Game genres are a strange and many-splendored thing, a grab-bag of features and perspectives and settings which came together through common usage and convention. The games came first, then the words to describe those games, then the genre classifications built with those words, then the games built to the specifications described by the genres. The same is true of the genres of other media, but to a lesser extent since they don’t integrate as many disparate elements. Movie genres are based on setting (western), narrative tone (comedy), or content (horror), while game genres encompass all of those and add gameplay (strategy) and perspective (first-person) as well.
Ideally, were accuracy of description our primary goal, we would describe each of these elements (perspective, setting, tone, content, and gameplay) individually, since that would give people a much better idea of the nature of the game. For instance, Silent Hill might be a third-person modern-day surrealist horror beat-’em-up (strange to think of it as a beat-’em-up, but stripped of all the narrative elements that’s the closest analogue I can think of). However, the most common combinations of these have been grouped together into genres with label names– first-person shooter, survival horror, etc– which sometimes describe the narrative content and sometimes don’t. It’s all very slapdash, and any competent designer could easily devise a better system for labeling games, but the whole thing has been grandfathered in at this point so: Whatever.
Of course, many games contain more than one perspective, more than one setting, tone, content, and even gameplay. Many games seem to take great joy in fusing together disparate experiences, such as the sometimes wildly differing settings of an adventure like Chrono Trigger or the constantly fluctuating gameplay experiences of a game like Battletoads. Accounting for all of these through some sort of hugely-hyphenated-frankenstein-genre-abomination could quickly get out of hand, so we usually just resort to the simple expedient of prefixing ‘genre-busting’ to whatever genre-node seems most prominent.
Anyway. I didn’t start this essay to bitch out the institution of genre classification, as much as it deserves bitching, I just started out exploring that issue since it’s related to what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is that particular genre where these distinctions are at their strangest and most arbitrary: The role-playing game.
RPGs are one of the most enduringly popular genres, not least because the label RPG seems to have described everything from strategy games to action games with little apparent logic connecting them. The closest thing to a common thread between them, at this point, is that games called RPGs tend to have one or more characters who are described by a set of statistics and/or skills which increase, over time, as the character gains ‘experience’ (this seems, to me, an unusually literal interpretation of the term ‘character development’). Really, though, plenty of games have been called RPGs where these elements are minimal or even non-existent, so what is an RPG?
Well, this is obviously another one of those interminable nerd debates which boil down to definitions; what an RPG is really depends on the terms you want to use. I’d like to restrict the discussion to games where you actually do role-playing of some sort, but I do think I should take a moment to address some of the gameplay facets which we traditionally associate with the RPG ‘genre’.
First, stats and stat growth: Absent the historical associations with the RPG label, this seems to be a strategic gameplay element. Games with elements of stat growth but no well-defined individual characters to ‘role-play’ are strategy games (see: X-Com). Dialogue trees are I think best regarded as a sub-genre of gameplay unto themselves, since they’re a game element which provides a distinct experience and can be integrated into nearly any kind of game; I’d regard dialogue trees as dialogue-exploration sub-games. Other than these gameplay tropes, the term RPG mostly seems to imply a focus on storytelling; though, fortunately, in recent years the domain of strongly focused storytelling in games has spread into other genres, so ‘RPG’ and ‘story’ are less synonymous than they once were.
So, if we set aside these game design facets traditionally associated with the genre, what’s left?
And, in reality, ‘role-playing’ doesn’t describe the game: It describes the player. Certain players choose to get into the head of the character presented on screen, to try to figure out (or invent) what motivates that character, and to try to shape that character’s behavior, as best as they’re able to within the context of the game, to match what they perceive of his or her personality.
Now, one can certainly take measures to enable that to a greater or lesser degree by the game design, and unsurprisingly we see that the game systems which are historically associated with the genre do encourage role-playing to some extent. Stat systems are often tied to role-playing because, by taking control of those systems, the player can begin to invest himself into the character he’s playing, sometimes before he even takes control of that character, by imagining how the character would handle certain situations. The statistics imply a personality, and the player fills in the gaps. Dialogue trees allow him to express the personality he invests the character with– with questionable fidelity, perhaps, but able to give the character some degree of agency within the story-driven world which would otherwise undermine the personality he is projecting onto the character. Which, then, raises the question of why story is such a focus of the genre…
The story is what makes all of those decisions matter. If your character exists in a blatantly ‘gamey’ space, it makes no difference how wonderful and complicated and conflicted the personality that the player bestowed on or inferred into that character was; that character’s personality in that space matters as little as the player’s personality matters in the game. It might inform actions, but since those actions have repercussions limited to that particular encounter those choices are never acknowledged or validated.
However, and this is the great contradiction of the genre, the more architected the story is that is intended to lend significance to that character’s actions, the less room there is in that story for the player’s choices (on behalf of the character) to make an impact. This is something of a Catch-22, and while there are a lot of okay solutions I don’t believe I’ve ever seen an outstanding one. I’d like to believe one is possible, but the only way to find out is to keep exploring.
Do we emphasize the character’s accomplishments at the cost of undermining the character’s choices? Or vice versa? The question is not how to make the story and characters relevant to the player.
The question is: How do you allow the player to make the story and the characters relevant to themselves?