What makes an RPG?
By Adam Tatelman, Arts Editor
The roleplaying game is one of the longest-lived genres in all of video game history. From Richard Garriot’s seminal Ultima series to the glitchy, unrefined majesty of the early Elder Scrolls titles, game designers have sought ever more detailed methods by which to mathematically represent the progression of a player character’s skill over time. It’s a novel idea that’s seen a lot of change over the years, and it wasn’t long before every other genre in the world began to adopt RPG mechanics in a bid to give their gameplay a sense of progression.
First it is necessary to define RPG mechanics. Any game that endows the player character with new abilities or equipment over the course of the story does so for the purpose of adding complexity to the gameplay over time, but that does not necessarily an RPG make. Nor should it: after all, video games did not pioneer RPG mechanics. Tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons introduced elements like character creation, classes, attributes, skills, and levelling up long before Rogue players were eaten by their first Grue.
Player-generated characters aren’t strictly necessary for an RPG. Some have static protagonists that the player merely chooses skills for. It is the specialization of skills that makes an RPG. Simply put, if there is a level cap, characters can never acquire enough experience to become an expert in every skill. If there isn’t one, acquiring that much experience would still take an obscenely long time, so specialization is still just as necessary. Being a jack-of-all-trades is typically nowhere near as effective as being a master of a few.
The great thing about RPGs is the number of different playstyles they offer from one playthrough to the next. Playing Dark Souls as a heavily armored knight who can block anything requires a different strategy from playing as a speedy rogue with a high damage-per-second output. The experience can be tailored to the player’s actions without the fundamental mechanics altering in the slightest.
Unfortunately, many genre-bending games implement RPG mechanics in a shallow way that defeats their appeal. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, for instance, allows the player to unlock almost every single ability in a single playthrough thanks to the gratuitous windfall of experience points. As such, every player’s endgame character build will be nearly the same as everyone else’s. The only specialization players need concern themselves with is confined to the beginning of the game, which eliminates most of the replay value.
Then there are games where the presence of RPG mechanics doesn’t even make sense. In the Batman: Arkham Asylum series, Batman can unlock new gadgets and skills as the game progresses, but he must then re-unlock them at the beginning of each next game. This doesn’t make sense for the character, since he should have these skills and weapons from the beginning of the game. After all, he’s Batman.
What these games get wrong is their use of RPG mechanics as if they were just another collectible item—something to be hoarded for the sake of completion instead of a deliberate strategic choice. When the only choice involved is what order to get the upgrades in, then none of them have much impact on the gameplay.
Some of the most beloved games in history are RPGs, but that doesn’t mean that RPG mechanics are an automatic guarantee of success. There’s more than one way to make gameplay progress over time, so it is a matter of choosing which mechanics are best for the game in question, not forcing popular mechanics to fit in places they don’t belong.