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What Constitutes an RPG?

Som Pourfarzaneh Posted:
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I like to think of myself as fluent with the most up-to-date discussions about all manner of video games, but I always seem to find myself playing titles from a generation behind the curve.  I know I’m not the only one out there who hasn’t yet played Mass Effect 3, but by golly, it’s on my shelf of 360 games, and I’ll get to it.  I’m still playing The Witcher 2, and as is normal in my household, I’m going to give it a fair shake before Wikipedia-ing the rest of the story and jumping ship to the next installment.

Most recently, I’ve been playing The Last of Us, trying to clear some of the backlog to get to some newer - but still dated - games like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Shadows of Mordor (is anyone else late to the party on these?!).  If you have a PS3 or PS4 and haven’t played Naughty Dog’s action-adventure survival horror masterpiece, you really owe it to yourself to spend the $15 or however much to experience the story and combat.  It’s exciting, brutal, contemplative, and emotionally charged, and a spectacular foray into the field of games as experiential art.

The Last of Us has very light RPG elements, in that your main character(s) have some unlockable skills that you can earn to augment your combat and other abilities, alongside item crafting and weapon upgrades.  The survival nature of the game requires you to pick and choose between your skill and weapon upgrades, and be on the lookout for resources that will allow you to engage in the character progression and crafting systems.  It’s not a full-fledged roleplaying experience in any sense, but it does beg the question: what constitutes an RPG?

Most expressions of the term still take their cue from the earliest pen-and-paper roleplaying games, with Dungeons and Dragons being the most clear trendsetter.  Given the popularity of D&D’s formula over the years, it has become easy to identify an RPG in its starkest form.  Does it have classes and character progression?  Different races and the opportunity to make choices that matter to the story?  Quests and a new world to explore?   If so, it’s probably an RPG of some type.  Further, if it makes space for thousands of players and adds systems like crafting, PvP, and guilds, we’re likely to name it an MMORPG without a second thought.

Yet, the past few generations of video games have blurred the lines of conventional genres, sometimes becoming porous to the point of being indistinguishable from one another.  I don’t think Call of Duty is in any danger of being called an MMO or an RPG, but it does have certain RPG elements in its multiplayer, which itself encourages clans and supports hundreds of thousands of players hanging around in lobbies until matches are made.  It’s not an MMORPG by any stretch of the imagination, but it does take some cues from the previously discrete genre.

By the same token, RPGs like Dragon Age: Inquisition can no longer be identified solely by their roleplaying elements, as they employ combat that is active as it is tactical, and multiplayer modes that bring to mind the strategic teamwork required in first- and third-person shooters.  The majority of modern blockbuster RPGs boast an active combat system, and Inquisition’s multiplayer was built on the example set by Mass Effect 3, itself inspired by FPS/TPS gameplay.

There are undoubtedly hundreds, if not thousands of games that we can indeed pinpoint as being MMOs, RPGs, or both, but there’s also a lot of grey area that adds texture to the phenomenon of overlapping genres.  The Last of Us is not an RPG, but it does have mild roleplaying elements and the kind of storytelling that you’d normally see in one of the games on our site.  Similarly, Dragon Age: Inquisition can be thought of as an action RPG, but it shouldn’t be considered as an action adventure game in the same vein as, say, Batman: Arkham Knight.  Or should it?

Where do you draw the line on what is or is not an MMO, RPG, or both?


Som Pourfarzaneh

Som has been hanging out with the MMORPG.com crew since 2011, and is an Associate Director & Lecturer in Media, Anthropology, and Religious Studies. He’s a former Community Manager for Neverwinter, the free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG from Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment, and is unreasonably good at Maze Craze for the Atari 2600. You can exchange puns and chat (European) football with him on Twitter @sominator.