Saturday, January 28, 2012

What is an RPG: Why I Stopped Caring About Genre's



It's not often that I'm called a sociopath. In fact, I think it only happened once. I was discussing the finer points of early dubstep, closer linked to genre's like U.K garage, grime, and, well, dub than the more wobble-y electro influenced stuff that has made the genre so popular recently. The debate got more heated than it had any right or reason to. After all, who am I to say what the genre is? Is the most popular definition correct by default? And it's with this in mind that I considered the MMORPG.com Player's Choice Awards, which gave League of Legends the title of Hybrid MMO of the Year. At the time I took issue with this on the basis that if League of Legends is any sort of MMO then I can come up with a justification for almost any online game falling into the same “hybrid mmo” bucket. But after meditating deeply on the subject while on pilgrimage to the highest peaks of the Himalayas, I came to a conclusion: arguing about what defines a genre is just about the biggest, most pointless argument one can have over the internet. And that's saying a lot.


Trying to find the definition of “Role-Playing Game” is like searching for...really, anything on the internet. You find one-off, random articles, like this one, from rpgfan.com:
“...define a Role Playing Game as a game that MUST, ABSOLUTELY have three elements. One is a statistical setup for characters that describe certain skills/aspects of that character. Two, it must have some method of increasing and strengthening those statistics (usually but not necessarily by way of the experience/level system). Three, it must have a menu-driven combat system that utilizes the skills/aspects of the characters.”
You can read Wikipedia:
A role-playing game (RPG) is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting.
Or you can poke through other blog posts, like the one you're reading now, or this one, from :
A game is a computer RPG if it features player-driven development of a persistent character or characters via the making of consequential choices. 
We can of course dismiss the first definition as the rantings of a Japanophile madman, as requiring menu-driven combat would immediately discount a huge percentage of excellent western RPG's, but what's left is a vague notion that an RPG is a game in which a player takes on a character, of his own making or the developer's, and develops the character through interaction with the world. And immediately the problem with trying to come up with a generous but concise definition becomes clear: by trying to reduce the definition into as simple a ruleset as possible, it becomes vague enough to encompass nearly any genre; but attempts to narrow it down exclude games that can clearly be categorized as RPGs. The requirement that seems the most unique to this style is some degree of character customization, but you can now find persistent leveling, loot, and skills/talents in just about any triple-A game release. The Battlefield games have had persistent leveling since BF2 was released in 2005. Starcraft 2 gives players levels in multiplayer, and unlockable items and abilities in single-player. The Need for Speed series of racing games have given players the opportunity to min/max their stats and customize their characters (CAR-acters?) since Porsche Unleashed came out in 2000.



But any reasonable gamer can point to those games and say, no, those are a shooter, a strategy game, and a racing game. Likewse, if they don't have any interest in being a sociopathic controversialist dick, they can point at a slew of games and easily call them RPGs, and be correct. But if the tables are turned, it's as easy to call any “standard” RPG an action or adventure game. But why argue it? New games are constantly being created that don't fall neatly into one bucket. The point of these classifications isn't to seperate games into neatly define genre's, they exist to make it possible for someone to ask “So, what kind of games do you play?” without getting the response “I like open world games with a strong narrative, player driven story events, and persistent leveling.” Going back to my earlier example, think about that in music terms again. “So, what kind of music do you listen to?”

“Oh, I mostly listen to electronic music with a dub influence from south London, with heavy sub-bass, 2-step drum patterns, and a tempo of about 140 beats per minute.”

I want you to think about how you would respond to that. It's hard, isn't it? Because that's something a crazy person would say. Games are an evolving medium, and often great games try to take compelling elements of multiple other games and duct tape them together. A players investment in each of those disparate elements can vary, making a game seem more RPG-y for one player than another. And so ultimately, what makes a game fit into a genre will vary from person to person, as each player has their own unique experience with the game. So don't be me; don't be that guy. When you sit down to write that forum post, think about it for a second, take a deep breath, and play videogames instead.

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