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Mark P. Tjan
Are All Games Becoming RPGs?
Editor Mark P. Tjan tackles the question.
09.10.09 - 9:41 PM

Roleplaying games are difficult to define, especially given the march of time. Where we once defined them by having statistics, dialogue, and exploratory themes, most other genres have since inherited these traits. What then remains for RPGs to call their own?

My personal theory is that the term "RPG" can no longer apply to a definable genre in the regular sense of the word. The word now encompasses a multi-faceted idea which has extensions into other genre, borrowing and lending as necessary. Where Mass Effect was loaned statistics and dialogue trees, it also borrowed first-person shooting and action game aesthetics. Where Devil Summoner 2: Raidou vs. King Abbanon was loaned exploration and menu-based interfaces, it borrowed detective work and graphic adventure tropes.

As the industry develops, creators are finding more and more ways to integrate disparate ideas within an RPG. The core tenants of the RPG have always been giving the player control over exploration, guiding them through segments in a lengthy story, and exuding an atmosphere of bookishness.

In short, they have to be character-driven adventures where the players keep track of numbers.

Despite being cut and dry, these are the current fundamentals. Everything else is pretty much up for grabs. The major difference between say, adventure games and RPGs, is numbers. Adventure games are defined by being exploratory, puzzle-oriented, and having the player keeping track of items. Despite the RPG moniker being frequently applied to The Legend of Zelda, the truth is that it firmly falls into the adventure game category.

That doesn't mean RPGs can't be about puzzles. As I mentioned earlier with Mass Effect and Devil Summoner 2, RPGs tend to borrow and lend.

In effect, the RPG is one of the most versatile genres around. It can incorporate elements of a fighting game, a first-person shooter, a puzzle game, and an adventure game. Sports games, rhythm games, racing games-- well, you get the idea. With some careful work, any RPG developer can make these diverse parts come together harmoniously.

If we frame the RPG as a multi-genre -- that is, a referential genre -- I believe we gain a more complete understanding of it in modern terms. It's gone far beyond the days of Dragon Quest II or Phantasy Star IV. In my mind, those games are the proud forebears of the most versatile genre around.

Several questions remain however: Where do we go from here? Will all games eventually become RPGs in some sense? Will RPGs lose identity altogether as time goes on? Or will everything cross-pollinate until genres vanish entirely?



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