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RPG Storytelling - The Unmet Potential
by Dylan Woodbury on 08/27/11 12:47:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This article was posted on http://dtwgames.com. Go there now for this full article and many others focused on game design. This article's location: http://dtwgames.com/design_articles/unmet_potential_rpg_storytelling.html.

A few weeks ago, I decided I was going to make an RPG with RPG Maker for no cost. I wanted to do something new, so I looked back at a long list of the greatest RPGs of all time for inspiration. I finished looking through the list, and wound up quite empty, actually unmotivated.

Why? Because most RPGs are rehashes of the same generic RPG from 15 years ago – You and some friends from humble beginnings must save your world from the bad guys using your swords and special moves you learn on the way as you get stronger. Now, I’m not saying some RPGs don’t ever break free from this very simple mold, but I don’t understand why all RPGs pull from a very short list of themes and conflicts. Good vs Evil. Save the world. Rags to riches (in terms of strength). Has an RPG ever rooted itself in the inevitability of death? The existence of God? Self sacrifice? War as a means to do good?

I also find myself disappointed with the characters in RPGs. Many characters in “new” games are parallels to characters in old games, all with the same “problems”. Why can’t we break free from these boring, already explored characters. I have heard much praise of the characters of Chrono Trigger, and I think this is the greatest sign that RPGs need change. The characters of Chrono Trigger were dull. The frog felt guilt for the man who died next to him, and that was about it. The robot and tech minded girl were absolutely flat, the princess was cliché, and Crono was barely a character.

Many developers take this approach in making the protagonist as non-existent as possible to better allow the player to seep into its skin and escape into the game, but THIS IS NOT HOW YOU TELL A STORY! By making the protagonist an unconscious mute, you throw out any possibility of exploring internal conflicts beyond the external conflicts of the gameplay. This is true for all games. However, I don’t expect the next Legend of Zelda to examine Link’s lack of confidence in his manliness or Mario’s deep sexual desires. But these games focus on gameplay, and have no need for a deep story – the fun is in the mechanics. However, it is different for RPGs.

Let me break that down for you – Role Playing Games. These games NEED story, unlike most other genres. Any RPG that fails to explore story beyond the “save the princess”, “stop the bad guys”, or their lovechild “stop the bad guys who have the princess” has failed by its very definition. This is why there can be no Cronos in the genre.

The gameplay has also become very uninspiring. All RPG gameplay focuses on combat – walking from A to B and defeating every creature in your path, usually with your sword/bow/whatever. Many declare Pokemon a childish game, but it is the only game I see to make a significant change to the RPG formula, with the collection and training of little monsters, who can be both friends and foes. It has sold more games per year on average than any other franchise. Even Mario. By a long shot. How about gameplay focused on conversation? Instead of Attack/Defend, maybe you can choose between friendly, flirty, mean, uninterested…, thus exploring social aspects of life and relationships. (This is just off the top of my head.)

I may sound like a complete pessimist, but I see the utmost potential in the RPG genre. It is probably one of the easiest genres to include meaningful stories (although I can think of very few examples), and designers have a lot of room to innovate. One thing I am very intrigued by is the progression of RPGs. All RPGs have made strength the element of progression (EOP), but I look forward to playing and designing games where this is not always the case. Maybe games can explore the progression of a relationship, disease, faith, age… Life is all about progression, and so are games, but they have only just started to explore this with the XP system that many developers confuse as an integral and unchangeable part of RPGs.

Maybe the reason RPGs have become less popular (with the exception of the very fresh, although now stale Pokemon) is that RPGs are no longer new experiences. Maybe the reason we aren’t as interested in traditional, straight-up RPGs is because they have grown stale. Games like Fallout, Mass Effect, and Kingdom Hearts thrive in the action-RPG genre, but a traditional RPG hasn’t won the IGN RPG of the year since Dragon Quest VIII 6 years ago, a year of little competition. In fact, I can’t remember the last RPG I have played that wasn’t a port/reimagining, as that lowers the bar and tells its consumers not to expect anything new.

I look back at Chrono Trigger, and see Homer’s Odyssey. I look forward and see Catcher in the Ryes, The Grapes of Wraths, and 1984s left and right. It is time to push the boundary of RPGs from solely epic adventure to artistic experiences that examine life and speak of the human condition.

