I had the pleasure of putting together what became a guest episode on Critical Switch, the audio games criticism series by Austin C. Howe (@AustinCHowe, who also writes at his blog) and Zolani Stewart (@Fengxii, who’s responsible for the Arcade Review).
Under the cut is the full transcript of the episode, and at the end is the track listing of the background music! If you enjoy my episode and aren’t a regular listener of Critical Switch, please consider becoming one and/or supporting Zolani and Austin on Patreon!
My name’s Devon. I go by Invisifool online, and I write at the Silver Grinding. I tend to focus on my genre of preference, that being Japanese Role-Playing Gamess, with some excursions into assorted other genres as individual games catch my attention.
Over the years, my preference for RPGs has lead me to question what exactly delineates the genre. Well, more accurately, the prevalence of “RPG mechanics” being touted in other genres have led me to ask myself where exactly I stop considering a game an RPG, and whether my assessment is a useful one. What makes RPGs different from “Games with RPG mechanics?”
Of course, as with the rather annoying “is it a game” dilemma, immediately defining a complex genre with a vivid and varied history of success and failure was a challenge, and politically troublesome. So I started by thinking about what those RPG mechanics are that other genres get tagged with.
Turns out, most of that can be boiled down to “this game has experience” or “this game shows you numbers!” And that’s fair! RPGs do base a lot of their systems and mechanics around numbers. But… so do most games, just by the nature of programming. If I play Call of Duty, projectiles from each gun have a damage value, invisible to the average player as it is. If I play a Zelda game, I know that a normal attack with the sword does a certain amount of damage, while a jumping attack will do twice that.
Experience systems, too, are things that get touted as RPG mechanics, and for good reason; even before they were brought to video games, they had a place in tabletop RPGs, like Dungeons and Dragons, which was one of a few inspirations for the genre in question. Ultima and Wizardry both derived from D&D, and subsequently inspired Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, which explains some of the inherited oddities.
That being said, the numbers and experience systems don’t strictly make an RPG in my eyes. I had a minor paradigm shift while reading some of Zolani Stewart’s tweets one day, and realized what really set RPGs apart for me.
Sure, a lot of RPGs have visible numbers, and a lot of them have experience systems, but those are systems supporting a less obvious but more pervasive design tenet. Simplicity.
I don’t mean that as a slight against the genre. Far from it, in fact. But it might be better described with the term “abstraction.” To quickly define abstraction:
- the act of considering something as a general quality or characteristic, apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances.
Games utilize abstraction a lot, but none moreso than RPGs. For example:
Even since Dungeons and Dragons, hit points are an abstraction of a character’s physical capability and mental willingness to go on despite injury or trauma. Experience is a simple representation of a character’s personal growth. Magic systems vary, but represent the mental capacity of a character to utilize magic.
Off the top of my head, Final Fantasy IV even uses that to reinforce the weight of Tellah’s actions when he casts a spell, Meteor, that he absolutely lacks the capacity to cast; this simple reduction of an old man’s limits to a number makes it easy to comprehend that using this technique is outside those limits.
Of course, RPGs simplify more than aspects of characters. Space and time usually get quite altered in the design of an RPG’s setting and the systems with which the player interacts with it.
The function of a world map as a separate instance from appropriately-scaled locations is an easy example of how space is affected, and time along with it. Characters don’t literally grow to the size of a town as soon as they leave it. (And while I’m at it, the reduction of an entire party to a single avatar character? Also an abstraction!) However, this isn’t the only thing that a world map simplifies about a world.
RPG worlds rarely even attempt to feel like fully-populated Earth-sized worlds, and when they do, it’s often done by suggesting scope past what the player is allowed to directly see. You might only see a single nation in a setting that suggests dozens, or a few cities and provinces in a kingdom that spans many more.
That’s because Earth is huge, and the population is something that a lot of people can’t process in anything but abstract terms. Large numbers aren’t easily grasped, and there’s a limit to how much creators can represent from their world without taking an excessive amount of time to produce their work. The player can often extrapolate the size of the world subconsciously by comparing how much of their own planet they’ve seen to what the game presents, which can be just as effective as a world-spanning view, if not more so.
Of course, with increased avatar size comes reduced player travel time, and while the difference in time scale is often never concretely defined in video games, a strict ratio is unnecessary.
However, in the more recent console generations, continuing with these abstractions is mostly a design choice. Back when the RPG genre of video games began, it was necessary to have all of these methods of making the world simpler just so the technology could handle it. Nowadays, it’s a choice, often justified by genre precedent, but those are just as often opted out of for concrete and continuous spaces.
Speaking of concrete spaces, let’s talk about the battlefield.
Combat is often the majority of the player’s interaction with the world in an RPG. It takes up what most people would define as gameplay, in any case. Battles have degrees of abstraction of both space and time dependent on design.
Let’s start with an example that is not at all removed from a concrete situation: Xenoblade Chronicles.
In Xenoblade Chronicles, battles move in real time and there is no transition from field to battle (or town to field, for that matter), nor is there any obfuscation about the groups of enemies you will be fighting. All enemies are visible on the field and engaging them is a direct proposition. Battle and field movement are intertwined and interchangeable, as the location isn’t at all different. The combat itself is simple, too, with auto-attacking and a menu for selection of special attacks instead of the inputs an action game might require for the same skills. Skills have a cooldown between uses, making them each individual resources instead of drawing from another separate pool.
How about the 3D Tales of series? Up until Zestiria, enemies represented on the field gave way to fights in nonliteral representations of the environment. Enemy groups are represented by, in Symphonia at least, a generic group-composition-indicative model, or a size-indicative model on the world map. Later games used the actual enemy models on the field and world map, which was a bit more helpful in discerning what you’ll be fighting.
