The term “RPG” or Role-Playing Game is thrown around too loosely in the gaming industry, to the point where the term has become highly misused and misleading. This article will serve as clarification. There are a number of games that share gameplay mechanics with many video game RPGs, yet they are not RPGs because these gameplay mechanics alone have nothing to do with role-playing.
To avoid confusion, one must actually understand what “role-playing” means and where it comes from (despite the term being self-explanatory). It comes from pen and paper RPGs back in the 1970s, pioneered by Dungeons & Dragons. Role-playing exists in the same form in all pen and paper RPGs, and all of the earlier video game RPGs up until the start of the 21st century when the first well known “Pseudo RPG” was released. That game, the one that really pioneered the “Pseudo RPG” type game, was Deus Ex, created by Ion Storm and published by Eidos in 2000. That’s right, Deus Ex is not a true, full fledged RPG since it falls short of meeting the definition created and maintained by pen and paper RPGs (which video game RPGs come from directly). It has gameplay mechanics that many RPGs also happen to have, but none of that contributes to role-playing on its own.
Note that Pseudo RPG is not a derogatory term. What Eidos did with Deus Ex in 2000 and Anachronox in 2001 is an incredible artistic feat; they borrowed mechanics popularized by video game RPGs, tailored them to their own visions, and created two masterpieces back to back as a result. Masterpieces that are not lesser games, not lesser works of art, than any video game RPG. Yet neither Deus Ex nor Anachronox are RPGs because they do not have role-playing. This is not a downside or a flaw. RPG is just one genre, a small part of the art form that is gaming. It is not the art form. Which brings us to the mostly self-explanatory definition of role-playing, as defined by pen and paper RPGs and the first few waves of video game RPGs.
Anachronox, like Deus Ex and every other game we call a “Pseudo RPG” in this article, force you to play as a set character. The protagonist’s personality is predefined and you cannot change it. This is the exact opposite of how RPGs are designed. See any pen and paper RPG such as Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, Vampire: The Masquerade, and Cyberpunk 2020, as well as any true video game RPG such as those listed here, especially tier 3 and above. On the other hand, this is not a flaw or even a downside; these games simply go for something else. Anachronox in particular, pictured above, features one of the funniest protagonists of any game and he makes the game a better experience.
Role-playing is the ability to create or assume, and tailor a role within a world or story. To do so, in some way, shape, or form the player must be able to control and define his/her character’s innate physical and mental/personality attributes, as well as alignment. This does not necessitate creating a player character from scratch, nor does it mandate a clearly defined alignment system mechanic, but it does mandate the ability to change who the player character is. Through dialogue and actions, the player will further define these things about the player character while advancing through the world or story, gaining experience along the way. The goal is to allow the player to define who their player character is, and journey through a world that reacts to your unique player character and your actions in various ways.
The simplest, most important concept in that definition is the ability to change who the player character is, which is done by defining their innate physical, mental, and personality attributes. If a game does not have this, as Deus Ex and Anachronox do not (you can modify JC Denton’s physical attributes via augmentations and choose his skills, but you cannot change his personality), then they do not meet the requirements for role-playing as defined by pen and paper RPGs (the original RPGs), thus they are not RPGs. And when discussing gameplay mechanics, if the mechanic in question has no relation to role-playing as per that definition (which is the common denominator for all pen and paper RPGs) then that mechanic has no inherent relation to the concept of role-playing, e.g. dialogue windows, combat ability trees, and class based gameplay. Don’t just take our word for it, ask yourself how gameplay mechanics like these are inherently tied into the concept of role-playing.
But Deus Ex and Anachronox are not the only Pseudo RPGs, and we have yet to explain the mechanics they feature that resemble mechanics in actual RPGs.
The most comprehensive Pseudo RPGs, the ones closest to actual RPGs, will go as far as having an actual skill system—not a mere combat ability tree which has nothing to do with role-playing like The Witcher games, Borderlands series, Dark Messiah: Of Might and Magic, Dishonored series, Shadow Warrior series, PAYDAY 2, etc, but an actual skill system; the ability to potentially become good at certain tasks. Deus Ex is one of the most thorough, comprehensive Pseudo RPGs and one of few with a skill system. The skills are pictured below.
All of the weapons related skills as well as “Athletics” and “Environmental Training” are indeed just combat related things that lead to passive stat improvements, but then we have lockpicking, electronics, medicine, computer which you can improve. Skills not only pertaining to combat.
Some Pseudo RPGs might even have ability scores representing physical and/or mental attributes. Anachronix, a forgotten gem from the same creators of Deus Ex, is one of such games.
And here are combat related stats.
But in Anachronox, you have no direct control over any of that which is unlike an RPG (a true Western RPG at least, JRPGs are usually like this). The game decides who your character is, not you.
