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Opinion: How  Mass Effect  challenged my definition of 'RPG'
Opinion: How Mass Effect challenged my definition of 'RPG' Exclusive
March 1, 2012 | By Rowan Kaiser




For Mass Effect 3, BioWare has built a game allowing for multiple different play-style choices: action, story, and RPG. An official statement explained the reasoning:

"Whether it be someone who finds the combat difficult but wants to experience the amazing story, someone who wants to focus on the action and combat game play, or fans who want the rich, story-driven RPG Mass Effect experience they've come to love - Mass Effect 3 will support all of these options."

While the positive phrasing is certainly effective at making this sound like an exciting new development, it reveals major tensions in how the game is perceived. Discussions with fans of Mass Effect and Bioware games almost inevitably turn into discussions of its genre, and Bioware's description of its three play modes implies that those debates are happening inside the company as well.

This makes sense. No company is better-positioned to create these debates than one which has a reputation as the savior of the "Western" RPG. More importantly, no game inspires such discussions better than Mass Effect, which has genre tension built into the game at every level. But why are these discussions so important?

The first thing I noticed when I started playing Mass Effect was its aesthetic. It's not the graphics, though, at least not in the traditional sense. It's the lens. It's all grainy and spotty. A quick trip to the options menu reveals something interesting: it's intentional. There is a checkbox called “Film Grain,” and it begins the game turned on.

One of the last things I noticed when played the Mass Effect games was that it broke my definition of “role-playing game.” This is a definition that has worked for me for well over a decade. I can, using it, effectively separate controversial games from one another. Mass Effect was the first challenge my RPG definition (see below) has had to face.

The biggest thing most people seem to have noticed when playing Mass Effect 1 or 2 is the moral decision-making process. This mechanic, so common to role-playing games since Fallout and early BioWare and Obsidian games, was suddenly injected into a much different style of game, a cover-based science fiction shooter. It helps that Mass Effect is arguably the best example of the form: the Renegade/Paragon division flows naturally from the game's setting, and the writers and voice actors are both in fine form throughout both games.

Although different at the surface level, all three of these aspects of Mass Effect point toward that same genre tension BioWare's new options indicate. So just what kind of game is Mass Effect? I do not mean this in a philosophical, artsy-fartsy sense. I mean it in a straightforward, and traditional one: what genre is this game? And if you were really looking forward to the artsy-fartsy stuff, also this question: what does Mass Effect say about genre, and what does genre say about the game industry?

The big question surrounding Mass Effect in genre terms is whether it is a role-playing game or not. Unlike most games, especially every other major BioWare release, the answer isn't obvious - it depends on how you look at genre. That's a big concept, but it can be examined in a few different ways. I tend to think there are three main ways that people try to define the role-playing genre, which parallel the three questions described at the start of this piece: "Do you play a role in the game?" "Does the game work like other role-playing games?" And, the most complicated one, revealed by the oddity of the film grain, is, "Where does this game fit in the history of role-playing games?"

Deciding whether a role-playing game involves "playing a role" suggests that there is an inherent quality that RPGs share. It is also judgmental – a game that doesn't live up to the required qualities doesn't qualify for the genre. This idea that a role-playing game demands the player play a role, a puzzle game demands the player solve puzzles, etc., seems overly limited to me. After all, you solve puzzles in adventure games, you go on adventures in virtually every game with a story, and so on.

But there is a better form of this kind of argument, which is that role-playing games specifically have a straightforward core concept: they encourage players to project themselves into the game more than others. From this perspective, the Mass Effect games aren't merely RPGs, they are perhaps the best example of RPGs in the world. At most every point in the game, Commander Shepard's actions and reactions can be influenced by the player, and those affect the game world. Shepard's actions affect things in the game, and beyond into the sequels. Her responses to dialogue, cleverly described indirectly by the game, help Shepard feel like an extension of the player's will. If you want to step into the role of the hero of a science fiction epic, there's no better game series than Mass Effect.

This point of view is somewhat aspirational. It suggests that the goal of games within a genre is to achieve the very best of that genres. And while that is in some ways beneficial, especially with an eye towards making games in the future, also means that the term loses some descriptive power. If the goal of an RPG is to embody a character, what about games like Wizardry, where you create entire parties of personality-less characters? Or, what is the difference between a Betrayal at Krondor, where characters are given to you as existing entities, Final Fantasy, where character personality is given, but stats can be changed, and Fallout, where both personality and stats are malleable?

What is the most important aspect of character development, and how is character development best achieved? On the side of the fence, what happens when any game can be an RPG? Halo is properly understood as a first-person shooter, but if you really identify with the Master Chief, is it an RPG? Civilization is the king of strategy games, but if you talk about your game with a French accent and a Joan of Arc leaderhead, aren't you role-playing?

This confusion often leads people to question the use of genre. It's a crutch, they say, and to some extent they're right. But it's a necessary crutch. We need some mechanism for saying, of all the games in the world, these games fit in a style together. The genre titles we use tend to work. I think we can all understand that there are similarities between games labeled “role-playing game” just as we can “first-person shooter”. But can those similarities be nailed down and clearly identified?

In the case of RPGs, I believe – or believed, before Mass Effect – that they could be. I developed this definition using a fairly simple process. First, I divided games into three groups: games that are commonly understood to be RPGs, games that are commonly understood to not be RPGs, and games that are debatable. Then I compared the games from each group for commonalities and differences. This, then, would create a working definition of the mechanics of a role-playing game. This is what I came up with:
A role-playing game involves a character or small group of characters presented with obstacles. Overcoming those obstacles improves the character(s) ability to overcome future obstacles, and published random numbers are used to determine success or failure of various actions.
The first line is necessary to separate strategy RPGs like Disgaea or Jagged Alliance from strategy/wargames with unit improvement like Panzer General or Shogun 2:Total War. The second part about improving characters by overcoming obstacles is the character progression that is the most obvious aspect of RPGs. Finally, the inclusion of published random numbers is necessary to separate action/RPGs like Secret of Mana, which show the random damage numbers, from games like The Legend of Zelda, where hits in combat yield constant damage amounts.

This definition is, well, mechanical, which makes sense because it's based on mechanics. (It's not the only mechanical definition - some people prefer concepts of abstraction and skill.) It doesn't include typical discussions of “playing a role” or narrative or anything of the sort - because those things are inconsistent. Most RPGs take place in fantasy settings, but not Knights of the Old Republic. RPGs are famous for being story-based, but there are also dozens of hack'n'slash RPGs, like Rogue.

