July 31, 2021

How To Define The RPG… Sort Of.


There’s been a sort of debate happening about what defines an RPG.

Look, I’m the first to admit that defining what is an RPG is akin to trying to find the existence of Dark Matter – sure, you know it’s supposed to be there because it makes sense and all but after years of looking and the assistance and expense of a multi-billion dollar Hadron Collider, it’s still an utterly intangible thing. From table-top and pen and paper to text-based, 16-bit and modern full-scale action RPG fare, the RPG ‘brand’ as it were is broader and more diverse than the average American riot. I jest.

Rather than define the RPG in root terms, however, I prefer to define the RPG not by what it is, but by what they’ve done. And what we’ve seen throughout the years and throughout dozens of highly inventive and often revolutionary games is a market which has effectively strip-mined every core facet of the RPG as a genre and co-opted it into the very raw being of the video game market.

In short, today, everything is an RPG.

This isn’t me being hyperbolic; this is me pointing out the obvious. The RPG, rather like Nintendo, often gets a lot of negative press but the truth underlying everything is that without their presence, you wouldn’t have a fraction of the things you now take for granted in the gaming market. You like your deep character creation systems? Say thanks to the RPG market. You like tinkering with a characters vital statistics? Congratulations, the RPG brought this to you. Like getting ‘experience’ for doing stuff? Yay RPGs! Earning coins? Those pesky RPG’s brought you that. From camera systems to even how many games play with lock-ons and such, from the early days of the sprawling text-based RPG to the early days of 3D gaming where Daggerfall and Zelda: The Ocarina of Time laid down their concepts, the RPG has become for me indistinguishable from the video game market as a whole, assimilated The Thing-style into its very DNA. It’s why a game like Final Fantasy XV, which frankly is as far from a traditional Final Fantasy (or RPG) you can get, still ultimately feels like an RPG.

It’s why games like Major League Baseball now also feel like an RPG. It’s why Skyrim can get away with being called an RPG. It’s the basis on which games like FIFA and even Call of Duty have built themselves. Wherever you go and whatever you look at today in the video game market, chances are high that whatever genre you’re looking at – Sports Sim, Racing Game, Fighting Game, First Person Shooter, Horror game, My Little Pony games – you’re going to find a game that has at the very least one distinctive RPG ‘element’; the RPG has revolutionised how games are made, and how we play them, whatever we’re playing. It’s impossible to understate that.

Of course, the problem is that now everything is an RPG… there are lots of games out there that no longer really function under the specific branding of “RPG”. Games like Xenoblade Chronicles X are RPGs through and through, but Fallout 4 and Skyrim through to even recent Zelda games and yes, Final Fantasy, they’ve modernised to take advantage of other avenues of the games industry. And that’s alright, of course, because no-one should lament some cross-pollination from time to time. But it also slowly takes them away from their roots, rather than being proud of being part of a genre that has complete dominance and arguably total control of every other genre out there – they’re moving away, and forgetting who and what they were. As more games move away from the core tenants of RPG, fewer games seek to break their constraints, happy to just be part of a broader crowd than to break down the walls.

But is this really a surprise? Are we shocked that Final Fantasy XV isn’t much of an actual RPG, really? When so many games out there have taken and assimilated so much of the genre into their baseline model, the RPG has been itself lost and adrift. With everyone robbing it of the mechanisms and facets that contextualised its whole business model, the horrible truth is there hasn’t been much left of the RPG to reinvent. Everyone else, every other genre, has grafted bits of this beast onto their bodies and are now super-powered whilst the core RPG model struggles to survive having lost so much of its identity. Now we define them into WRPG and JRPG – Western and Japanese RPG respectively – and even having split the hair in twain down the middle, even those definitions are becoming impossible to grasp onto since they themselves have lost so much of their substance to the wider market, eager to loot and pillage these genres for their own ends.

It speaks volumes to the success of the RPG as a format that every genre out there, even the bloody Walking Simulator, has launched their own crusades and brought back to their shores elements of the RPG lifestyle. It tells us that this genre is important; so important that today it’s impossible to pick up a game that hasn’t knocked-off something from the world of the RPG. But we’ve got to be careful and I think in a lot of ways, we need more games like Xenoblade Chronicles X. Games which are impossibly RPG. So impossibly RPG that, sadly, they also fail to set the market on fire in terms of sales figures.

It’s why over the years, so many RPG brands have disappeared. Lufia, Shadow Hearts, Grandia and more have slipped away quietly into the good night, because they just didn’t sell enough to justify their continued existence – and why yes, I do blame Square-Enix’s piece of abject mediocrity for that. When an RPG sticks to being an RPG, if it doesn’t contain the words “Final” or “Fantasy”, it tends to just sink. The Witcher got away with this by incorporating other elements – I’m the first to admit it’s not altogether a true RPG any more either – and therein often lies the problem. In terms of marketability, the core RPG has always been toxic in its neat form. Nerdy, time-consuming, too much hassle – the market just seems to reject them. Water the RPG systems down in other genres, however, and they add spice. I suppose its like pure cacao in that regard – it’s highly bitter and toxic in its neat form, but blend it down a little and everyone wolfs it down.

My point is – today, it’s impossible to define what is and isn’t an RPG. You exist in an era where every game, from Call of Doody right down to those Singing games, has co-opted something from the genre. It’s everywhere. You cannot escape it. The RPG has become part of the very essence of the video game industry, it’s in the air you breathe and the code underlying every game you play. It’s an inescapable force and presence.

That said, let’s not stop trying to define what an RPG – a core RPG – actually is. The simple truth is there are a dozen correct answers to this question and they all have equal weight and validity, but it’s still important we argue the toss over it. We often overlook just how important the genre has been; if we lose the passion in trying to define it, then for me that is the actual end of the genre. We still know the RPG exists. If we stop trying to define the RPG… then it just becomes absorbed into the fabric of the industry, another component to overuse, a relic of which was torn asunder and whom was feasted on for the industry to pretend it was reinventing itself, whilst only really parading around wearing something else’s face. I do not apologise for these mental images.

The RPG genre does need a reinvention. And I think that it is possible we’ll see that happen in the next few years too. Pokémon Sun and Moon did a damned fine job of modernisation, and Xenoblade Chronicles X was packed with stuff. The genre is trying, and I have every faith that it will achieve this.

… just as I have every expectation that when that happens, the industry will rip it to shreds wholesale in the frenzied rush to grab those new ideas.

Ahh, the games industry. And people say violence isn’t at its core…



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