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The RPG Files: Is That Even an RPG?

By Christopher Coke on November 14, 2014 | Columns | Comments

Is That Even an RPG?

The holiday season has arrived, and with it comes the annual torrent of questions: what games are worth buying? Which games lived up to the hype? And most important of all, which in this diverse sea of games earns the coveted title of “Game of the Year”? As a writer of an RPG column, I have a new question: even with leveling, and stats, and gear, how many of them – Destiny, Shadow of Mordor, Overwatch? – actually deserve to be called RPGs? The waters are muddy, my friends, and with 2015 just around the corner, they don’t look to be clearing anytime soon. 

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Let me clarify with a simple example: by the systems, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is an RPG. Put down the pitchfork, Clarence, I’m not saying that’s the case. But can you deny it? Modern Warfare stole character leveling years ago and then tweaked progression with weapon and equipment unlocks. This year, Sledgehammer’s release has pushed the envelope even closer to RPG territory with character customization and loot drops in multiplayer, a focus on grinding for stats through the random weapons that are earned through the supply caches. In single player, you even earn upgrade points to boost your character’s core attributes.

It may not be an “RPG” but it sure is an FPSRPG. Yes, it’s campaign is short but then so is Child of Light. Yes, it has campaign levels but so does Final Fantasy. I hear you: It’s multiplayer-based. It focuses on shooting more than leveling. It’s an RPG-lite, 0 calories and transfats. Should we cover it here? How about Battlefield or Halo? Those have RPG elements, right?

How about Shadow of Mordor? We at MMORPG felt confident enough that it fit the bill to cover it regularly and even offer a review. But I’d have laughed if you called that an RPG five years ago. It’s an action game! Assassin’s Creed with orcs! Oh wait, Assassin’s Creed is kind of RPGish too now. Well, darn. Even Destiny would have qualified as a “barely there” RPG back in the day. 

The point I’m circling is that our definitions our changing. Mechanics are not enough. It’s as if the rest of the world woke up to how incredible these games actually are; by systems alone, everything we know isn’t an RPG suddenly is. Call of Duty isn’t the kind of game I’d put in the same category as Dragon Age: Inquisition, obviously, but you’re obviously kidding yourself if you ignore how someone else could.

So what is an RPG, then? For the purposes of this column, here are my pre-requisites: There needs to be a focus on story. The world must be elevated alongside the characters. I need to be able to invest in the characters or, if that design fails, see how the developers hoped I would invest. I need to take my character on a journey of development, mechanically and narratively, with choices in how I choose to develop him in at least one. The character has to be mine, not a loose pair of shoes for me walk around in for a few hours, even if it’s someone else’s named character.

More than anything, I need to feel like the game was intended to be a roleplay experience. One of the shallowest arguments I’ve heard is that Telltale’s The Walking Dead is the quintessential RPG because you truly play the “role” of Clementine. Well sure, I’ll buy that, but only if we call books and movies and every other character-driven game an RP experience too. The Walking Dead, Call of Duty, Halo, and Assassin’s Creed are not RPGs because they were never intended to be RPGs.  They’re games to find the “RPG In” which our new video series aims to help you with.  

Then again, does it even matter? RPGs are rich with systems that fit nicely into other genres, deepening them and enriching them. (And yes, sometimes, changing them without cause). So long as good games are being made, and the cores of each RPG-touched genre remain healthy – including RPGs themselves – we all win.

But now to the real question on my mind: How do you define an RPG? What is and what isn’t worthy of the genre tag? Because for as much as I know about myself, I sincerely wonder how far the needle has tipped in the rest of the community. So how about it, what’s an RPG to you?

Quick Hits:

Blizzard Entertainment has announced its first new IP in 17 years, Overwatch. How much of an RPG this is remains to be—oh, you know what, it’s probably not but, dammit, this is of interest to you. It’s an FPS we know will be light on story but since this is Blizzard, we can safely assume there’s going to be some RPG elements here. They’ve revealed 12 classes and the sheer style of this game is something to behold. Broadly, it doesn’t look much different from other games on the market (a turret building engineer, what a shocking inclusion) but some of the character abilities look almost game-breakingly compelling. Plus, playable gorilla. KOKO. WANT. GAME.

Pillars of Eternity is up for pre-order. In case you forgot, this was the Obsidian gig that got us all excited for CRPGs again. Hopefully it hasn’t missed the boat by taking too long.

Dragon Age: Inquisition reviews have begun to surface and the news is good. This, my friends, is what it looks like when a legendary studio recovers from a stumble. The world is sprawling, the campaign and even tiny quests are rich and engaging, and there is hundreds of hours of content to discover. Could we ask for anything more? Merry Christmas, Bioware!

Finally, in true CD Projeckt Red fashion, The Witcher 3 studio is promising 16 free pieces of DLC to all customers, on every platform. In an era where microtransactions are becoming the norm even to circumvent core game systems, CDPR’s pro-gamer stance earns them serious points. If they have paid DLC, I’ll buy it and I hope you do too. We need more companies like this.

That’s all for this week. Enjoy your adventures, wherever you may find them!

Christopher Coke / Chris has been a fan of MMOs since the mid-1990s when he cut his teeth on MUDs. These days he scours the internet for the latest and greatest multiplayer gaming experiences.