But what this definition does do is sort through every game that should be considered an RPG and make that status clear. It also works for understanding some controversial games. Deus Ex? Character progression makes random targeting more efficient – it's an RPG. The Sims? While it may be initially surprising to learn that the supposed lifestyle simulation fits the definition, when you consider that The Sims consists of rolling a party of characters and sending them on quests to improve their lives, it makes sense.

The Mass Effect games? Well...no. It doesn't publish its random numbers, so Mass Effect isn't an RPG by this mechanical definition. And that's where things get complicated.

Mass Effect is a role-playing game by first definition - you clearly play a role. It is not, by the second definition - random numbers aren't published. I consider the second, mechanistic definition far more useful, but I don't like that it doesn't work for the Mass Effect games, because socially and historically, I feel like it should be a role-playing game. Its design studio, BioWare, is famous for being an RPG house. Its morality and conversation system are the type that only really occur in RPGs. Its epic story, party member recruitment and interaction, and semi-linear narrative are all hallmarks of this genre more than any other. So, why not call it an RPG? Shouldn't the definition be stretched, if it doesn't fit a game with the historical context of role-playing-ness?

This argument leads me back to the film grain. If I examine role-playing games from a historical perspective, then I have to ask, why do role-playing games exist? My simple answer is that they were invented to play books, specifically Lord of the Rings. They created an interactive form of fantasy storytelling. As science fiction and especially fantasy literature became more popular through the '80s and '90s, so did role-playing games, both analog and digital, feeding off of one another.

As video game technology advanced, especially in the transitional years of the 1990s, more and more time was spent on storytelling instead of mechanical dungeon crawlers. A game like Betrayal At Krondor (1993) was built to fit in within Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar series, and was, in many ways, the best possible combination of video gaming and fantasy literature. Planescape: Torment (1999) might be the pinnacle of the video game as interactive novel, with its reams of text, choice, character development, and narrative complexity.

Torment was also one of the last games to fit that mold. Through the 1990s, more and more games started to utilize the conventions of film. This charge was led, ironically, by a series of role-playing games: Final Fantasy. Nothing demonstrates this better than the opening credit sequence of 1994's Final Fantasy VI, as the ominous music plays and evil appears to march on the innocent. And while BioWare is a western RPG developer, much of their success, from Knights of the Old Republic on, has come from successfully combining the the tropes of both Western and Japanese-style role-playing games, including the use of visual, film-like storytelling instead of novelistic storytelling.

The Mass Effect games are the culmination of this trend. Their voice acting sounds like a movie, the camera angles look like a movie, the storyline is divided into movie scenes, and thanks to the film effect, it even has the visual feel of a movie. And this, I think, is what makes many RPG fans react so emotionally to its occasional placement in the role-playing genre. Mass Effect's surprising popularity seems to say that RPGs aren't novels, they're movies now. If that's something a player is fine with, they'll probably like Mass Effect just fine. But if not – then it's not just a game to be liked or disliked, but it's a symbol of everything that's wrong with video games today – bigger, flashier, and dumber.

Thus BioWare's revelation that they're working on multiple different modes of gameplay for Mass Effect 3 makes perfect sense. They're trying to appeal to as many sides of the genre discussion as they can. So the apparently straightforward examination of whether a game series like Mass Effect fits into a conventional genre category is therefore revealed to be question of the nature of gaming itself, past, present, and future, and it's one with big implications for BioWare.


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Comments


Joe McGinn
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Mass Effect 1 was an RPG. ME2 was clearly not, and ME3 looks to follow in it's "Gears of Mass Effect" footsteps, for good or ill.

The "saviour of western RPGs" is no longer making RPGs. But someone else is, so all is well. ("The king is dead! Long live the king (Bethesda)!""

Rowan Kaiser
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I think you're kind of burying the lede here. You say that "clearly" ME2 is not an RPG, but ME1 was. What's the necessary and obvious change to you? I played them one after another for the first time a few months back, and the biggest differences I saw were:

1) combat was more, hmmm, intentional in ME2. It had a specific style and it went for it.
2) the inventory system was less dense in ME2. I'm not actually certain it was less *complex*, but definitely less dense.
3) the tone was generally darker. If ME1 was Star Trek, ME2 was Battlestar Galactica.

Is one of those the reasons you think ME2 wasn't? Or was it something else?

Maurício Gomes
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I too think ME2 was a... Gears of Mass Effect and not really an RPG, unless you count JRPGs are RPG.

But ME2 had nothing to do with western RPGs (something sad, coming from the makers of Baldur's Gate)

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

John Tessin
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"ME2 was Battlestar Galactica." No no no no, Babylon 5, definitely.

Jacob Rider
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ME2 loses much of its RPG credit when it removed the continuity of movement and any form of meaningful inventory.

In ME1 if you were doing a side mission, you would be dropped planet side in the glorious MAKO and you traveled to your destination while fighting Tresher Maws or local enemies. Rarely do you lose sight of your party. Plus you could backtrack. ME2 just drags you in and out of scenarios whether you like it or not. ME3 is almost to the Black OPS level of dragging you through the main story elements.

I would be interested to know what percentage of ME2 is spent watching the loading screens or recycled cut scenes.

It's still a RPG by virtue of the +/- choices.

John Flush
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Redefine it all you want, genres exist so people know the type of game they are getting into. At least that is what genre tells me. ME1 was an RPG. I found it had some bad menu systems, and some aiming, but more or less it was an RPG. ME2 was an action game, with dialog options. It kind of bummed me out because it didn't fit my expectations of the genre 'RPG'.

ME3 is a pass for me. I've seen enough reveals so far to come to my own conclusion of what genre of game it is and it isn't what I would call an RPG. And I rarely get in the mood for an action game with large lulls in the middle of it with people chatting away.

Regardless the industry is going to love it so it doesn't really matter what genre it is in.

Chris Dickerson
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They said that changes introduced by Dragon Age would show up in Mass Effect 3. No thanks.

At least Baldurs Gate still runs on Windows 7.

Evan Combs
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Maybe it is just me but I do not see how ME2 is not an RPG? Unless what you consider to be an RPG has nothing to do with playing a role, but instead has to do with fighting mechanics. In which it still fits the definition. It might not be a hardcore traditional RPG, but it is still an RPG.

k s
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Actually role playing has nothing to do with RPGs, they're traditionally all about epic quests and improving/customizing your character(s).

k s
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I like Mr Molynux's definition of RPG best: Over the course of the game the player gains new abilities and becomes ever stronger.

Rowan Kaiser
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That's a necessary part of it, but I feel like it's insufficient as a total definition. For example, in a space or a flight sim, you might get a better ship/plane based on your progression in the game, but I'd be hard pressed to call Wing Commander an RPG.