This article was posted on http://dtwgames.com. Go there now for this full article and many others focused on game design. This article's location: http://dtwgames.com/design_articles/unmet_potential_rpg_storytelling.html.


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Comments


Mattie Brice
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Thanks for posting something like this! I was a huge fan of RPGs when I was younger, and always listed them off as my favorite genre. However, the ironic thing was that I barely played them anymore! I remember when the stories really made me feeling for the characters and situation, and affected me personally. I would say that Persona 4 was the last RPG that really moved me, and I played it non-stop for about two weeks. That was more than 3 years ago, and I remember that being an experience much delayed.



What's going on now is that RPGs is almost becoming an independent party made to be adapted into the FPS and Action genres until no one really cares about RPGs anymore. New types of progression is an interesting idea, I didn't think of it that way. I am also interested in innovative approaches to conversations, like Line Hollis' idea with Mouthwash: http://linehollis.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/mouthwash-emotions/ Hopefully more ideas start sprouting up soon!

Dylan Woodbury
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Wow that is funny, I had used Persona 4 as an example of a meaningful RPG, but decided against it and took it out. What I find very odd is that the ports of old final fantasy games and such sell so well - people don't mind going back ten to fifteen years in graphics and such to play these games. I feel like there is so much we can do with 2D traditional RPGs that we never really tried, but developers don't make many, and the ones they make are even more cliche than ever before. As you said, the greatest things RPGs are doing right now is lending mechanics to action games like Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls.



But yeah, this is something I am really passionate about. The great thing is we don't need big-time publishers to advance the medium - we can do this ourselves. There are lots of great programs out there like RPG Maker that, since there is no complicated technology involved in traditional 2D RPGs, are easy to use and make great games with. Super Columbine Massacre RPG is a great example of this, of an RPG with a purpose. Do you have any ideas of what we can do with the genre? I'd love to hear your thoughts, and maybe we can swap notes sometime or something.

Mattie Brice
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I wish I had notifications for this site somehow! I'm actually working on a project on RPG Maker, with many ideas of how I want to push RPGs forward with a focus on the narrative. I'm trying to incorporate interactivity into my writing as a Creative Writing major to look towards a game and understand how story can work with the adaptability of a game. If you happen to have Twitter or something, you can follow me at @xGalatea or visit my blog: http://xgalatea.blogspot.com/

Dylan Woodbury
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Cool, I also am just starting work on an RPG Maker Project (pre-dev stuff) with a focus on story and a twist on the normal progression seen in most games. My twitter: @DTWGames, my site http://dtwgames.com/

Conor Mckeown
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I'm unsold as to the benefits of narrative in games. One reason for this; when critics oppose the "video games are art" school of thought, they will often state - "video games have not produced their medium's X". The X in Ebert's example was Citizen Kane; in this article it was the literary work of Steinbeck, Salinger and Orwell. There are some obvious pitfalls here (the first of which is probably setting Salinger or Orwell as things to aspire to - Woolf? Dostoevsky? Joyce? Chekov? SHAKESPEARE???). Video games are not books. Sure, they bare some narrative similarities but they are certainly not the purely narrative novels we have known from, let's say, the Brontes up to ohhh... say, 1954. They are a mixed-medium which cannot be compared to other forms. If they have to be compared to books then they are Cervantes, Swift, Auster, Austen etc. in that they are often aware of what they are and social lessons can be gleaned from seeing them in their immediate context - being on Gamasutra, I'd hope we all do. Perhaps it's easier to compare them epic poetry which was as much a question of form as it was content. Theatre isn't a bad place to look either - it's not difficult to compare Metal Gear Solid to Brecht. To say games have not achieved their "X yet" is missing the point. They are forging their X, Y and Z. Final Fantasy VI - IX was one of them. Those games were a wonderful intermingling of largely simple stories with gameplay, still art and music. Shadow of the Colossus and Ico were closer to the mark of the watershed defining moment of games and they barely contained dialogue. Games are suffering from revisionist examinations borrowing from the theories and histories of other mediums. Put simply, of course the stories are crap - these are games. But if you think that makes them any less important, any less meaningful or any less valid as art then you need to read up on the societal importance of play and games in society. Start with Huizinga.

