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Published February 1, 2010

If you listened to our show last week, then you know that our “What is an RPG?” discussion somehow became pretty heated. Kaz, frustrated over a recent installment of Active Time Babble, suggested that perhaps it’s time to redefine our game classifications. In this installment of Forced Feedback, he and Justin debate whether or not we need new terminology to define our favorite experiences. What exactly does this moldy acronym mean anymore? Read on and see if you can figure it out.

Kaz: I’m bringing this back up from the show for a couple reasons. I was irritated listening to games journalists, a group that frequently complains that there isn’t an audience for serious game discussions, sidestep and give up on an important discussion. To say that we can use vague, ill-defined words and “get what we mean” from them is copping out.

All too often, gamers fall into the trap of not wanting to engage in difficult discussions because “games are for fun and what fun can be had of serious discussion.” I don’t think that discussing how to define a game precludes having fun with it. I like to think about how to better define genre-bending games like Bioshock. Trying to define the experience lets us develop a means to express the value of a game beyond the obvious “because it’s fun.”

That’s why I don’t want to avoid a simple question like “what is and RPG?” It’s a more complex answer than the question’s brevity would lead you to believe. And my thought process wasn’t well developed on the podcast but I’d like to discuss the question further here.

Justin: Well, to be fair, I’m not really sure they were “giving up on an important discussion” so much as they were leaving it open for future podcasts. Like you said, reclassifying games is a tall order, and I don’t think it’s something that can (or should) be accomplished within a two-hour chunk.

That said, when I think about what makes an RPG, my answer now would be considerably different from what it would have been 10 years ago. Whereas I originally associated it with leveling up, status ailments and upgradable abilities, those elements have gradually been adopted by action, adventure and even first-person shooter games. And while I’d say that the sweeping stories and multiple quests have come to differentiate RPGs in recent years, a game like Mass Effect 2 calls even that into question. Sure, it’s being billed as an RPG, but the shooting segments feel right out Gears of War of to me.

I’ve been seriously pondering this question since episode 122, and I keep coming back to my “drama section at Blockbuster” analogy. Movie critics don’t really get hung up in arguing whether or not a film is a drama or not, because it’s generally assumed that they all are dramatic to some extent. You do have genre flicks (horror, sci-fi) that I think serve as the movie equivalent of sports or racing, but the bulk of releases out there are aimed at a broader audience. I guess my question to you then, Kaz, is why does taxonomy matter here? How do we benefit from this classification?

Kaz: The benefit is twofold: practical and philosophical. I’ll admit that in the grand scheme of things this difficulty in taxonomy and nomenclature is meaningless. But then again we spend a lot of time talking about video games. I’d like to think that they merit the amount of time I put into discussing them every single week.

The practical benefit, the more important of the two for me, is not for the podcasters, journalists and bloggers of the video games industry, but rather for their audience, people who listen to games journalists for consumer advice. Someone listening to our podcast is going to hear us call something an RPG or claim something is very “RPG-like,” but if those terms have lost all meaning, then the listener does not gain any insight into the game.

Example: my girlfriend dislikes RPGs but fell in love with Fable II, a game that blurs the line between genres. If she hadn’t seen the game or played it for herself, she wouldn’t have had that great experience. I think listeners benefit the most from really putting thought into the language we use to describe games.

I’ll have to admit that the philosophical benefit is weak, but I’d hazard that a game designer worth his or her salt spends some time defining the desired experience for the player. However,  the designers of Mass Effect 2 didn’t define genres and tailor the game to fit them. Determining the classification is our job, and I (and others) are dissatisfied with the current genre definitions; that’s reason enough for me to want to talk about it.

Justin: Well, to answer your first point, I don’t see how not having rigid genre definitions would somehow take away from the “merits” of the medium. Again, I feel like getting hung up on these minor details seems pointless when you can talk about so many other elements of game design, world building and story telling.

But even on a practical level, I think that boiling down game types to their methods of input – as you suggested on a recent podcast – would in fact do many games a disservice. In the case of Fable II, there are so many different facets to the game that I think calling it an action adventure or a real-time RPG or whatever else doesn’t truly do it justice. I think when it comes down to it, sometimes a more detailed (but still succinct) approach is the way to go.

And as always, my analogies come back to other media. When your girlfriend visits Barnes & Noble’s “new paperback” section, how does she figure out what she wants to read? And when you take her to the theater, do the trailers explicitly explain which ones are for action flicks and which ones are for rom-coms? No, because marketing folks know how to communicate what they’re trying to sell, and if this problem falls on anyone’s shoulders, it would land solely on the game publishers themselves. We can take the time to identify these genres if we want, but I’m not sure I want this to be “our job.”

Kaz: We keep coming back to comparisons to movies, books and music, and I have to refute those comparisons with the same argument we use on a monthly basis. Games are different – you interact with games, and that interaction is different than merely watching a movie. It’s more akin to music genre preference if anything. I think for most people a good movie is a good movie, but good music is less universal.

I realize now that while I wanted to have the discussion “how to define games if the genre designations we have today didn’t exist,” but it instead came out as “let’s argue the semantics of the genres!” And that’s totally my fault, as I haven’t been able to put my finger on the discussion I wanted to have. Even so, we’ve gone down this path so I’ll see it through.

I know this is scatterbrained, but I just realized that when I play Dungeons & Dragons (4th edition), we discretely break up the game into two chunks, the “RP” and the fighting. And this distinction is not limited to our group alone. We’ve parsed out the talking to NPCs and shopping, and advancing our characters from the battles. Mind you, the combat and the conversations are driven by the same exact mechanic: say some stuff about what your character is doing and roll some dice to see if you succeed.

Table top gamers can break down the game into finer parts to more accurately describe what they want to do. Yet, I can’t convince video gamers that it might be worthwhile for them to do the same? The medium is far more akin to D&D than it is to cinema.

Justin: Well, while I disagree on a few of your points – objective quality of cinema? really? – but I will at least concede that the term “role-playing game” is a bit outdated; I’ll play ball here. When D&D was still fairly underground and video games were in their infancy, it made sense to differentiate the story-based number crunchers from more arcadey fare. But as more of these elements have been adopted into other genres, the term “RPG” has become pretty vague. Rather than falling back on “JRPG,” maybe we should use “menu-based” or “turn-based” as the new genre. Not sure where something like Final Fantasy XII falls in this setup, but again, I think it’s silly arguing over these quibbles. I don’t think it cuts through the message board crap so much as it adds to another layer of obfuscation.

Satisfied by our sparring session? Want to get in your two cents? Be sure to chat it up on our boards.

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