Tore Slinning
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RPG is just, one of those genres that can't be summed up in a soundbyte.But if I were to try to improve on Mr Molynux definition.Over the course of the game the player must choose new abilities and becomes prevalent in certain aspects, facing the consequences of what he did or did not choose in lieu of certain scenarios. No backsies, goto 10. You see, you can probably go back on your choices of ships in WC, but for an RPG the character are built up by a sum choices, and the challenges it to plan out the choices, and make what you can of your strength and weaknesses in certain situations.

Joe Stewart
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Are Assassin's Creed games RPGs? Honest question. Or as someone mentioned below, what about Arkham Asylum?

I'd like to compare the term "RPG" to the term "planet": in both cases, there are some things that for a long time everyone agreed deserved the label. In both cases, new things started emerging that were similar enough to some of those old things that they could deserve the label, but different enough from others of those things that they might not.

In the case of "planet", astronomers decided to resolve the argument by restricting the definition to keep things like Ceres out; this had the side effect of kicking Pluto out even though everyone had agreed for a long time that it belonged in. They could've resolved it another way, but that would've led to a lot of new planets.

In the case of "RPG", Rowan is trying to expand the definition to keep things like ME2 in; this has the side effect of bringing other things in that many would dispute as deserving the label---perhaps because they're not very similar to, say, Ultima.

I guess I personally lean towards keeping ME2 out and restricting "RPG" to the classic examples of the genre. But really genres are just useful as a rough guide to what you're getting. I find genres of modern music to be almost completely useless as a guide to what I might like, and I could see gaming going a similar direction.

Aleksey Sundeyev
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Rowan, I had a good laugh at your comparison of ME series to a movie. What kind of movies do you watch, Rowan? Do they involve a lot of creepy mannequins with lifeless faces, acting as information ATMs, monotonously droning out lore information like some kind of idiot savant tour guides?

_____

"The Mass Effect games are the culmination of this trend. Their voice acting sounds like a movie, the camera angles look like a movie, the storyline is divided into movie scenes, and thanks to the film effect, it even has the visual feel of a movie. And this, I think, is what makes many RPG fans react so emotionally to its occasional placement in the role-playing genre."

_____

Hahahaha. Actually, no. I would argue that games like original Fallout and Planescape: Torment had a leg up on the so-called "cinematic Bioware games" of today.

They used an abstracted isometric perspective which distanced the player from the action, and used textual descriptions, which, to great extent, worked to engage the player in the world, instead of distancing him from it.

Where in Mass Effect you see a "Miranda", who creeps me out by the mere looks of her (who would want to have bumpy sex with that awkward mannequin anyway?), in Fallout you saw a small figure within isometric confines of its settlement, and the ingenious DM screen said "You see Katrina. She has a pretty smile."

That phrase was economical, and it bypassed the player's visual perception, as you couldn't see her face. You just took it as true that your character sees Katrina, who is likely attractive.

The dog in Fallout, "Dogmeat" had very brief and compact descriptions, and the player attached to it anyway.

Bioware always misses the mark by about 20 miles. They over-tell, they always narrate directly AT YOU, they pursue stories that are both convoluted and banal (like essays of a grade-schooler, those often go hand-in-hand).

I will be honest with you, Rowan. I've never felt a single tinge of emotional involvement from Mass Effect or Dragon Age. Their overhyped romance sequences and so-called "characters" had the emotional impact of a carpet stain.

I felt more attachment to Fallout's "Katrina who has a pretty smile", or strong and silent "Ian who has a posture of an experienced fighter", than to any of these overwrought, poorly voiced and animated, uncanny-valley abominations existing in a universe that seemingly came from the late George Lucas.

Most importantly... since this site is called Gamasutra, I would expect someone who is actually writing for this site, to have some understanding of game mechanics. See, the game mechanics, those managing specifically the dialogue and quest system, of a game like Fallout, Planescape or Arcanum, were several times MORE SOPHISTICATED than the underlying engine of Mass Effect.

Mass Effect is not a culmination of anything. It is a decline, regression on every level except for the graphics and animation engines. Have you read "451 degree Fahrenheit"? How Beatty talked about condensation of information? Have you seen ME series barebones dialogue choices, and how most of them lead to the same conversation branch?

I would expect someone from "Gamasutra" to be able to look past graphics, and into the core of what makes a game an actual GAME. As in, GAMEPLAY.

Games are not movies. Most attempts to make a game into a movie result in reduced playability and regress their gameplay, because it requires heavy scripting to create "super epic moments" during which the player is idling at the controls, waiting.

Ideally, yes, a game could be an interactive movie. But judging how the industry has been regressing since ingenious reactive worlds implemented by Fallout 1/2, nobody has any interest in putting actual hard work into researching proper use of expert systems and various other methods of advancing the idea of a truly reactive world.

So that's what we get as an end result - a strictly railroaded, largely non-interactive world of Mass Effect, with no believable characters or interesting setting - just a mediocre regurgitation of a few sci-fi stereotypes, molded with a mediocre regurgitation of the lowest common denominator of RPG mechanics.

Rowan Kaiser
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If you're going to complain so much, perhaps you should try reading again. You're making two assumptions here that make this comment utterly ridiculous. One is a deliberate misreading, the other is simply wrong.

First, you describe how Fallout and Torment have more emotional appeal. This is a good argument. Yet I specifically described how Torment was the pinnacle of the game as a *novel*. And the way you describe Fallout and Torment? You're praising them for their novelistic characteristics. You're insulting me AS YOU AGREE WITH ME.

Your second assumption is that I think it's a good thing that RPGs have become more like films, and that Mass Effect is an example of a good film. I never said these things. By making these assumptions you put words in my mouth that I wouldn't agree with.


In the future, I recommend reading comprehension before you go insulting people on the internet. You'll end up looking like the fool.

Rafael Posnik
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One clear difference between ME and Planescape:
Torment didn't had enough tech by that time as Mass Effect does. Instead of just throwing tons of texts for the player, ME substitutes that by visuals.
Example:
In Torment, you've had an distanced character with a huge description: "The man standing before you barely can breath, he looks nimble, frail and (...)" - I assume you get it.

While in ME they've choose to make everything visual instead of describing it.
It's just a different way to achieve a same objective: Tell a story.

As for you point mass effect as an awlful game, i'll not debate it for it looks like for you, the "only" rpgs are isometric and have lots of texts, while when you play table RPG, you don't have much text (as a player) it's pure interpretation. So i think you should review one or another concept of yours.

Though I admit ME series are a very peculiar game to fit in a category.

Aleksey Sundeyev
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I can't figure out how to reply to a reply, so looks like I'm replying to my own post, Rowan.

I do not use your novel/movie dichotomy, because I don't consider it productive. It doesn't do anything to introduce clarity.