Dylan Woodbury
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I think we have to look at what makes a medium its own medium to see what we should be trying to accomplish within it. With literature, we use words, and we tell a story through them. In film, we have video clips and sound, and we use these to tell stories. In video games, we have mechanics (what the player is allowed to do in the game) and rules, and we can use those to tell stories too. Unfortunately, most stories in games are not told from these mechanics, and lessons cannot be gleaned from the rules of the game. Instead, we use the elements of film and literature solely to tell the story. This disgusts me. We need to tell stories that only games can tell, through the aspects of games that make them unique, and then hopefully you will be sold on the narrative aspects of gaming. Most people use this term and confuse it with long passages of text and long cutscenes to makes sense of what the player is doing. It is hard to fully grasp these "narrative" aspects because they are so different than the narrative aspects of any other medium.



I mention literature classics, not because we need a game equivilent, but because we need games that give a game-experience that speaks of the human condition and tells a story (or "gives an experience" is more like it) never before told. 1984, Grapes of Wrath, and countless other classic novels used the unique aspects of their medium to do something completely new, something that couldn't be experienced in any other work in any other medium to date. Gaming needs works that do this same thing - use the mechanics and rules of gaming to give a revolutionary experience to the player - not works that are similar to Romeo and Juliet. That is not what people mean when they compare future games to great works of humanity.

Felipe Budinich
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The demise of the genre has little to do with verbosity, cinematics and traditional narrative, and more to do with lack of gameplay innovation (You nailed that with the Pokemon example), There are other elements to the RPG genre that seem to be overlooked by everyone trying to tackle the issue, and I would urge anyone daring to, to read this article:



http://boingboing.net/2010/07/28/maps.html



Consider how much of our evaluation of Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger is no more than rose tinted glasses, and while the germ for something beautiful is there, the industry quickly ossified around success avoiding any kind of innovation.



We should look at those classics, and search for the experience they gave us, not which mannerisms we should copy.

Dylan Woodbury
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I agree with you. And so a company releases a game like Pokemon, which for once changes the traditional RPG formula, and what do they do? They make a bajilion games, a trading card game, movies, a television show, and countless other things. As you said, the industry is focused solely on success, and we drown achievements until they are just the norm. We all need to change our strategies. Instead following an innovation with an endless stream of products that intend to capitalize on the success (see motion controls, music/rhythm games, and FPSs, just to name a few), we need to look for other ways to innovate and make revolutionary new experiences. This would be a lot easier if our industry were more mature and developers/backers didn't have to risk so much for a profit, but if we do not change our ways, we will run out of time to establish our medium as an artistic medium.

Fox English
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This article doesn't really work for me, because it is based on a gross generalization of the RPG genre only counting the offerings of the most popular releases and simplifying them greatly. In your second paragraph, you ask if any RPG has ever deviated from the good vs. evil plot, well here's my fast answer to each question:



Explore the inevitability of death: Persona 3

The existence of God: Dragon Quest VII

Self-sacrifice: Breath of Fire V Dragon Quarter

War as a means to do good: The Suikoden series



As far as characters go, there are only so many possible archetypes to work with. This is not restricted to RPGs, or even games and film. The complaint is probably not so much about the characters themselves, but how they are utilized and how the conflict at hand affects them and changes their relationships to others. This is a writing flaw more than a design flaw. But to put it in perspective, with Chrono Trigger you are referring to a 20 year-old game; character writing has evolved dramatically since then, even if some of the style is not my or possibly your thing (like Bioware's games in my case), at least they try to explore deeper relationships with other characters. I know you have played Persona 4 from your previous response, so I'd guess that you are well aware that there are already exceptions, but there are more of them than it sounds like you or many others realize. For example, have you played any of the recent Tales games to the end? Despite the light-hearted humor in a lot of the dialog, they have a lot of character introspection and interaction and explore some very heavy themes in the process of the characters' journey. What about Resonance of Fate? That game has a very unique take on narrative AND gameplay, I highly recommend it.



