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The RPG Files: What Makes a Role Playing Game?

Column By Robert Lashley on January 09, 2014

Some of you may have noticed over the past few weeks the site has covered a number of RPGs. This subtle shift may indicate changes that are coming to the website, or the editor might just be toying with the heartstrings of a middle aged man. Either way those articles have prompted me to start thinking lately on what makes a game a RPG?

Over the past two years since I started writing for MMORPG.com I have really had my head in the sand when it comes to games outside of the MMO genre. While trying to know everything I can about a game that started with MMO I let a lot of other great gems get by me. I had an abundance of free time a month ago and decided to fix this. I picked up a 3DS and bought The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and the 3DS came with Mario and Luigi Dream Team preinstalled.

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What really defines a RPG anymore? Is it character development? A strong narrative? For good old pen and paper or even live action role playing (LARP), role playing is just a person or group of people assuming the role of another individual in a fictional setting. If we apply this to computer games almost any game could be considered a RPG. But I think that would be too loose of a definition. Under that premise if you were playing a flight simulator you would be role playing a pilot. That said I don’t think you will see any flight simulators on the site anytime soon, though we have featured World of Warplanes. 

I don’t think it would be too difficult of an argument to make that The Legend of Zelda series consists of a number of action adventure role playing games. As the player you assume the identity of Link and progress through the adventure and collect gear and develop Link as a character. You do not have a lot of impact on the narrative, however, the story is pretty linear and you may have some choices in the game but you do not really shape Link’s personality through your decisions. Whether you consider it a RPG or not the latest installment is a fantastic game. The reason I play video games is because of the original Legend of Zelda and I consider A Link Between Worlds a worthy successor. It is stylistically similar to a Link to the Past which I consider to be the best in the series, and the game allows the players to decide in which order they want to tackle the dungeons in the Dark World. This is a departure from the series norm where the dungeons are required to be taken on in a specific order. The ability to flatten yourself and move along walls also makes for some interesting puzzles not seen before in the game series.

With the release of The Walking Dead Season 2 I went back and finally played through the entirety of The Walking Dead Season 1 by Telltale games. I cannot say enough good things about Season 1. All of the awards that it won are well deserved. But is it a role playing game? The best way I can describe the game is that it feels like playing an interactive graphic novel. You assume the role of Lee who is being transported out of Atlanta by a sheriff’s deputy after Lee’s recent murder conviction. Throughout the five episodes you will make choices as Lee that decide whether or not other characters in your group live or die. You will also makes choices that have a lower degree of consequence but these choices will still have an impact on the social dynamic of the group. These choices carry over from episode to episode and can also have an impact on season 2 if you choose to import your information. Not since Aeris’s death scene in Final Fantasy VII have I felt so emotionally attached to a character. The father daughter bond that develops very quickly between Lee and Clementine will leave you making gut wrenching choices. The combat in the game is secondary. You won’t be grinding on zombies in the streets make sure Lee is high enough level to save Clementine from the zombie apocalypse. The strength of this game is the story.

That brings us back to Mario and Luigi Dream team. Those crazy brothers have found themselves in another jam. This time Luigi is taking on the starring role and won’t be relegated to sidekick. While on a trip to Pi’illo island Mario and Luigi get wrapped up in a decades old mystery involving sleeping Pi’illo (pillow) people. Then Bowser shows up, teams up with Pi’illo Islands antagonist Antasma, and all heck breaks loose. Like most Mario games the story is outlandish to say the least. Where the game really shines is the different puzzles that will challenge you while in the Dream World. You earn experience and level up in this game, you collect gear that also helps make your characters stronger and gain special abilities, and you progress through the story in the role of Mario and Luigi (but we all know Luigi is really the star). Combat is turn based and takes place on a separate map from the overworld map. A classic RPG staple. But would you consider this a RPG? If so it is not the first Mario Brothers RPG but the game isn’t marketed as one.

Another example of a genre bender is Shadowrun Returns. This game features a deep story. You progress your character and level up by earning experience. You can also acquire items that augment and enhance your character. However, combat is turn based similar to XCom: Enemy Unknown so most people lump this game in with strategy games. 

Where do we draw the line? If considering every game that we assume the role of the protagonist is too broad a stroke to paint how do we separate out what is and isn’t a RPG? While considered a staple to the series is it necessary to earn experience points in a RPG? Can combat be real time or do you think it should be turn based or some combination of the two? Or is the story the most important part? Let me know in the comments below. I’m looking forward to reading your answers.

Robert Lashley /  Robert Lashley is a Staff Writer and Online host for MMORPG.com. Rob's bald and when he isn't blinding people from the glare on his head talking in front of a camera you can find him spending his free time checking out the latest games and technology. Feel free to hunt him down on twitter @Grakulen


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