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The RPG Files: That's Not an RPG!

By Christopher Coke on February 27, 2015 | Columns | Comments

That's Not an RPG!

Writing about RPGs in 2015 is a tricky task. Like so many genres, our tropes are being borrowed left and right, muddying the waters of what is and isn't a roleplaying game. Rarely a week goes by without a commenter questioning why we cover this game or that, or even accusing us of deliberately watering down the genre so we can discuss more games. So let's talk about it. What exactly is an RPG in 2015?

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Back in January, I spent two whole weeks talking about the zombie survival game, Dying Light. The response was mixed but surprised exactly no one. Many readers were quick to point out that just because a game has progression doesn't make it an RPG. The old standby was thrown out: "if all it takes is progression, then Call of Duty is a roleplaying game!!1!1".

I hope it doesn't surprise anyone when I say I love RPGs. I've played a lot of them over the last two decades, probably more than my fair share, and even my favorites in other genres usually include a few RP features for good measure. Deciding to write about Dying Light in a column dedicated to RPGs was a conscious, considered action, knowing that many readers would disagree with me without ever giving the game a fair shot. I stand by decision and by my assertion that Dying Light deserves to be talked about as an RPG. It isn’t even a question.

Back in 2013, I wrote a column called "That's Not an MMO" that attacked games glomming onto the term for easy PR. I don't like muddy labels. A genre tag should mean something specific, not just be a watering hole lazy marketers throwing bait into every possible market. In 2013, and still today, it's easy to tell an “Almost MMO" from the real thing. The same doesn't hold true for RPGs, where the “real thing” only seems to mean “vintage” with how it’s designed.

If we're being reasonable, can we actually say that anyone one thing really makes a game an RPG? If it's character progression, then the latest Call of Duty is in. If it's building up that character through story, then so is The Walking Dead and anything recent by Telltale. Skills, spells, and exploration aren't enough. Turn-based combat isn't, and neither alone is managing a party.

But at the same time, each of those things is RPG. They are hallmarks of the greatest games our genre has to offer. In many ways, they are the structure we’ve defined ourselves by since Dungeons and Dragons. But in 2015, these features are everywhere.

Even though it wasn’t my first, my most memorable early RPG memories were with Final Fantasy 8. It seemed clear then: active time battles, spells and character customization, dungeons, parties and relationships with lots of dialogue and real emotional bonds, huge forty-hour campaigns and of course no competitive multiplayer: that was what an RPG was. To me now, and I think gaming as a whole, it's harder to put a finger on how many of those features it takes for a game to join our genre or be "just another action game."

My outlook has evolved to match the evolution of gaming. We live in an era where games can exist in multiple genres. Dying Light or Shadows of Mordor may certainly be action games but they're also inseparable from their RPG systems. They are, at the very least, RPGs-light but probably better off as "RPGs too." That is gaming today: multi-genre, evolutional, and grasping at all of our heartstrings from the many genres developers know we love. It's a mistake to get hung up on whether they are mostly this or mostly that. It's a waste of time when so many games simple are.

I, and this column, identify RPGs to cover like this: An RPG is a game that focuses on the development of a main character, created or provided, to a substantial degree, and provides the player efficacy in their development. This can be through meaningful decisions, through dialogue or skill trees, or the meaningful choices on the journey through gameplay. It can include action, shooting, climbing, racing, or any outer-genre staple, but at least one main focus must remain on building that character (or multiples) and empowering the player to shape their role on that path.

Under that definition, roleplaying games can come in many forms, and I'm alright with that. What I knew an RPG to be when I was 10 doesn't have to be what I know it as now. And really, who would want it to be? A prison of nostalgia is still a cage of glass, letting you see out but never enjoy the fun for yourself. Who has time for that?

Quick Hits:

This is a clip from GamesHQMedia (from Official Xbox Magazine). I grabbed it because it is just the portion of the presentation with gameplay.

Final Fantasy XV rocked the RPG world this week with a forty-minute gameplay video (embedded above). Think of it like a mixtape featuring such hits as, “Look, There’s a Dinosaur,” “Screw It, The Weapons Disappear,” and “Let’s Kill This Buffalo!” Not to mention, the cult classic, “Return of the Bro-Ride.” In all seriousness, I’m still not sure how Final Fantasy this game will turn out to be, but it sure is looking fantastic.

Also looking great is Hand of Fate, a card-based RPG from Defiant Entertainment. Rob Lashley reviewed it for us and scored it a respectable 8.6/10, calling the game “as entertaining as it is addictive.” The internet agrees with a Metacritic score of 79.

In an odd move, Blizzard struck fear into the hearts of the only recently content Diablo 3 community by announcing its experimentation with microtransactions in the East. CM Nevalistis explained that the company has “no immediate plans” to bring these features West (emphasis mine) and it appears that the items are non-essential (if you consider XP boosts unimportant).

Shroud of the Avatar is looking better all the time. Mr. Garriott treated us to a walkabout of update 14. Check out our write-up of all the latest features and zones coming to the game.

Dying Light maker, Techland, may well set a record with this one. The company has recently announced the availability of a £250,000 collector’s edition. For nearly four hundred thousand American dollars, you get your very own zombie proof house with your four copies of the game (hah!). I wonder if this will be like that radio show that promised an elephant for a prize and was shocked when they had to deliver.

And lastly, Lord of the Fallen is finally receiving its much anticipated Ancient Labyrinth DLC pack on March 3rd. If you haven’t had the opportunity to play this faster-paced, more colorful look at Dark Souls, it’s definitely worth a look.

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.