Granted I do get what you're trying to say, and actually agree with the intent behind the article. While I find it frustrating for people to complain about the delicate RPG gameplay template since any drastic changes would pretty much make it another genre altogether, I do think that the genre has a potential to continue exploring some very deep stories without relying on a "big bad" to dominate the narrative. And even having the presence of a strong antagonist isn't as bad as it could be, if written as a proper antagonist and not as a generic evil to win the game against. I've been developing my own RPG from scratch with the same passion for the genre as I have grown up with it and played practically every game to make it into the U.S., but I also feel that there is plenty of room to explore new themes in the story and characters and not rely so heavily on a basic good vs. evil plot.

Dylan Woodbury
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Alright, off the bat, your example are very weak. Just because some peoples worshipped god in Dragon Quest VII does not mean the plot has anything to do with the existence of god. I do think the Persona series is the most respectable RPG series, as it touches on real themes and characters with real personal problems, besides the problems that there are giant monsters in their way (that we see in every RPG), and that don't outright tell you what their problems are, but allow them to be analyzed/interpereted.



Thank you for the recommendations. But I do disagree with you, that changing the RPG formula would change its genre. Essential elements of an RPG - characters, story, gameplay revolving around stats. The ability to kill monsters ten times your size is not an element, nor is having an obvious bad guy.



This is why I compare many traditional RPGs to Odyssey - the main conflicts are physical with the monsters Odysseus encounters, and the story is very linear with little to say of life, the universe, and everything. Using the RPG genre, since no action elements are required, we can create games that set the player against ANY problem, be it social situations, moral dilemmas, or whatever! These are things that cannot be tackled in action games, which is why I state my belief that they have so much potential.



I'd like to know more about your game; maybe we can swap notes. Thanks for the feedback!

Mark Ludlow
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I feel the article is aiming at entirely the wrong target. What I can't work out is whether I'm feeling that it should be that *J*RPGs are getting stale, (an issue which has been written about by quite a few people, including Japanese developers) or that games in general are getting stale. Each of the points you raised apply across the board, it's not limited to RPGs and some of the specific issues raised seem to be related to early JRPGs.



Yes, story and characters are essential parts of RPGs but any game trying to include a story has to have more than "There's a great evil/threat to the world/evil dictator and you, the hero, are the only one that can stop it." Gameplay must also go beyond the basics for its genre and these days there are many games that just take the basics of a genre and slap a story about grizzled space marines trying to fight off an alien threat, or a great evil threatening to destroy the world that can only be stopped by "The Chosen One" (ie. Only you can save mankind). FPS, RPG, RTS, TPS, MMORPG, and whatever other acronym-laden genre you care to choose, all pretty much go for the same story plots. Point-and-Click adventure games, ironically a dying breed, are one of the few genres that vary quite radically.



Although you mention progression and how RPGs need to change, you then say that RPGs that have pushed the boundaries (Mass Effect, Kingdom Hearts, and Fallout) are not valid ways of moving forward. It's like Henry Ford said, "If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a better horse." To move the RPG genre forward, we need to push it in ways that people aren't going to quite be comfortable with because it's different but opens new doors and creates new inspirations and innovations. Turn-based menu driven combat is not necessary anymore, technology has advanced to a point where we are able to create a more action driven experience whilst retaining the feel of old school RPGs.



While there are few RPGs that solely deal with the story elements you outlined, a good story deals with several issues and themes over its course and there are a few RPGs that you may be interested in if you're yearning for deeper storylines or different gameplay.



Gameplay:

Final Fantasy 12 and the gambit system was a great innovation from the typical ATB menu system and similarly the paradigm system in 13. Both of those make me excited to see where RPGs go, especially since Dragon Age: Origins picked up 12's system and the Paradigm system is a way of simplifying the typical Thief/Mage/Warrior trinity idea.

Vagrant Story had a great combat system.

The Shadow Hearts series' Wheel of Fate system was a good way of creating a more interactive battle system that relied both on skill and tactics.

I found Four Warriors of Light's AP based combat idea greatly increased my interest level and forced me to rely on tactics more than just spamming high level spells.

Final Fantasy 5 and the introduction of the job system. In fact, Final Fantasy introduced a lot of good ideas, despite a few bad ones (draw points anyone?), by changing the mechanics and progression methods each game and pushing the boundaries of RPG conventions.

Resonance of Fate, Valkyrie Profile, Eternal Sonata, Magna Carta 2 and any of the Tales games also have fun combat systems that deviate beyond the normal turn-based menu systems of old.

