As you may or may not know, we are spending the month of November talking about RPGs. Our cover story is centered around the genre and we are taking the opportunity to talk about the best games in the genre, our favorite games in the genre, and everything else that we can cram into one month’s worth of content. With that, I think it would be best to start the month by focusing on what makes an RPG an RPG.
So, what is an RPG?
Rather than regurgitate a generic definition of the genre, I’d prefer to define what I take to make up an RPG. To me, an RPG must have certain gameplay mechanics in order to truly represent the type of game. Firstly, there must be some sort of leveling system that each character in the game rises through based on their experience points earned through combat. Typically, by defeating enemies the characters will earn points that add up. Each level has a minimum threshold and once the points exceed that requirement, the character will gain a level. When “leveling up” the character traditionally will see increases to their base statistics. Another part of the core is those stats. What those are may deviate from game to game, but more than likely they have to do with the overall amount of hit points or HP for the character, their defensive and offensive level, and any other specific stats to that character such as Magic ability, Luck, or some such other modifier. It is also common for characters to learn or unlock new abilities or skills through leveling up.
RPGs tend to utilize a party system, wherein the player controls not one but several characters that all work together to defeat any opposition. This certainly is not the case always, but traditionally in Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs), the party system is in place. Conversely, a lot of Western RPGs tend to place the player in control of a single character. Obviously these rules are always changing and dependent on the specific game, but a correlation can be drawn.
Outside of the leveling system, I think a core tenant to a successful RPG is its story. More often than not, the trope in play is the underdog story involving the most unlikely person or group of persons to take down the greatest threat that evil has to offer. While stories have evolved and changed as video games have, there is something about that basic idea that is always occurring within RPG stories. Whether or not that be the case, story is always key. Where classic arcade games focused on the gameplay and were never really heavy on story outside of something consisting of one line of background, RPGs have always been predicated on telling the tale of the heroes.
With that disconnect between arcade games and RPGs another can be found that is typically central to the RPG: gameplay. Where video games largely require coordination, understanding, and sometimes inherent skill, RPGs rely on exploration and simple controls in order for the player to find success. Traditionally, directional control is the heaviest input on the controller, while other buttons are designated for selection of attacks rather than execution of attacks. RPGs don’t really have the player controlling the characters, but rather commanding them.
There are two main components to RPGs: exploration and battle. Exploration is where the player takes the party or the character through the in-game world. Usually RPGs are large maps, and despite the illusion of being able to travel anywhere the player is gated by certain requirements. The restrictions can be a level requirement, a specific item that is needed, or something else to drive the story forward and ask the player to travel to a new place.
Battle in RPGs is mostly turn-based, meaning that each choice made by player or enemy is done in succession of one another, alternating sides of the battle. The player attacks, the enemy defends, the enemy attacks, the player defends, and so on. Games have augmented what plays out within a battle through the years. Some games have implemented the use of timed button presses in order to execute an attack, others have given each character a cool down period that must expire before another attack can occur, and others still have deviated from that.
The prevalence of RPGs has taken the genre from the niche to the mainstream, meaning that since the beginning of video games there have been an incredible amount of games in the genre. A lot of what we recognize as RPGs evolved out of the traditional pen-and-paper games like Dungeons & Dragons, and most of what defined the RPG in video games started in Japan.
The JRPG set the early standard for what to expect in a video game RPG, with the strongest examples rising out of series like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. These weren’t the first video game RPGs, but because of their success following release, the genre gained popularity and was becoming a viable option for game makers.
What defined these games soon became adapted and borrowed in other franchises, in an attempt to add a new layer of depth to a game. Take Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda, which began as an explorative character action game. Its sequel, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link adopted RPG elements that created an early example of an Action-RPG.
Additionally, Western RPGs rose in popularity throughout the 1990s, bringing to life franchises like Diablo and Fallout, offering something a bit different than those games being created across the Pacific Ocean.
Much like Nintendo grabbed from the genre to change the way that the sequel to The Legend of Zelda played, many game developers have utilized RPG tropes in order to vary how their game is presented. These systems can be found in the likes of Deus Ex, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and even the Call of Duty franchise. It’s actually seemingly more difficult to find a game without some sort of RPG mechanic in place than it is to rattle of a list of games that do.
I think that this is as good of a base that we need to start off this month of coverage. We’ve learned the basics of what defines the genre, from its core tenants to its mechanics. We touched on the evolution and the variance between games in the genre. We looked very lightly at some examples of not just games in the genre, but games that have used RPGs in order to enhance their own gameplay.
As we prepare for more content, leave a comment below and tell us your favorite RPG or RPG series, and be sure to check back for more all throughout November.