Controlling a party of characters rather than just one character, like in Anachronox, also does not automatically make a game an RPG. Alone, this mechanic has nothing to do with role-playing as defined by pen and paper RPGs. XCOM also puts you in control of a party, but it is no RPG since you aren’t carving out your own unique player character.
The fact of the matter is, the following games do not let you define who the protagonist is. You do not have the ability to alter their personality, their mental abilities, or their innate physical attributes (physique, BMI, etc), thus everyone plays as the same character which is the complete opposite of an RPG by definition.
- System Shock 2
- Deus Ex
- Deus Ex: Invisible War
- Deus Ex: Human Revolution
- Deus Ex: The Fall
- Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
- Dark Messiah: Of Might and Magic
- S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl
- S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky
- S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat
- The Witcher
- The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
- The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
These are the games that can reasonably be mistaken for RPGs at first glance. The real “Pseudo RPGs.” There are probably others as well, and we are aware that many JRPGs do not fit the definition provided above, but that’s because that definition is from “Western RPGs” (wRPGs) which predate JRPGs but are a completely different genre.
We’re not even going to get into games which cannot be reasonably mistaken for an RPG at first glance yet are often referred to as RPGs by dolts, like BioShock (just because it has “Shock” in the name and is a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 doesn’t mean it’s identical) and Borderlands series. It’s funny how Dishonored 2 comes closer to being an RPG than may of the games listed above, but is rightfully never called one. People have strange concepts in their mind that are merely the result of patterns in the industry; for example, they’ve never seen an RPG with primarily stealth gameplay like Dishonored, even though by all definitions such a game is possible. If Dishonored and Dishonored 2 had flexible dialogue choices to the point where you can define your character’s personality in different ways, that’d be enough to make them arguably RPGs even though you wouldn’t have the control over innate physical attributes.
And remember, just because a game isn’t an RPG and might be something we call a “Pseudo RPG” does not make it a lesser game. Deus Ex is one of the best games ever made, while Torment: Tides of Numenera is an RPG that is pure mediocrity as a game in general, and I have played much worse RPGs like Tyranny and Dragon Age 2 which are two outright atrocious games.
Now we will shoot down the inevitable, repetitive retorts that we have just generated.
“The Witcher 3 is an RPG because you role-play as Geralt.” – By this logic, every video game with a single, directly controlled player character (that is a human/humanoid at least) is an RPG. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is an RPG because you “role-play” as Soap McTavish. Super Mario Bros is an RPG because you role-play as Mario. We’ve even seen people empty minded enough accept this, but it’s wrong. Every game is not labeled an RPG as a matter of fact, and if that were the case then genre classification would be useless which would invalidate gaming as an art form. And it’s completely illogical. Arguing in favor of all video games being called RPGs simply shows deficient mental capacity on behalf of the person arguing for it.
No, the terms “RPG” and “Role-playing” come from the actual product market called Role-Playing Games. Pen and paper RPGs, folks, the creators of the entire genre. The definition of role-playing, listed above, comes from them.
“But there are RPGs with premade characters.” – Partially premade yes, but you still get to control and define who the player character is, even if his/her gender, facial appearance, and even name are predefined (e.g. The Nameless One from Planescape: Torment). As the definition provided earlier in this article specifically points out, RPGs do not mandate scratch made player character creation because there are in fact RPGs without it. What is required however is meeting that definition, since every pen and paper wRPG does and uses a definition just like that one as their guidelines to say the least. If it doesn’t meet that definition, it’s not an RPG, plain and simple.
“JRPGs don’t tend to fit your definition.” – Not our definition but the original definition, the pen and paper definition. As for JRPGs, we covered this already. Ever since the beginning, JRPG has for some reason been exempt from all of this. It has been a completely different genre since day one.
JRPGs and other Pseudo RPGs are labeled “RPG” by retailers and the game studios themselves. Technically they are free to label the games whatever they want due to a lack of a regulating body in the gaming industry (aside from ESRB which has nothing to do with this). Because of this lack of regulation, the rules have been bent. The only thing we can do about it is to spread the truth as we’ve done here. Sure, video game RPGs and pen and paper RPGs are not one and the same, but the role-playing aspect should continue to be as it once was, for the sake of superior genre classification.
“Every video game (with directly controlled individual characters) is an RPG because you role-play as the protagonist.” – We have actually seen this claim, no kidding. Never before has there been such blatant misuse of the terms “RPG” and “role-playing” and this is the prime example of someone creating their own definition and ignoring the actual one. The term “role-playing” comes from Role-Playing Games (RPGs) which began with Dungeons & Dragons in 1974, which lives on to this day. RPGs are an established product and they defined role-playing, and this definition is posted on above. Thus, role-playing is a hell of a lot more than just controlling a character in a video game. This claim is also counter-intuitive to genre classification, something necessary for every art form such as gaming, so it is ridiculous on multiple levels not to mention objectively incorrect.
We hope this article serves as a lesson and a reminder. Let us know what you think in the comments.
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