Deus Ex has skill based progression. Similarly, Morrowind and Oblivion focus not just on combat but your ability to interact with other people and the world as well.



Story:

Eternal Sonata: An exploration of inevitable death and an interpretation of Chopin's life and final hours. It also featured heavy themes of self-sacrifice.

Breath of Fire III: The second part of the game deals with Garr questioning his faith and going to meet "God" to see whether the War of the Brood was really the right thing to do.

Any of the Suikoden series: As has been mentioned, based on the Chinese novel, these games focus on a war and the effect it has on the people involved. Usually the story takes the form of one person using the power of honour and friendship to rally people to defend their country, with the other seeking power in order to save everyone at the cost of their friendships.

Resonance of Fate: While there are loose "Evil that must be stopped" elements, the game is mostly about the lives of three friends and their individual demons.

Shadow Hearts: The first game focusses heavily on the inevitability of death and the effect it has on people. The second game focusses on moving on from loss.

Magna Carta 2: Although it was a bit typical in its story lines, self sacrifice played a prominent part in it.

Winter Voices: Admittedly I have not played this very far in and it's a bit flawed, however, it is a very depressing type RPG centred around themes like death, grief and loss.

Dylan Woodbury
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I am not talking about JRPGs, I am talking about traditional RPGs (non-action RPGs). And yes, this is a problem in all of games, but think about it, what problems can the protagonist of an action game go up against? Many of the stories and themes I think can be addressed through gameplay in RPGs cannot be addressed in action games (which is the biggest chunk of the industry). That is the biggest thing holding action games back, and I am saying RPGs don't need to go the same route!



But seriously, take your time reading so you don't put false words in my mouth. I never said one thing bad about Action RPGs like Mass Effect and Fallout! Those are all great games! What I am saying is that they are the only ones that seem to be innovating the RPG elements, but THEY ARE NOT TRADITIONAL RPGS, which is what this topic is addressing. This was an example to show the unpopularity and shift away from traditional RPGs.



And though we have the technology to allow action RPGs, this doesn't mean this is a superior type of gameplay! There are so many things action RPGs can't do that traditional RPGs can because the gameplay does not require gameplay to be something the player can mimic. Therefore, traditional RPGs don't have to be about just killing and fighting. I think there are many great experiences that lie within menu-based gameplay.



A lot of the "deeper" gameplay you list I feel is a very short step from its original formula. Upgrading skills is not innovative, along with many of the other things you list. They are just more strangely familiar ways to accomplish the same task the game gives you. In terms of story, I think I'll have to look into a couple of those, thanks, but I really think you are taking things that are really small and making them major themes. I mean, I could say Mass Effect was about the social distinctions people make (nobody distincts human races because there are alien races that become the biggest distinction), but that would be me making the game much deeper than it really is (get a crew together, kill the bad guys), although it had some very good story moments, and is probably one of my favorite games this generation. (can't wait for the third coming March)



Thanks for the new perspective! All this feedback really makes me think.

Mark Ludlow
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I apologise for giving the wrong impression. I'm very passionate about my RPGs and game mechanics so I may have come off too strongly. The biggest problem these days is that everything that has stats, numbers, upgrades, progression and character development is labelled under "RPG", or at least "RPG-like elements" so it's very hard to actually determine what someone means when they say "RPG".



I think I'm also a little confused over the use of "Traditional", which, by definition is a well established and long followed set of rules from times past. This has the inherent problem that deviating from those traditions would mean it's no longer traditional, but, like most of the games today, borrowing traditional elements and adding new ones in order to drive the genre forward. There is already a sense of something that doesn't change in using a term like "Traditional".



If we go back far enough, traditional means the old Dice and Paper games played around a tabletop which is where the CRPG came from. Action RPGs are just an attempt at bringing back that feeling of a more dynamic scenario with the computer playing the role of DM and you having a little more freedom than menu selections. It's abstracting some of the traditional menu choices into gameplay actions. A lot of Bioware's fantasy games are already based on D&D rule sets and mechanics, they just put a computer interface over them. So in essence, the peas of tradition are being maintained, we're just coating it with sauce so the kids will eat it.



