with memorable stories, engaging combat & character progression. And in some ways I can understand that. That’s the reason BioWare is one of my favorite developers: not just because they’ve made great RPG’s, but they have such awesome stories. A good story is one of the most important elements of a game.
But that got me to thinking. What is an RPG, really? And why do I love them so much?
Obviously the easy answer is that an RPG is a role-playing game. But what does that really mean? Technically speaking, aren’t all video games RPG’s? All games allow you to assume a role. When you play as any character, you’re assuming a role. So what makes actually RPG’s different from games that have you assume the role of Mario, Samus or Kratos? The difference is that you decide what role you play. The character is however you choose to make it.
RPG’s are about freedom. The most obvious freedom is in creating your character. Some games do this by letting you design your character physically. It’s amazing the amount of customization some games allow you. Male or female? Blonde or brunette? Maybe even purple hair. Do you make an attractive character or one that looks like they fell out of the ugly tree? Some games even let you pick races, such as Elder Scrolls or Dragon Age: Origins. These choices are more than just physical. Usually different races have different skills or perks, what you choose greatly influences how you’ll experience the game.
Even RPG’s that don’t let you create a character usually allow you customize the set character’s skill sets. How you choose to level up your character depends on & affects how you play the game. Do you like to burst in a room, guns blazing, lob a few fireballs down on your foes, or play it sneaky & take them out at a distance? Are you a charming, persuasive rogue or a brash barbarian?
Character customization is also important because you’ll be using your skills to improve your character. RPG’s allow a great variety in how you actually play the game. There’s usually more than one way through a mission. (This isn’t always true, however. Some games, like Dungeons & Dragons or Titan Quest have only one path: fight. Because of this, some people might say it’s more accurate to call them dungeon crawlers.) As you progress through the game, you’re character improves, usually by leveling up, which allows you to further customize their skills by deciding what abilities to invest in.
This leads to the other distinguishing characteristic of RPG’s: the story. Most RPG’s are very story laden. That’s why you play them in the first place. Admit it, no one plays FPS’s for the story. That’s not to say no other genre has good stories, but RPG’s especially so. I’m particularly partial to a good story, & can overlook flawed gameplay if the story keeps me going.
So in sum, what is an RPG? It’s a game that tries to immerse you in some vast, detailed world through both an engaging storyline & character customization. You become the character, & the story becomes yours.
That’s what I love about RPG’s. I can put myself in the story & play it the way I want. It’s such a refreshing change from linear games. Not that I don’t enjoy other types of games, I just like being able to immerse myself into a story. To me, games are just like books only I control the pace of the game.
Perhaps it’s also in small part because, as a female, it’s hard to find female characters in video games that I can (or would want to) relate to. Sometimes it feels like, no matter how strong-willed a female character is, the only reson she’s female is to pander to the target male audience. But with RPG’s, at least I have a chance to create my version of a female character.
So are RPG’s irrelevant? Do people no longer enjoy them? That’s hard to say. Like most industries, gaming demands fluctuate. Sometimes shooters are the rage, while other times it may be rhythm games. I would say that right now, the mainstream audience craves action games like Gears of War & Call of Duty. However, more games had added traditional RPG elements to add more immersion to their games. Upcoming games like Saints Row: The Third look to allow players to customize not only their characters but how they complete missions. The Deus Ex games have allowed players to determine which upgrades they receive, affecting the way you play the game. At the same time, RPG’s are changing as well. The first Mass Effect was more accurately described as a sci-fi RPG that involved shooting, whereas the sequel had more shooter elements (like ammo) to appeal to a larger audience. However, the customization & choices that are inherent in RPG’s remained intact.
I don’t foresee RPG’s dying out anytime soon, nor will they become a niche genre. True, there may be changes in execution, but the core will remain the same. Given the hype for upcoming RPG’s like Skyrim Mass Effect 3, I think it’s safe to say that my pet genre will be around for many years to come.