Planescape: Torment wasn't a novel. It had beautiful hand-painted visuals, and it had voice acted dialogue as well. Fallout wasn't a novel, either. Not only it had a distinct, well-animated visual style, but it also had several cutscenes, and movie-like narration in the beginning and end (modularly, based on settlement outcomes).

Mass Effect has a "Codex", a virtual e-reader with tons of dry textual information. If you spend 1.5 hours exploring it, is your experience akin to that of a movie, or more like reading a technical manual?

When you blow someone's arm off in Fallout, watching them spasm and shoot blood all over the place, isn't that a movie-like experience, even though it is from third-person perspective? Wasn't there easily recognizeable sound, and imagery? Don't movie scenes have overhead angle views as well, filmed from a crane, often used for effect?

This is why I don't even go there. It's a dichotomy for the sake of itself, one that introduces no clarity.

The general tone of your article was largely in favor of Mass Effect as some kind of a "new and shiny", evolved design. And then, in one of your ~25 paragraphs, there's a sentence buried at the end:

"But if not – then it's not just a game to be liked or disliked, but it's a symbol of everything that's wrong with video games today – bigger, flashier, and dumber."

This sentence does support your claims of ambivalence toward Mass Effect, yes. However, this is akin to writing an article praising Joseph Stalin, and then inserting one little sentence saying that maybe he's not a very good leader after all, hoping the Communist Party censors do not notice.

So now someone falls into your little trap, and you can cackle over your keyboard as you accuse them of not reading your post closely enough to spot it.

Hey, if this type of thing makes you tick, perhaps you should consider being one of those cops who troll stop signs. Journalism may be the wrong career for you, pal.

Rowan Kaiser
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I feel like you're so blinded your apparent hatred of Mass Effect that anyone who writes about without declaring full hatred for it is apparently "praising Stalin." I think that says a lot about your ability to write on the subject with any clarity.

Aleksey Sundeyev
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Reduction ad absurdum, Rowan, really?

After I spend the time and effort of writing a large and thought-out post, all you have is a cheapo one-liner for me?

And not just for me, but for Eric Schwarz below, as well?

Why bother with a response at all, then?

Bart Stewart
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Is it helpful to exclude narrative as part of the definition of RPG?

The second part of that three-part definition is maybe the most interesting. Saying that ME2 is "not an RPG" overstates the case, but I think it's fair to say that ME2 is considered *less* of an RPG than the first game by many gamers because ME2 -- whatever the reason -- removed some of the character ability control options.

The thing is, though, that's a very Achiever-y, DikuMUD-ish definition of what makes something an RPG. I think it's at least arguable that BioWare thought it would be OK to excise that explicit form of "character progression" mechanic because they were exploring the idea of growing a character by the relationships they form. In effect, completing the loyalty missions was like earning "friend XP."

I personally liked having the mechanical ability options in the original Mass Effect. I like having that level of control over who my character is. Even so, I can appreciate BioWare trying to remind us that playing a role in the story of a gameworld -- roleplaying -- can also be expressed by how that character interacts with and relates to other characters in that world.

It'll be interesting to see how far BioWare advances this "character progression through relationships" model of computer-based roleplaying in ME3.

Tore Slinning
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Well, in the sense that Position of Tetris blocks and score is a simplistic narration of the situation to the player(game design 101 yadayadayada), in that same sense narration does the same for RPG's times a hundred.RPG's Have character progression, setting/world progression, and challenges presented in the setting/world/scenario which the player must interpolate and make decisions from over the course of the game. Now I usually bitch about the lack of proper character dynamic in recent games, but an RPG should present both choices in character mechanics AND the more Role interaction(which character mechanics should also have some sway over).That said, I swear Bioware is using the banal "RPG = role you play in game" definition.Overuse of cinematic and storytelling does NOT improve a game, certainly not a RPG. Now i understand that no CRPG have reached the status of a producing a set of fully emergent story which based on players actions and events.You have to have a storyline structure, and the best thing we can do is branch it, or just completely focus on the other vital aspect of an RPG, combat and character mechanics. But...Bioware and the rest of the market analysts are more content in producing DIY adventures where the gameplay is just tacked on. And its because of that you get alot of people now criticizing the overt story/narrative trend.

Harlan Sumgui
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"Role-playing games are games in which players assume the roles of fictional characters and collaboratively create stories. Players determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, players can improvise freely; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the games." encyclopedia britanica

Without [i]real[/i] AI, there is no such thing as a single player videogame RPG. Nonetheless, the games industry insists on using this acronym.

But what does it signify? Not much. All that can be agreed upon is that there is a character in a game that the player controls within rigidly defined limits. So almost anything can have rpg attached to its description. Arkham City? Action-rpg. Call of Duty? FPS-rpg. Shogun? RTS/TBS-rpg. Mario? Platform-rpg.

So what is left? RPG as marketing term. "hey kids, buy this game and become Killer Space Messiah, cuz you know it's an RPG."

Rowan Kaiser
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Definitions like that are reductive and dismissive to the point of uselessness, though. There are single-player RPGs. How do I know this? Because I've played RPGs and I've discussed RPGs with people who know what I'm talking about when I do so.

The term has a usefulness because people use it in a coherent fashion, like any other word. If some encyclopedia says otherwise, then the encyclopedia is attempting to impose its reality on a language that has passed it by, and it'll never succeed.

chris white
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You aren't even using the britanica definition of Electronic Role Playing Game!

Ignoring that, you can do the same kind of stupid definition thing with any video game genre. The encyclopedia britanica definition of strategy game applies to any RPG with a party. There are plenty of FPS's which are also "platformers" by the definition. There's a genre called action-adventure for gods sake, which britanica defines as an "electronic game genre characterized by exploring, puzzle solving, narrative interactions with game characters, and, for action-adventure games, running, jumping, climbing, fighting, and other intense action sequences."

Sure, what we call RPGs is somewhat defined by marketing, but to argue that its so hard to tell what the use of the term refers to that you can't tell if Mario is an RPG or not seems wrong. You have every right to not be thrilled with the current use of the acronym, especially in relation from its tabletop roots, but acting like the term is so vague that nobody can figure out what games the term refers to seems bizarre.

Maria Jayne
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The Mass Effect series seemed to start off as an rpg with a poor loot/inventory system and then Bioware realised if they made it less of an rpg they would bring in the action shooter crowd, they are a wider audience and apparently they managed it while still confusing enough rpg fans to market to them too.

I don't feel the mass effect wheel is an rpg tool, it feels an abreviated "get on with it already" tool, used to let people who just want to watch a movie press the same button over and over based on they want to be, paragon/sarcastic or neutral/renegade so they just stare at the screen and spam 1,2,3, without reading any of the wheel choices. The dialogue synopsis doesn't even accurately reflect what is being said the majority of the time so why even bother reading it?

