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That's Not an RPG! 2016 Edition

Christopher Coke Posted:
Columns The RPG Files 0

It’s a new year and that means it’s time to return again to a question I first posed last year: What exactly makes an RPG? As different genres appropriate more staples of the roleplaying genre, the waters continue to get muddier and muddier. Is Fallout 4 an RPG, for example? How about Destiny? Let’s break down exactly what makes an RPG in 2016.

When I first posed this question back in February of last year, my answer was not met kindly. Thinking as both a writer and gamer, my definition was too wide, and you, the reader, rightly called me out on it. This is the crux, right here:

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 [...] through meaningful decisions, through dialogue or skill trees, or the meaningful choices on the journey through gameplay.

I go on to describe how RPGs can take many different forms, even taking shape as racing games like The Crew. It’s time we constrained terms a little bit.

Where I missed the mark is that, as gamers, we already know what an RPG is. Most of us cut our teeth on Active Time Battles and party building, so when I throw out a game like Shadows of Mordor, something inside revolts. My definition holds true, but also captures all of the appropriation action games and shooters have taken of our most beloved mechanics. And frankly, character progression doesn’t make something an RPG.

What does is a focus on roleplay. You need to be able to make choices as that character that change your gameplay path. That doesn’t always mean dialogue, but if they aren’t there too, you’re probably missing the mark anyhow. What real RPGs require are choices to make your character your very own. My Tidus in Final Fantasy 10 played through the same story as yours, but he is my own because of how I built him up through gameplay choices and that incredible Sphere Grid.

Which is why when people criticize a game like Fallout 4 because “it’s a shooter, not an RPG,” I know that person is a purist. Fallout 4 is an RPG that is also a shooter. You do not have nearly as much choice as in the past games, true, but you’re still making game defining choices about your character and the world whether you lift a gun or not.

But I can also see why people would take issue with how watered down the term RPG has become. Writers, myself included, have scrambled to put a label on games that cross genre-lines. Some readers resent that we’re somehow missing when a game is “not an RPG!” When I wrote about Dying Light or Dungeon of the Endless, I knew they were not “core” RPGs, of course, but also that they would be interesting to an RPG audience. I admit to feeling the need to justify these games as topics, which was my failing as a fledgling games writer. That these games were interesting is the only justification that matters.

The reality I’ve come to accept is this: we live in an era of hybrids and RPG lites. Games are now filled with experience points, inventories, unlockable skills, and progression systems, simply to set their hook. This commoditization of RPG mechanics may seem bad from a purist’s perspective, but I disagree. When games from other genres make these systems their own, the entire game is elevated. Why would I ever want to abandon the perpetual carrot-on-a-stick I so love in normal RPGs? When these systems aren’t forced, I like the game more because of it.

Going forward, you won’t see me considering games like The Crew “RPGs.” Instead, they’ll be Hybrids or Pseudo-RPGs. You also won’t see me writing about just any game with experience points. That said, the RPG Files exists for you, the RPG gamer. If a game comes along that blurs the lines, so be it. If it’s worth your time, that’s all the justification we need to write about it. You’ll also see me using terms like CRPG to describe the classic, isometric RPGs that are so in vogue right now. Action RPGs (ARPGs) will describe the Diablo’s and Path of Exiles of the world. Others will arise as the year moves forward.

These sub-categorizes are necessary in an age where Fallout can be thrown out with the “RPG” bathwater. We want to be clear and not confuse what we all know an RPG to be. That won’t change soon. What will is how much we can consider to be an RPG and how many players are interested in the systems we’ve loved for so long.

And you know what? That’s good for everybody.

Quick Hits

Mass Effect: Andromeda will need a new director as Chris Wynn has left to move back to the United States. There’s no word yet on whether the move is his reason for departing Bioware or simply the result, but the studio assures fans that development is moving forward “full speed ahead.”

Ark: Survival Evolved is a bonafide hit on the Xbox One, selling more than 1 million copies in its first week. Meanwhile, I’m still holding back off the PC version until it considers my computer more than a toaster. Seriously, how does it even run on an Xbox?

A man has beat Fallout 4 without killing a single enemy. I didn’t think it was possible and in fact isn’t. Instead, what these clever player did was trick enemies into killing themselves or each other and used other clever tricks to avoid bloodying his hands. Read Patricia Hernandez’s full report at the link above.

Fallout 4 has already ruined a life, one Russian lawsuit would have you believe. Suing Bethesda for 500k rubles ($7,000 USD), the unnamed plaintiff planned to play the game “a couple of evenings” and “the next three weeks flew by.” They flew by! Internet and gaming addiction is a real thing, but it doesn’t pop up overnight. And if his wife left him after three weeks, I’m betting there were bigger issues there. And is anyone else suspicious at the low, possibly cheaper to settle out of court ask? Mmhmm.

Finally, a triple-shot. First, if you’re on Mac, Linux, or Steam OS, go pick up Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition, which is now available for purchase. Second, if you’ve been holding off, Grim Dawn is now content complete and ready to leave Early Access in February. And last, take HiveLeader’s word for it, Bloodbourne: The Old Hunters is so worth it.


Christopher Coke

Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight