RPG (Role Playing Game) is a term used by almost every “gamer” and industry marketing team. I will attempt to clarify the problem the industry has in using the term RPG to define a digital game. I refuse to give an entire summary of the history of this term. Those interested should do a simple Google search. I am more intrigued by the way we apply the term to modern video games. If playing a role is all that is required to classify a game as an RPG, then most commercial games are now considered RPGs. Nobody that I know claims that every game is an RPG thankfully. I have heard odd games being classified as an RPG like the Bioshock games (I got into a heated debate in GameStop over this). I view every video game on a spectrum. On the left side you have games like Uncharted and Call of Duty, and on the other lies tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. If I exclude tabletop I would substitute games like Divinity: Original Sin 2 on the far right. The left side is pure linearity, and the right side is a traditional RPG.
The elements that comprise an RPG are usually drawn from tabletop RPGs. Stats, upgrades, player choice in narrative and combat outcomes, loot, equipment, experience/leveling, and a role to play. This role is either a predetermined character that player assumes control over or a character that is created using a variety of traits that the game supplies. A game such as Fallout: New Vegas meets most of these requirements. Bioshock exhibits a few elements like upgrades and a slight alteration in the narrative. The Call of Duty franchise usually lacks all of these in their campaign mode. The player in a Call of Duty campaign is shown one way, and only one way, to complete the game’s objectives. If you violate these rules or choose to ignore them the player will not progress. All combat outcomes boil down to a shooting gallery with a predetermined story to be consumed. By pure definition of the word “role”, all these games could be considered an RPG.
It is impossible for a computer game, for the foreseeable future, to emulate what can be done playing a tabletop RPG. This is because there are rarely limitations in that setting. Players can freely create their story and how to live out that story. Some tabletop RPGs have imposed rules, like DnD, but there is an entire genre of tabletop RPGs that are completely freeform. The only limitations come from the Game Master who is part of the experience. Computer games need to be crafted for a very specific type of experience, even massive games like the Witcher 3. Obviously, someone playing the Witcher 3 cannot choose to do something that has not been specifically built into the game. By the definition of a “traditional” RPG, computer games are not RPGs. Conversely, if playing a “role” is the only standard for an RPG, then Call of Duty is an RPG.
The industry and its players clearly make the distinction for what constitutes an RPG, and at some point, during gaming history, the defining features for digital RPGs came into existence. The reason it is important to make this classification is for the sake of the consumer and marketer. Consumers need to know what they are buying, and those selling the games need an idea of what audience to sell to. I wrote this article to hopefully educate readers on the importance of classifying video games. There is not a hard or fast rule on what defines an RPG in the digital space. The spectrum that I have described should be taken into consideration when you want to say that Borderlands in an RPG or god forbid Bioshock.