Notice how they tried to make even reading the synopsis on the conversaton wheel irrelevant by putting symbols next to the options in Dragon Age 2? Their aims are people who can't be bothered to read, people who just want to look at pictures and then press a button and get on with the shooting.

You can if you want, decide to be a paragon and then never look down again, just keep pressing 1 from character creation and you are a paragon, that level of thought process removes a huge part of character development in a single player game when you can choose who you will be at the end, at the beginning.

I don't have some brilliant insight into why Mass Effect feels like it's shifting away from rpg and dumping that fanbase in favour of the action shooter crowd but it is definitely happening based on that observation.

Harlan Sumgui
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Words are useful only insofar as their meanings can be agreed upon between users. And maybe I'm in the minority, but when someone labels a single player computer game as an RPG, I have very little idea of what kind of game it is. Use terms like FPS, RTS, TBS, Platformer, etc and I'll have a good idea of what is being communicated. RPG, not so much. I suppose it could be used to describe games with skill trees, or character creation options. But you can graft those things into just about any game.

I think the problem stems from the origin of the term in the tabletop game world, where real collaborative story telling is possible.

Samuel Verner
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Mass Effect 3 is NOT an RPG, because RPG games doesn't have to do much with roleplaying, but with a specific type of gamemechanics. "Playing a role" is NOT an argument for this question. The player plays a role in every game, but not every game is a RPG.

Call of Duty for example focusses mainly on FPS mechanics with some kind of RPG-Elements and so it is a First-Person-Shooter with RPG-Elements. Mass Effect 3 on the other hand focusses on 3rd-Person shooting and dialoges on equal parts, so it is a 3rd-Person Action-Adventure.

Everything else about this question is pure marketing-driven.

Roberto Bruno
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RPGs as a proper genre are essentially about a bunch of things, like immersion, choices and consequences and building different characters to enjoy the different outcomes.
People wrongly claim that everything involving statistics and levels is an RPG, but that's not the case, and that's surely not how the hardcore fans see the genre, as a quick consultation to "hardcore RPG communities" like RPG Codex, RPG Watch or NMA would clearly prove.

Now, given that Bioware "betrayed" (in the lack of a better term) the genre years ago, since KOTOR, aiming more and more for a fancy cinematic presentation, what makes ME2 *less* an RPG than the previous one? A bunch of aspects, actually (despise the fact that generally speaking I consider it a slightly better game).
The way stories are cut in episodes, for instance, or removing the free roaming/exploration, the lack of any inventory management, the lack of scenery interaction.

Everything in Mass Effect 2, even more than in the first one, is intended as a spectacular cinematic rollercoaster, where you follow a very clear and definite trail and your actions have barely any impact over the general outcome.
I love to think about Bioware's games more like (barely) interactive TV shows than roleplaying experiences.

Even their moral system is spectacularly broken, as it essentially consists of "cosmetic flavor" added to a fixed story. There aren't really moral choices, as there's no ambiguity and the game already decided for you what's good, what's bad, and simply ask to you to stick to one of the two roles (which have virtually identical outcomes) and penalize any attempt to forge your story taking anything resembling a middle road.
The running joke on the internet rightfully describes the whole thing as "Blue answer= solve problem, Red Answer= solve problem, Gray answers= Inane questions".

Evan Combs
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Do we really need a history lesson of RPG's? If it was the game mechanic of statistics based gameplay then we wouldn't be calling them Role-Playing Games, they would have a name that more accurately describes the gameplay. Table-top RPG's weren't called RPG's because they had levels and such, but because they players would role play.

Eric Schwarz
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Rowan, with all due respect, this article demonstrates you have no grasp of what makes an RPG an RPG. The fact that you even call Rogue a "hack-and-slash" shows me you a) probably have never played Rogue or a roguelike in your life and b) probably have not played the majority of examples you cite in this article.

Role-playing games are not about "playing a role" and your questioning your definition shows you simply do not have a solid understanding of the genre in the first place. The fact that you agree to this and yet it forms the crux of your entire argument is laughable at best, as well.

Still, I think the thing that's most suspect up-front is your definition of what makes an RPG. Let's take a look:

"A role-playing game involves a character or small group of characters presented with obstacles. Overcoming those obstacles improves the character(s) ability to overcome future obstacles, and published random numbers are used to determine success or failure of various actions."

Wow, I guess just about every game made these days is an RPG! Looks like all those players complaining about a glut of real RPGs in the mainstream games industry must just be full of hot air, right? I mean, have they played Serious Sam? That's one of the best RPGs ever - it's got an obstacle every second!

How about we start with a more reasonable definition of what makes an RPG? Now, as a hybrid genre, it's impossible to come up with something that works for every game, but if I take yours and make a few reasonable changes:

A role-playing game involves a character or small group of characters who operate within a ruleset that is, in most instances, universally applicable to both player and non-player characters within the game world. Over the course of the game, the player manipulates functions of characters in order to obtain statistically probable outcomes as defined explicitly within the game mechanics, and the player's characters increase their probability for success through increasing base statistics and attributes (i.e. strength, dexterity), available skills and feats (Flurry, Power Attack), and/or by collecting supplementary modifiers (i.e. equipment). RPGs often, but do not always, place emphasis on social interaction, environmental interaction, and narrative, with the rules defined above influencing outcomes.

Now, I admit this is a bit rocky and still open to interpretation, but I think it is far more accurate and less vague than your "you play a role!" definition which falls apart under any scrutiny.

What can we take away from this regarding Mass Effect?

Well, the first Mass Effect was clearly an RPG:

1) It featured advancement of character abilities and attributes as a central mechanic (paragon/renegade system, inventory items, weapon mods, skills, etc.)
2) Its combat relied more heavily on character statistics (health, damage, skills available) in determining outcomes
3) It had a heavy emphasis on narrative and presented the player with (simple) puzzles and much of its gameplay (close to 50%) involved social interaction.
4) Non-combat options were not extremely abundant, but did exist - a few parts of the game featured alternate routes that had a greater emphasis on character interaction, many side-quests featured no combat at all, and while there were mini-games that influenced certain outcomes, there were character skill requirements attached to them.