Once battle begins, it’s a real-time fight, originally based loosely on fighting game mechanics, though it’s since evolved quite a bit with every iteration. The special attacks are simplified once again, but it’s a directional input and a button instead of a menu, which helps with the nature of the scuffles presented. Normal attacks are tied to a button and are just as important as special attacks, as they replenish your skill-usage resource, TP, and can link into special attacks.
Final Fantasy is the most well-known RPG series, and its battles have been very nonliterally representative ever since the series’ inception. The iconic party lineup design decision that persisted well into the 21st century, when Final Fantasy XII’s battle system made it untenable, was based on American football lineups. It’s not at all a practical battle formation, but it was easy to set up for the original Final Fantasy, and it persisted as a stylistic choice.
As for the battles themselves, the NES-era games used simple numbers to determine who acted first, and you assigned actions for each turn of unspecifically represented time. Menus let you select your attacks, magic, et cetera. Once Final Fantasy IV’s Active Time Battle system was introduced, however, it remained the primary facet of the combat for the series for two more decades, barring its total absence from Final Fantasy X. This mechanic was based around granting combatants one action per period of real time, the length of which was determined by their Speed statistic. This mechanic was extremely clear, and simplified the matter of turns’ length without intruding on the abstraction of time in general. I’m really fond of it!
Tactics RPGs vary in their design, but often have a D&D-like initiative system where units move in an order determined by their speed stat. They must move across the (often grid-based) battlefield to bring enemy units into their attacks’ range while minding their own vulnerability to assault. Battles are often representative of skirmishes in a full-on war and the individuals responsible for the outcomes of said encounters. Like the wargame origins of the tabletop RPGs they closely emulate, their presentation of battles allows for a slowed and less frantic viewing of war-scale conflict.
Borderlands is an interesting example of RPG mechanics, because it’s also a fully-fledged first-person shooter, with all the baggage that entails. The fun thing about Borderlands, though, is that the design decisions that might make either half of this attempted fusion great instead ram into each other. The shooting interferes with the RPG mechanics while the RPG mechanics limit the effectiveness of the shooting, it’s a real mess.
Alongside simple abstraction is the nature of concession to technology, courtesy, or gameplay. Concession to technology is something along the lines of Final Fantasy’s football lineup that I mentioned before. A more complex vision is there, but the technology to realize it isn’t quite manageable.
The phrases “concession to gameplay/courtesy” are a bit less straightforward, though, so here’s an example of what I mean.
In Tales of Symphonia, there’s a door that leads to the final boss. Beyond that door lies a symbol on the floor that, when you trigger it, prompts a small cutscene basically saying “let’s go fight the bad guy!” and then gives you control again. This also triggers a whole slew of sidequests outside the dungeon, and lets you leave to go do them at your leisure.
This feature of putting the narrative on hold and not really acknowledging downtime between scenes is a concession to courtesy. I’ve seen the seed of a joke used more than a few times in webcomics and Twitter discussions that can be summed up as “Isn’t it funny that I can leave the final boss hanging while I go have a day at the beach?” It’s… not really that funny to me. Haha, this game isn’t forcing me to go along at its pace when I want to go do all of its optional stuff.
As for concessions to gameplay, let’s talk about Nathan Drake. Nathan Drake murders a lot of men in the course of any given Uncharted game. These murders aren’t avoidable. They’re mandatory, but they’re concessions to gameplay. Not having these mandatory firefights where he kills a lot of people would make the games a lot shorter (and a fair bit more interesting, in my opinion) and divergent from industry precedent. God knows we can’t have that.
RPGs have similar concessions in random and other non-mandatory battles, but alongside the desire to counterbalance the narrative segments, they also serve to allow characters to gain experience. While players bear all (or most of) the skill needed to beat shooters, player knowledge can only overcome characters’ statistics-governed potency to a lesser degree. (For some reason, JRPGs get flak for this while it’s an accepted staple of shooters, despite the latter having no use for it outside of padding for time. Hm. I wonder if there’s a cultural bias or something. Nah, that’s a topic for another time.)
So… There you have it. Those are most of my thoughts on what makes a game an RPG. Numbers are not the root of the genre, just a branch of it, to put it simply. And as tech progresses, we find some series choosing to simply increase the scale of what they can represent in abstraction, while others make smaller worlds with more literal representations and direct interactions. For a genre often derided for stagnation and adherence to formula, the modern RPG is often unrecognizable compared to the classics, especially as its genre lines are blurred through the appropriation of the aforementioned numbers.
So, what would I call an RPG? …Hell if I know, really. It’s as abstract a label as the things it’s meant to describe.
Thanks go out to Austin Howe for getting me into thinking about games more critically, and playing editor on this so I didn’t make an ass of myself. Thanks, also, to Zolani Stewart, whose work on Critical Switch has broadened my horizons a bit.
The tracks you’ve heard have been selections from the Log Horizon and Log Horizon 2 Original Soundtracks by Takanashi Yasuhara. If you’d like a transcript of this recording, it will be available, along with a track listing, on my blog, at silvergrinding.wordpress.com.
- Takanashi Yasuhara – Akiba no Machi (Log Horizon OST)
- Takanashi Yasuhara – Tachiagaru Yuuki (Log Horizon OST)
- Takanashi Yasuhara – Shinsekai (Log Horizon OST)
- Takanashi Yasuhara – Ude ni Oboe Ari (Log Horizon OST)
- Takanashi Yasuhara – Souguusen (Log Horizon OST)
- Takanashi Yasuhara – Tsuki no Hamabe (Log Horizon 2 OST)
- Takanashi Yasuhara – Akatsuki no Omoi (Log Horizon 2 OST)