An interesting thought has been percolating in my head lately regarding the meaning of the term RPG.  A lot of it has to do with my own personal focus on Roleplaying Games, and more to the point what I actually consider to be an RPG (which honestly is a very broad term for me now).

What really constitutes an RPG traditionally?  A focus on a narrative or story, with deep world building and lore?  Character advancement through a combination of gear, skills, and stats?  I am sure we can agree that any RPG worth its salt has these two major factors in it.  But what else makes an RPG, well, an RPG?

Is it the viewpoint?  Plenty of RPGs use Isometric views, but just as many use first person or even 3rd person.  Is it gameplay style?  We got real time pause, we got action focused, we have turn based?  Is it the degree of choice you have in how the story unfolds?  JRPGs, for example, have almost no choice in them where WRPGs frequently have tons of choices to make.

Further still, how do you classify games that use elements that are traditionally associated with RPGs but are clearly a greater thing?

Let’s look at Dead Cells.  Its commonly referred to as an Action RPG Soulslike Roguelike.  That’s a mouthful!  Or how about Assassins Creed Odyssey?  Many would argue it’s not an RPG, but it has all the hallmarks of them.  A focus on a character driven narrative.  A full equipment system, upgrade trees that matter, a huge world with lots of main and side stories to explore, colorful characters to interact with, ect.  What about the more recent Far Cry games?  They all feature story rich worlds with a ton of lore, lots of side activities, upgrade trees, tons of equipment to find and modify, ect.

Now some hardcore RPG purists will simply go “These are not RPGs!” because of a variety of reasons. Personally, I am finding that my idea of what an RPG is has grown as genre conventions have broken down.  Games have a ton of crossover now, and calling a game an FPS or an RPG when it might be so much more then that seems a little…worthless now.

You might find that odd, coming from a guy who claims to specialize in RPGs.  But for me, what an RPG is might surprise you. Let’s talk about what I look for exactly in a game, or an RPG.

First, for me the game has to have a storyline to follow or an interesting world to explore.  It may not be the actual “focus” of the game like in an Action RPG such as Torchlight, or Diablo.  But there needs to be a narrative for me to follow through the game, a beginning, middle, and end as it were, for me to really enjoy myself.  In fact, if a game does not have a primary story for me to work through or a large world for me to get lost in, I will generally not play it for very long.  The next two things are more optional for me.

Second, the game needs to have a deep character advancement and customization system.  I need to be able to build my character the way I want to support the sort of gameplay I want to experience.  This does not mean I need to make my own custom character, but rather have options as to how the character I am playing grows or functions.  Whether that’s through abilities, stats, equipment, or more often than not a mix of them, I need this to be a big part of the game for me.

Thirdly, the game must be playable as a single player experience or at least solo in the case of an online MMO styled game.  Games where the real focus and meat of the game is in a multiplayer experience is not something I want in my RPG.  MMoRPGs like World of Warcraft and Warframe, for example, straddle the line for me.  They are RPGs…technically.  But more often than not the focus is in the mulitplayer experience of the game, where you miss out on things or things become way too difficult for you to do things on your own.

As long as the game I am looking at has at least the first thing I listed and one of the other two, I would consider playing it.  Now you might look at that and instantly go “but thats not an RPG!” and you would be right!  By most standard definitions, if a game for example was only story driven and single player, many would not consider that an RPG.  But in a game like that, I am still playing a particular role am I not?  That’s what RPG means.  ROLE PLAYING GAME.  Its core meaning is in the fact that you are playing a specific role telling a specific story.  In reality, what I SHOULD say is that I focus on NARRATRIVE DRIVEN GAMES but really, that’s a lot more annoying to say then I play RPGs.

Many would not consider a Choose Your Own Adventure or Visual Novel to be an RPG, but I would.  In fact they are some of the purest forms of them.  It’s a story, you make choices and decisions playing it, and you have to play a particular role.  Are you playing as a good kid, a bad kid, ect.  Based on the story you are playing you must roleplay your way through it, even if you are roleplaying as YOURSELF in that situation.

Truth be told, most “RPGs” now a days belong to a subgenre.  A specific style or type of RPG.  Here are a examples of various subgenres, what they mean, and some of the more common games that embody the subgenre:

  • ARPG: Action RPG.  Games with a weak story, and a strong focus on tons of loot and killing hordes of enemies.  Diablo, Torchlight, Path of Exile, Grim Dawn, ect
  • FPSRPG: First Person Shooter RPG.  Also called a loot shooter.  Similar to an ARPG but with an FPS system for combat.  Destiny, Borderlands, ect
  • CRPG: Computer RPG.  Sometimes called WRPG for Western RPG.  Usually large open worlds and a focus on player choice.  The Elder Scrolls, Baldurs Gate, Fallout, Divnity Origina Sin ect are examples of these.  When most people say RPG these are the sort of games they are referring to
  • DRPG: Dungeon RPG.  Generally first person turn based gameplay, where most of your time is exploring dungeons for loot and monsters to kill, and puzzles to solve.  Bards Tale 4, Might and Magic, Wizardry, Etrian Odyssey ect are examples of these.
  • JRPG: Japanese RPG.  Usually heavily focused on a narrative, little choice.  Very linear games with a ton of grinding involved.  The final fantasy series is a hallmark of this style.
  • SRPG: Strategy RPG.  Usually focused on turn based battles on a grid or battlefield.  Good examples are Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, Fire Emblem
  • Roguelike: Generally focused on permadeath, deep character customization and choice, and procedural generation of levels and loot. Nethack, Rogue, Dead Cells ect
  • Soulslike: Generally a game with high skill combat and passive enviromental lore, where the story is found on objects and must be hunted down rather then spelled out.  Frequently extremely difficult.  Dark Souls is where this genre started.
  • MMORPG: The name says it all.  Massively Multiplayer Online RPG.  Online only, focus on group activities, large world to explore with lots of other humans running around.  World of Warcraft, Ultima Online, Everquest are hallmarks of the genre.

There are very few games that can be described soley as an RPG anymore.  Most belong to a subgenre of some sort, which are all part of the greater “RPG” whole.  And most games now a days use RPG elements, such as progression systems and character customization.

For me, as long as the game has a good story with a beginning, middle, and end, I am generally willing to at least give it a try.  That’s what an RPG means to me. Playing a Role.  The mechanical bits at the end of the day really don’t matter too much as long as there is a heavy focus on story and narrative.  I mean, that’s what I do in a tabletop RPGs when you think about it.  And that’s how I like my video games!

What really is an RPG?
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