Was it the "most pure" RPG ever? Hell no, but at least it had some reasonable foundations that were rooted in RPG tradition. Now let's take a look at Mass Effect 2:

1) It did not feature advancement as a central mechanic - the only thing the player unlocks are a limited tier of abilities and modest upgrades to existing functionality. You can get through the game at level 1 just fine, without performing any upgrades at all, which suggests character advancement is simply unnecessary to the design rather than integral.
2) Its combat relied almost exclusively on player skill, with character skills adding flavour and extra tactical options - in traditional shooters much of this functionality could simply be included within different guns, suggesting that statistics are not important.
3) Social interaction was dramatically pared back in Mass Effect 2 - while there is dialogue and the paragon/renegade system remains, the requirements for those options have been toned down statistically-speaking, and upwards of 70% of the game consists of standard Gears-style cover shooting. The "combat sections" and "dialogue sections" are very clearly defined and most of the game's social interaction can be skipped over with no ill effects.
4) Non-combat mechanics have been relegated to mini-games. There are no skills or attributes related to them at all, except for paragon/renegade, which, as I mentioned, has been toned down in terms of significance on gameplay and dialogue options available.

Does this say, to me, that Mass Effect 2 is less of an RPG? Probably, but it certainly does not make me question my definition of what an RPG is - if anything it further affirms it.

Eric Schwarz
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Supplementary:

You can define RPGs all you like as being about narrative, or about playing a role, or what have you, but ultimately genres are defined by their mechanics, and games are primarily defined by which genres they draw the most from. I do not see why RPGs are any different:

Shooters are shooters because you shoot things.
Puzzle games are puzzle games because you solve puzzles.
Sports games are sports games because you play sports.
Platform games are platform games because you jump on platforms.

Now, it's certainly true that many games incorporate different elements of different genres. Most games feature puzzles, or elements of RPGs, or shooters, or platformers, or what have you. But then, that's why we tend to go with the primary mechanic. Is Mario Kart a shooter because you can shoot shells at other karts? No, of course not, just as I think it's clear Call of Duty is not an RPG despite having RPG-style progression mechanics in multiplayer. You touch on this in your article but leave the question open when really, there is no question.

RPGs are made a bit more difficult to define because the "role-playing" definition that comes from the tabletop community doesn't really translate over to the computer realm. What's more, RPGs are a hybrid genre that, more than any other, incorporate elements of strategy games, adventure games, interactive fiction, and so on. We tend to *know* an RPG when we play it, but due to our fuzzy understanding of where those lines begin and end we tend to go back to the "role playing", which in reality is not applicable when it comes to videogame RPGs.

However, while our definition is a little hazy, I think it's very easy to reconcile this problem. What about RPGs most defines them? Interactions and manipulations of explicit statistics by the player, and advancement of a single character or party in accordance with a ruleset which is, in most cases, applicable to most other characters in the game. While the title we use is a misnomer, our understanding of the genre isn't. We see this outside of games all the time. Jazz music, for instance - exactly what does "jazz" refer to in music theory? Yet we have no idea understanding jazz when we experience it.

Frankly, this whole discussion on genre is a non-issue - and if you're interpreting role-playing games as being able role-playing because of the title of the genre, then you're Doing It Wrong. Does that mean we need a better title for the genre? Probably, but good luck with that.

Rowan Kaiser
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Another insulting comment that didn't even seem to read the article. If you do a better job of reading my piece and engage with it like a human being instead of a warrior, perhaps I'll read this wall of text.

Eric Schwarz
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@Rowan:

I apologize for coming across as a little aggressive. It was early in the morning, I was half-asleep and probably responded in a bit of a knee-jerk way. However - I did read the article in full, and many people here took the time to read and respond to your article. Your refusal to respond to many of them is hardly courteous either, because it's clear there are a lot of strong feelings and thoughts in play and you deliberately invite them in your own writing.

Let me make it up for you by going into yet more detail and providing a point-by-point breakdown.

"I tend to think there are three main ways that people try to define the role-playing genre, which parallel the three questions described at the start of this piece: "Do you play a role in the game?" "Does the game work like other role-playing games?" And, the most complicated one, revealed by the oddity of the film grain, is, "Where does this game fit in the history of role-playing games?""

These are interesting questions, but I do not think they even begin to touch on what's most important: the mechanics of the game. While you're right in suggesting that cultural context and consensus form the basis for our understanding of genre, the fact that we do have those agreed-upon standards for game mechanics also suggests that it's not enough to simply ask "does this resemble other RPGs?" We need to examine what the standards of gameplay mechanics and systems are for the genre, and understand how Mass Effect both adheres and deviates from them. You don't really touch on this at all and it ends up being this article's biggest flaw.

You instead start talking about how genre descriptions are limiting to our understanding of this, which I covered in that "supplemental" post I made after the main one. To reiterate: genres are categories for classifying pieces of media/entertainment/culture/what have you. We tend to associate a work with whatever genre we see is most prevalent in it - or, we say it's a hybrid when we see multiple genres in equal measure. This does not strike me as a difficult subject to grasp - if Mass Effect is a shooter/RPG, then what's wrong with calling it a shooter/RPG? I don't see genres being challenged yet.

"But there is a better form of this kind of argument, which is that role-playing games specifically have a straightforward core concept: they encourage players to project themselves into the game more than others. From this perspective, the Mass Effect games aren't merely RPGs, they are perhaps the best example of RPGs in the world."

Without going into role-playing vs. roll-playing (I am firmly in the latter camp because the former camp is simply too inclusive, i.e. Duke Nukem is an RPG because you "play the role" of Duke Nukem), to call Mass Effect the "best RPG in the world" is ludicrous. Mass Effect provides less interactivity with the world than Fallout, The Elder Scrolls or Ultima, it provides fewer dialogue options than many other RPGs and even few that have any gameplay consequence whatsoever (only doubling the workloads for animators, those poor guys), the carry-over consequence between games is tiny to the point of being nonexistent (I'd say party importing in Baldur's Gate 2 is 1000x more consequential than slightly different dialogue lines in a wholly linear nrartive), and Shepard isn't an "extension of the player's will", he she is a brick with zero personality that is impossible to either project on or identify with (unless you consider yourself to have no personality whatsoever). Marcus Fenix is a better RPG character than Shepard. Say, why are you talking about Mass Effect here? The Elder Scrolls embodies all of these traits to an exponentially greater degree.

"This confusion often leads people to question the use of genre. It's a crutch, they say, and to some extent they're right. But it's a necessary crutch. We need some mechanism for saying, of all the games in the world, these games fit in a style together. The genre titles we use tend to work. I think we can all understand that there are similarities between games labeled “role-playing game” just as we can “first-person shooter”. But can those similarities be nailed down and clearly identified?"

Yes. The fact that you choose to not acknowledge them and ignore obvious game mechanics does not change that, it only means you are crafting an incomplete definition. See my post above for more details on this. One minor quibble here about your definition: not all RPGs use die rolls to determine things, and many non-RPGs use die rolls to determine outcomes (which are often invisible to the player but still very present). "Has a random number generator" is not enough to mechanically differentiate RPGs from other games.

"This definition is, well, mechanical, which makes sense because it's based on mechanics. (It's not the only mechanical definition - some people prefer concepts of abstraction and skill.) It doesn't include typical discussions of “playing a role” or narrative or anything of the sort - because those things are inconsistent. Most RPGs take place in fantasy settings, but not Knights of the Old Republic. RPGs are famous for being story-based, but there are also dozens of hack'n'slash RPGs, like Rogue."

I see no discussion of mechanics in that definition whatsoever except for the absolute broadest of swathes. It's like saying "a puzzle game is a game where you solve puzzles." Is "solving puzzles" a game mechanic? Only in the absolute most abstract sense; certainly not enough to build a definition out of.

"But what this definition does do is sort through every game that should be considered an RPG and make that status clear."

How? By being extremely vague and potentially applicable to almost any game? Let's take Resident Evil 4:

1) You play as Leon S. Kennedy and Ashley Williams, along with extra characters
2) You overcome obstacles and your character grows (new weapons, more health, etc.)
3) Published random numbers are used in puzzles and quick-time events

So, Resident Evil 4 must be an amazing RPG, right? Sure, maybe you can contest point 3, but points 1 and 2 are rock-solid. But my point is, you see how your definition completely falls apart when put under even modest scrutiny? How then can we possibly use it for your thesis?

"So, why not call it an RPG? Shouldn't the definition be stretched, if it doesn't fit a game with the historical context of role-playing-ness?"

Because a) your definition is not very good, and b) many people already do call it an RPG or hybrid RPG/shooter. What are you "proving" here?

"And this, I think, is what makes many RPG fans react so emotionally to its occasional placement in the role-playing genre. Mass Effect's surprising popularity seems to say that RPGs aren't novels, they're movies now. If that's something a player is fine with, they'll probably like Mass Effect just fine. But if not – then it's not just a game to be liked or disliked, but it's a symbol of everything that's wrong with video games today – bigger, flashier, and dumber."

Finally, we get to something relevant to the actual thesis - and it still doesn't make much sense. People are not upset about RPGs having cutscenes or voice acting, or looking like movies. That stuff is awesome! You want to know why all those old-school RPG players are upset about Mass Effect, and especially the sequels? It's not because it "challenges their definitions of an RPG" by being more film-like than novel-like - it's because it features poor gameplay (shooting in the first game), dumbed-down mechanics (the entire series, especially the second game), panders to fans by focusing more on romance than intelligent storytelling (Talimancers unite!), features reduced choice and consequence compared to most other RPGs (13 years on and Planescape is still unmatched), and it does all of this not to make a better RPG - but because BioWare have stopped making the kinds of games that made their fans loyal in the first place in order to make shooters with slightly better cutscenes, because they sell more copies than traditional RPGs do.

To be blunt: your thesis is vague, your article is full of filler, the definition the piece hinges upon is not persuasive, and your arguments, where they are, do not support the thesis effectively. You claim to talk about game design and mechanics but only go into the broadest of strokes. Please don't take it personally, but I just do not find this in any way to be a persuasive or cohesive piece of writing, whether judged as an essay or editorial.

Rowan Kaiser
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Thanks for trying to be less aggressive, although I feel like you might have lost that point somewhere by the end. Nevertheless, since you applied the effort:

If you want to just talk about the mechanics of the game, you can. And that's great. But I don't believe that mechanics are the entirety of a genre. Player expectations of certain styles of games are a huge part of genre, and that includes things like dialogue wheels and settings and control schemes and graphical styles and so on. Part of my point in writing this is saying that all these different things, as well as mechanics, are part of how genre is perceived.

Now, you might want to reduce genre to mechanics, and more power to you. But that's not the only thing I'm discussing here, intentionally. So I don't think I'm wrong for not discussing what you want, I think you're just trying to apply a certain standard that you want from me.

As for whether ME is an RPG or a shooter/RPG, I don't think the two are mutually exclusive questions. Whether it's a shooter or not isn't being questioned, of course it is. Whether it's a shooter that's also an RPG (like original Deus Ex) or a shooter that has RPG elements (like many, many games with progression) is a different question. I think it's an interesting one. Maybe you don't, but then, it's not my fault you read an attempt to answer that question.

And, you can also disagree with me about Shepard being more an extension of the player's will than other games. That's fine and dandy, but from my conversations with gamers and critics, the way Shepard is written and how they create/play as their Shepard is clearly the biggest draw of the game to them. I'm acknowledging the popularity of the game and attempting to examine why. I tend to agree with that popularity in this case, but lord knows, there are enough games that have been popular that I've hated that I wouldn't engage well with an essay that didn't share my original opinions, so I can understand that. Three really long comments on the subject seems excessive, but hey, whatever - clearly we disagree on the subject.

Now, I guess what you REALLY want to get into is my mechanical definition of an RPG. And no, it's not mechanical in that I'm talking about specific game mechanics. It's mechanical in that I'm trying to strip the concept down away from the social constraints and uncover the similarities in *whatever* that always work.

Second, those things have to always be there. You gave the example of Resident Evil 4 and said it fits two of the three criteria. Well sure, lots of games fit two of the three criteria. To say that a game fits two of the three criteria isn't sufficient, it has to fit all three. If I say to you "My cat is lost. It has four legs. It is male. It is an orange tabby." and you come to me with a black cat and say "This cat has four legs and is male, so it's mostly your cat" that really doesn't work, does it?

So yes, that's not too wide of a definition. It's a definition that works for virtually every game that's widely considered an RPG, from Ultima to Final Fantasy to Fallout. You're actually demonstrating the definition's strength by saying "this game comes close!" Close isn't good enough.

As for the rest, well, clearly you don't like Mass Effect. Doesn't mean you have to act like I'm a horrible person for not agreeing with you on everything about it.

Eric Schwarz
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"If you want to just talk about the mechanics of the game, you can. And that's great. But I don't believe that mechanics are the entirety of a genre. Player expectations of certain styles of games are a huge part of genre, and that includes things like dialogue wheels and settings and control schemes and graphical styles and so on. Part of my point in writing this is saying that all these different things, as well as mechanics, are part of how genre is perceived. "

Yet you go on and for the most part ignore mechanics in your definition. Sorry, but you can't do that - it's like saying you're going to talk about gothic horror literature and then summarily ignore literary devices common to the genre.

"Now, you might want to reduce genre to mechanics, and more power to you. But that's not the only thing I'm discussing here, intentionally. So I don't think I'm wrong for not discussing what you want, I think you're just trying to apply a certain standard that you want from me."