While games like Kingdom Hearts have a set path they follow and allow for little player freedom, games like Mass Effect, Deus Ex, Oblivion/Morrowind, and Baldur's Gate all allow for a certain degree of freedom in problem solving. You don't have to knock skulls to get everywhere. You can use charm, or stealth or non-lethal means to solve a problem or even just avoid it entirely and progress down that path entirely at your discretion.



On the topic of the themes I suggested. As I mentioned, a good story deals with multiple themes over its course and is also one that most readers are able to get something from. Most of them are RPGs that I have really enjoyed those elements of the story in which is why I chose them as examples.



It's like any other book, one person can think it's pretentious and full of egotism while another can think the author a visionary with great insight. You're right though, Mass Effect can be reduced to "Get gang and save the World", but is that over simplifying it just as some people over analyse it? I mean, (and I love the lecturer that said this) Lord Of the Rings boils down to two midgets with hairy feet throwing a ring into a volcano.



Again, I apologise for my misunderstanding. Like you I'm very much into RPG development and analysing story-telling and themes. Out of curiousity, disregarding the common stereotypes and H-Games, would a Dating Sim be along the lines of a traditional RPG that is not about killing? What about interactive fiction? I know it doesn't always have progression in the common ways but it's still a story in which the character and who they are is revealed and developed.

Dylan Woodbury
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Thank you for clearing the confusion. You make some great points on how action-RPGs are allowing the player more options, which can be very engrossing (fans of Bethesda are some of the most hardcore/dedicated gamers out there, and could probably draw a map of the wasteland from memory). But I don't think freedom is essential to RPGs. Choice as a mechanic can be a very good tool to give players a more personal experience or even express ideas/dilemmas. However, you kind of imply that this freedom in action-rpgs is an improvement over the linearity of traditional RPGs (like early Final Fantasy and Crono Trigger), and I don't think that is necessarily true. I think there is a lot we can do by forcing the player to go down a road, without offering quite as many diverging paths, thus making the player experience what the designer wants, which allows the designer to more easily express message and artistic themes and such.



Your example is very true, but I don't think Lord of the Rings is not quite at that artistic merital level (although it is freaking awesome). Mass Effect and Lord of the Rings are epic, simple stories, with interesting steps along the way. I think we need more games with interesting stories period. Even if that means less "fun" and more "interesting".



By reading everything I am saying, everyone probably thinks I am a young Chris Crawford, against popular games for their familiarity and lack of innovation, but that is not the case. I think games can have their artistic achievements as well as things that are just fun. Many people don't agree with me, but look at all the other mediums of entertainment. The movie industry can release a movie like Inception (one of my faves) and King's Speech, and both can be well received for different reasons. Sometimes I feel like listening to Bob Dylan, sometimes I feel like listening to LMFAO. Games do not have to be just one thing, they can please all the things our minds desire (in terms of entertainment).



Anyways, I think a traditional RPG is any game that does not require coordination and skill found in action games, and uses statistics to measure success/failure/progression and to influence gameplay. This is pretty broad, and I am sure there are some games that could fit under this loose definition that shouldn't, but that is how I like to think about it. I think a dating sim in which you gain/lose points by using different strategies (if you want to call them that lol) could be a traditional RPG, and I think that could be kinda cool.



Most of the interactive fiction I play should not be considered RPGs. If you got stats to give you an idea of how you were doing (and these stats play an important role in the gameplay), it could be considered an RPG. Most focus on puzzle solving, however, but I have played some Text Adventure RPGs (which I cannot remember).



I think it is crucial to remember that the different gaming genres are used to categorize games by what makes them games - gameplay. Story/character development can be found in any game genre. Action games focus on action-oriented gameplay. Puzzle games focus on puzzle-solving gameplay. Simulation games have gameplay designed to simulate something from real life. RPGs have statistical based gameplay, which allows players to tackle certain challenges in certain ways not found in any other genre.



Thanks for taking the time to reply.

Josh Foreman
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Dylan: "THIS IS NOT HOW YOU TELL A STORY! "



I'm not quite sure how to take your article. If you are proposing having more elaborate or well written cut scenes I'd recommend you look at writing books or plays or movies. But I'm totally behind the idea of expanding the conceptual framework that more RPGs are trapped in. I'd worry less about "telling a story" and more about simulating fascinating events or themes. This sort of thing creates experiences that are better than story in my opinion.


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