An Apology for RPGs

I’ve been rather grouchy with gaming lately. This new console generation hasn’t produced anything to wow me and I butterfly from one Steam sale to the next, forgetting the vast majority of games in my library. Probably because I grew into a gamer through RPGs, specifically J-RPGs, and the climate for said genre is rather… underwhelming. There has been a lot of talk about RPGs lately, particularly tugs about the definition of RPGs and the possible death of the genre. The existential panic that will begin (if not happening already) to clamor is represented by Greg Zeschuk’s (VP of BioWare) comment regarding trying to figure out what RPGs are currently. This is somewhat alarming as BioWare is oft synonymous with RPGs, but their rhetoric surrounding Mass Effect 3 sounds as if they are distancing themselves from their roots. From what I can tell, it sounds like the company feels it is abandoning a rotting ship and embracing a broader appeal.

After Final Fantasy XIII finally had me throw down my controller (read: set down with furious care [those are expensive!]) fed-up with what game designers felt were good RPGs to be charging so much money for, I knew something was wrong. This shouldn’t be happening twenty years after Final Fantasy IV. I broke off my sixteen-year relationship with Square, having pre-ordered every Final Fantasy on faith that they would be amazing. While the latest Final Fantasy was decent, I felt a company who has weighed in so much to this genre shouldn’t be producing decent games, but epic ones. Games touting their mastery of narrative, like Heavy Rain, shouldn’t think gamers are simple enough to fall for multiple endings that aren’t significantly different from one another. I noticed that the same tricks and conventions appeared repeatedly, with innovation ignored for convention humping. There has to be more to RPGs than this; my favorite genre can’t really be dying… right?

So what is an RPG? Are-pee-Jee? Whichever.

Let me start my adventure with a large caveat: I place little value differences in definitions when it comes to concepts and genres. Definitions, to me, are useful purely for communication and not end-all Truth finding. In the end, where we decide to draw the line is completely arbitrary; you might have a convincing argument, but that doesn’t mean much in the face of Truth. I’m not looking for Truth. I seek new ideas, enlightenment, to uncover a path. Just see this as the “Where have you been?” to the “Where are you going?” Pretend I didn’t make that analogy, it’s completely inappropriate.

It would be too easy to sound off everyone else’s opinion on the matter, only to subvert them with a witticism or two afterwards; however people tend to fall into a typical ‘ludology vs narratology’-like arrangement. This frames RPGs either in their mechanic traditions (character progression, turn-based combat, stats) or as stories (complex plot, role-playing, detailed world), both extremes being problematic. These are more conventions of the genre rather than what makes them a unique way of playing a game. As Zeschuk noted, and the Mass Effect series exemplifies, as genres are appropriating more RPG elements, RPGs become flat as they have little more to offer on their own.

Trying to take a holistic approach, I look back to Dungeons & Dragons and subsequent tabletop adventures to be the progenitor of what we consider RPGs. What makes these games both stylistically and formally distinct are their attempt to create a system where players can interact with a narrative. The rules show how players can determine something qualitative via a quantitative method, with primary focus on building a character through statistics and direct, extemporaneous acting within this game-story world. This is where I find that tingle inside me when I go to play an RPG; it has found a way for me to interact with a narrative. When we look to the start of digital RPGs, we see these conventions carry over: manage stats of a character that interacts with unseen formulas, traverse through dungeons, go on loosely related quests. Digital RPGs made it so the player didn’t need a DM nor had to remember formulas, which is definitely convenient and breakthrough use of technology. However, it didn’t add anymore to what RPGs have been doing; in actuality, these games took away methods of interacting with the narrative. So I’m going to say something a little naughty.

RPGs have been dead this entire time.

Digital ones, at least. Tabletop has continued to grow (more people [including myself] should be interested in it!) and shape how players can interact with narratives; some have pitched the idea of a DM, stats, or too many equations over all, which digital RPGs rely on. RPGs on computers haven’t done anything tabletop ones didn’t already cover, which is a huge problem. I take that back, digital RPGs have supplied us with rich visual and sonic worlds. I don’t take back the ‘huge problem’ part though. These qualities are bittersweet for RPGs, as the demand for a better audio/visual experience conflicts with the method digital RPGs enact a narrative. These games have yet to solve the issues of borrowing heavily from novels and movies while addressing the particular needs of narrative in an interactive medium. Computers may have made RPGs more convenient, but they haven’t used their unique qualities to create an experience tabletop cannot. This isn’t to say tabletop is inherently a better medium, or that I want computers to faze them out, but rather to have a genre that does more than substitute a role-playing group. There are a couple of evolutions that make it seem like current digital RPGs do allow you to interact with the narrative; choices in decisions and who your character is. These are but a fraction of the places interactivity and narratives intersect, and are rather topical. Choices often feel insignificant or unharmonious with the story, and characters can either be blank avatars or poorly planned and in need of a restart.

So, what’s the solution? Find out what computers can do players cannot, and work them in as mainstays to the genre. Instead of using their computational power for convenience, use it for the impossible. Create webs of cause and effect a DM wouldn’t be able to keep track of and associate all player actions with something other than statistics. Manifest audio/visual perceptions words are unable to create, and link them to the player’s progression. There is so much more, and this article isn’t about listing them off. Rather, it is a call to start thinking and implementing.

What is and isn’t an RPG is beside the point, it’s how a game appropriates the cultural understanding of what an RPG is. Video games have been using character progression through stats and experience points, a strong sense of story, and tactical strategy to draw what they can from the genre, but the heart isn’t there. What we really have are action games, interactive fiction, and shooters that use the tropes developed from tabletop RPGs. There is very little role-playing to be had; rather, you are given an extremely limited amount of ‘roles’ to ‘choose’ from.

So let’s do something, anything. Experiment and idea-dump. Take a favorite from the genre and make it so it does what RPGs are great at: letting players be a part of narrative impossible in their own realty. Create a world that tells a player “You matter, and I can’t exist without you.” Level 5’s Georama, not enough. BioWare’s dialogue trees and wheels, not enough. Square’s Active Time Battle, not enough. Bethesda’s character creation, not enough. No more multiple endings in a weak attempt to add on reply value. No more illusion of choice.

And no more freakin’ Tolkien and Star Trek!

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