Please, don't try to twist this into a personal attack. The only thing I want is to see you discuss this topic in depth, and ignoring mechanics entirely while simultaneously praising their value and claiming your self-admitted mechanic-free definition is itself mechanically-oriented makes no sense. If you want to write an essay on "Mass Effect's unique approach to narrative" or whatever, fine - but don't try to turn that into an argument about genre, because genre is more than that.

"Now, I guess what you REALLY want to get into is my mechanical definition of an RPG. And no, it's not mechanical in that I'm talking about specific game mechanics. It's mechanical in that I'm trying to strip the concept down away from the social constraints and uncover the similarities in *whatever* that always work."

Not entirely. Mechanics are the most important thing in defining a game genre but they are not the only thing. Themes, control schemes, user interfaces and so on are also important.

"So yes, that's not too wide of a definition. It's a definition that works for virtually every game that's widely considered an RPG, from Ultima to Final Fantasy to Fallout. You're actually demonstrating the definition's strength by saying "this game comes close!" Close isn't good enough."

It's a matter for debate, and that's enough to call your definition into question. What constitutes "published random numbers"? To what degree do they need to be published to count? Do they have to be published in a particular way? What if I use pictures instead of text? What about RPGs that don't use published random numbers? Your analogy about cats doesn't really work because we're not talking about something so clearly objective (colour), but something that is, at least per your definition, subjective and vague (what constitutes a published random number).

I'm not saying that, casually, an extremely strict definition is necessary. We all "know" an RPG when we play one, as I've mentioned. But - and this is what I've been reiterating - you need to have one in order to being able to precisely identify the most common mechanics amongst games of that genre.

"As for the rest, well, clearly you don't like Mass Effect. Doesn't mean you have to act like I'm a horrible person for not agreeing with you on everything about it."

This isn't really about Mass Effect - it's about you presenting an article whose thesis that isn't adequately supported by valid arguments or evidence. On top of that, it's padded with irrelevant information, like the mini-history of RPGs, the bit about moral choices that goes nowhere, the motif of film grain which seems to have no place in the article, etc. If you were to ask me to identify your key arguments, I honestly would not be able to, because I can't find them.

On a wider level, my comments also speak to the way the definition of RPG has become diluted over time, precisely due to an ignorance towards the mechanics that make up the genre. This is an ignorance which is not shared on any level by any other genre, and one which you can't seem to decide whether to disregard - I guess your argument is about mechanics when you want it to be, and it isn't when that's convenient as well? Just like how you both scold the "RPGs are about playing a role" definition and yet also claim that is exactly what made you question your definition, this lack of consistency is not in any way helpful to our understanding of RPGs - and, in my opinion, inhibits developers' ability to improve the genre.

While I've come across as blunt, this is simply a topic I devote a great deal of thought and my own writing to, and consequently your article has struck all the wrong chords in me. This is not personal, and your insistence both on playing the victim and putting words in my mouth isn't helpful to the discussion.

Bob Johnson
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I have always thought of dialogue trees as a joke. The choices all come down to "Kick the dog" or "Feed it Alpo."

Harlan Sumgui
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As these comments have shown, there is no agreement on what a computer RPG is. And that is because you cannot play a role in a single player computer game because you cannot act freely, nor affect the world or outcome (and choosing between 3 endings like in dx:hr, or playing Paragon vs Renegade doesn't count)..choose your own adventure indeed.

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Bart Stewart
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Time for another whack at this. I think the problem here really is partially one of semantics: we're borrowing the word "genre" but we're not using it right.

"Detective fiction" is a genre. So is science fiction. A secondary world either is or is not one of those things.

But "roleplaying game," whether you define it as roll-playing (Gamist) or playing a [character] role (Narrativist), is not a categorical term. There is no specific mechanic that always lets you say whether a game is or is not an RPG because RPGness can be achieved in many different ways. Character attributes and skills are one common way, but gear is another way of showing how the player's decisions defined that character's narrative. As I noted above, the number and kinds of relations with important NPCs could be yet another way of representing how a character is defined through the role choices made by the player.

It's because of this multiplicity of ways to create RPGness -- unlike the specific setting and plot elements required to categorically be a murder mystery or a bodice-ripper romance -- that make me think it's more useful to talk about degrees of RPGness. "Is" or "is not" is never going to gain consensus because "RPG" is not a kind of genre. "How much of an RPG is it" has a chance of being helpful.

For example:
No RPG: games without characters (Tetris, Asteroids)
Little RPG: characters who don't change or whose change doesn't tell a story (Civilization V, Minecraft)
Moderate RPG: characters whose personal change is limited or secondary to other gameplay (Half-Life, Mass Effect 2)
Quite RPG: characters whose personal change is important to the primary gameplay (Deus Ex, Mass Effect 1)
Highly RPG: characters whose personal change is integral/required for the primary game experience (D&D, Fallout, Elder Scrolls)

Even this is debatable in its details, of course. But the big picture, shades-of-gray view lets people make generally acceptable statements like "Resident Evil 4 isn't much of an RPG" and "Mass Effect 2 was less of an RPG than Mass Effect 1" and then move on to more productive discussions.

Yes, I'm an optimist. :)

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Lysandus Underking
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This article just proves my theory that people who start playing "western" RPGs in this generation of consoles have to clue what a RPG is about.

In RPGs you are forced to play limited by your character's strenghts and weaknesses. For example, you can be a Counter-Strike veteran, but if your character has no shooting skills, you won't hit the target despite your ability as a gamer. That's where Mass Effect 2 and 3 fails as a RPG.

Rebecca Phoa
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It seems to me from reading various forums and on their own BSN, Mass Effect 2 divided a lot of their existing consumers into different camps: those that enjoyed the gameplay because it veered off into third person shooter action (and maybe enjoyed it for what it's worth because it did address a certain clunky-ness about the first game) and those who enjoyed the more statistic, system heavy game that defined a 'classic' game genre (and maybe didn't like the sequel as much). I use the term 'maybe' because I don't know the position that fans decided to stand on when judging if ME2 was a 'success' in game design (not having read an official postmortem makes it difficult).

For the record, I did feel that Bioware stripped out a lot of the stuff I enjoyed in the first game (inventory, weapon customization, a physics based land rover that if driven in a certain fashion would flip on its back) and I sorely missed these things even if it made the game imperfect.

What Bioware needs to do now is to decide where to go from here. Do they continue to push heavy story based action games (like Uncharted) or do they decide to go full on into fully story driven adventure type experiences (like Monkey Island) for those who don't want that heavy combat? If Bioware wants to do story, you don't need the RPG genre (which as Bart Stewart pointed out) to do so.

Jaime von Schwarzburg
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Game trying to be novel vs game trying to be film? The fact that these are the two options being presented demonstrates a fundamental flaw in our framework.

Ludus qua ludus!


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