What is an RPG?

With The Last Story due to hit European shores next week, and Kingdoms of Amalur doing rather well, I thought it would be interesting to spare a few thoughts about JRPGs in general compared to their western equivalents.

It is hardly a secret that the JRPG has become a smaller niche market than it used to be – it wasn’t that long ago that games like Final Fantasy X, Shadow Hearts and Grandia 2 were examples of true quality. But this generation in particular, the genre has shrunk even more than it has done – each generational leap seems to shrink the audience for JRPGs, whereas the WRPG market has grown at a steady pace.

But whilst Final Fantasy is no longer the bankable franchise it used to be, I struggle to accept this is an issue of quality and of storytelling.

For example, I enjoyed games like Tales of Vesperia and Blue Dragon. Once you get past the cartoon stylings, they are rich and deep tales of growing, changing and accepting who you are and of wanting to change the world. When you compare these games against Dragon Age 2 and Dungeons and Dragons: Daggerdale, and even Skyrim in some regards, the JRPG is actually one of the most mature and interesting genres.

And in many respects, the WRPG has been diminishing in quality for years itself. Daggerdale, as I mentioned some weeks ago, was the worst game released last year – it was unforgivably bad. As was Dragon Age 2, where the sexual tension between the male characters was all too noticeable, especially when the actual story isn’t enough to distract from the rather worrying amounts of bromance being implied.

Even when the quality is there, it doesn’t make the game “mature”. The Witcher 2 is a fantastic game and I will defend it to the hills in terms of its story, pacing and technical prowess – but it isn’t “mature”. Not by a long shot. When you place it alongside Xenoblade Chronicles, it’s so angsty and nasty at times.

Perhaps then, rather than arguing over story and maturity, we should ask ourselves if it is the technical distinctions that drive us away? The JRPG has been evolving away from the turn-based models of old, albeit slowly. It is becoming more action-packed. But my argument here is that I’m not sure the likes of Skyrim are necessarily RPGs.

Again, I love Skyrim, but technically it was dog-eared and has required many patches – both official and fan-made – to deliver that quality experience. And whilst it’s a wonderful action adventure, that is what it is to me. Not an RPG. In the same way I can’t quantify The Legend of Zelda as an RPG – it isn’t, it’s an action-adventure, with some RPG mechanics.

And this is the real problem – when we come down to the brass tacks of the market, what is an RPG anyway? What defines an RPG as opposed to an action-adventure? Or a tactical battle game, like Disgaea?

Maybe I am a traditionalist, perhaps growing up with games like Lufia: Rise of the Sinistrals, Final Fantasy VI/III and Grandia has tainted my own opinion of what an RPG is. But I don’t see Bastion as an RPG. I don’t see Skyrim as one. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword absolutely definitely isn’t one. These are all fine games and make no mistake, but they occupy a genre that they don’t really belong to. Not anymore, the early Zelda games were just about RPGs but in recent years they absolutely are not in that genre.

I’ll explain this. Zelda is the adventures of Link, a soul trapped in an endless cycle of saving the world. At no stage in recent years has there been much of an attempt to give Link a deeply personal journey – he’s a blank canvass for the most part, Skyward Sword did attempt to give him an identity but it was still shallow. Bastion is a game where the story drags you along for the ride, but there are no actual RPG elements in it; again, The Kid doesn’t really evolve much as a character. And in Skyrim, your character is again for the most part relatively devoid of character; a vehicle for you to explore and adventure. Heck, even the NPCs brand you an adventurer. That is what the game is. An action adventure.

The reason I break it down like this is because RPG does stand for Role Playing Game. So the role you inhabit needs to be strong, and for many games, the leading roles aren’t – for varying reasons. Equally, for that role to work, there needs to be an overarching story, and multiple other stories. There has to be growth, the character needs to grow, change and become more powerful and knowledgeable as the player progresses and becomes accustomed to it.

Characters like Vaan from FFXII don’t grow in the same way Justin from Grandia did – both start off rather chipper, annoying types but whereas Vaan is laid back and generally resistant, Justin is passionate and driven – someone who wants to explore, to change, to see and do, and is prepared for the heartaches along the way. By the end, Vaan gets his desire – but it is a pretty simple one, and had nothing to do with the overarching story. Justin, on the other hand, is sucked into his role because of his relationship with his co-star Feena; he becomes a very real part of it, and it changes him. It changes who he is. It changes who he becomes.

That is how I perceive an RPG in any case – I am all for real-time action RPGs and turn-based RPGs, as long as the character I am asked to play becomes in some way more than the sum of his or her parts. An RPG, a Role Playing Game, has to be about the role we’re asked to take on. From there, we can argue the quality of the game, but there needs to be a very real and present role to play.

But it is a difficult issue, and one that does make me wonder – what quantifies an RPG? What do others look for in an RPG? What are the best – and worst – examples of an RPG?

To me, it’s no longer about JRPG vs WRPG. It’s about what constitutes an RPG. And on this one, I suspect, we will never agree.

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