Think you know what an RPG is? Nick D. doesn’t and he’s been playing them for twenty years. Take a look as he tries to explain why the term RPG is too large to define.
The RPG genre is immense. Filled with wildly different subgenres that use dissimilar methods to accomplish different goals, it’s no wonder that people get into arguments over what is and, as is more often the case, what is not an RPG. I put forward the basic assertion that it is not possible to set a single definition that covers the entire genre. In fact, I buck at the idea that even the RPG subgenres are coherent enough to provide a clear and distinct definition that fits all. Because of this, I submit that, while many RPGs share certain characteristics, there is no single guiding thread that ties them altogether.
What I mean by this is that there are tropes and conventions commonly associated with the subgenres such as JRPG and turn-based battles. However, the absence of such a trope does not invalidate something from fitting into that subgenre. Sometimes, it is a combination of tropes that make it fit into the genre, and sometimes it is only a single adherence. What is clear is that the genre isn’t as neat as people like to think it is.
For this analysis, I intend to briefly look at the RPG genre as a whole first before delving into a few chosen subgenres. While examining these subgenres, I intend to go over some of the more prevalent tropes that people associate with them, and give reasons why these particular tropes are not determinative in defining the game as a member of that subgenre.
The purpose of this article is to try and prevent widespread belief that someone knows what an RPG is over someone else. As mentioned above, this is a common argument. People frequently try to dismiss certain games such as the upcoming Final Fantasy XV because they hold the belief that these games cannot possibly be RPGs, or a certain subgenre of RPG. I hope to give some insight as to the haphazard nature of these classifications, and to attempt to curve some internet-bred vitriol.
Literal Meaning and Origins:
RPG is an acronym for role-playing game. Let’s take a minute and step back from everything we know about the genre. What does the word mean in its literal sense, ignoring the absurd interpretation that it refers to a game that plays roles. It refers to a game in which the player takes on the role of a character that is not themselves. If this strict interpretation was applied to the gaming industry, nearly every game would be an RPG. Games like Tetris wouldn’t be caught due to the absence of a character, but even arcade hits like Pac-Man or first-person shooters like Call of Duty: Ghosts would be considered RPGs because they have you inhabit the skin of another character.
The reason I bring up the rather absurd literal interpretation is because it is often used in arguments as to why JRPGs cannot be RPGs. Some have interpreted role-playing game to mean a game where you can craft all aspects of the character, including appearance, which is often not an option in JRPGs. While this clearly stretches the literal interpretation in the way that the arguer desires, it also has the problem that the term RPG, and thus any literal interpretation of its words, were not intended to be applied to video games.
Role-playing games have their origins in table top games where players would actively create their own characters and go on imaginary adventures of their own making. In this way, they were creating and playing the role of a character they invented. The world RPG was imported into gaming from this because of the influence of games such as Dungeons and Dragons had on early RPGs, both western and eastern. Therefore, it is not helpful to look at the actual words found in the acronym since being haphazardly imported led to a perversion of the initial meaning.
Because of this, we have to examine the word RPG in the context of how it is used in the video game industry, which is completely different than how it is used in the tabletop RPG world. Because of the vast nature of the RPG world in gaming, and the fact that there is no such thing as a pure RPG, it is now that we must turn to the subgenres if we are to gain any clarity in the matter.
I want to linger a little longer on the JRPG and WRPG subgenres than the rest because these are most often the sources of discontent among RPG fans. Therefore, I will be examining a non-exhaustive list of major tropes and conventions found in these genres in more detail than the other subgenres I have chosen to highlight.
The JRPG, or Japanese role-playing game, is a fairly large subgenre encompassing a wide variety of other subgenres. For example Disgaea: Hour of Darkness can be considered both a JRPG and an SRPG. However, I want to keep things simple as we discuss JRPGs and later WRPGs, so I want to try and use examples that are as prototypical as possible without crossing genre lines. We’ll get to the more blurry parts later.
a. Made In Japan:
This is the first trope that many people attach to the JRPG. If it’s an RPG from Japan, it must be a JRPG, right? To be fair, the vast majority of JRPGs are from Japan, and it’s easy to make this jump as the world Japan is in the acronym. However, by saying that the country of origin is determinative in selecting the subgenre, one overlooks the actual substance of the game. For example, Dark Souls is an RPG made in Japan. Nevertheless, it binds together a wide variety of WRPG tropes over JRPG tropes. Calling games like Dark Souls JRPGs simply because of the country of origin is nonsensical when the content of the game says otherwise. At the same time, a whole slew of western-developed JRPGs exist on mobile devices such as Cthulhu Saves the World.
b. Turn-based Battles:
When many people think about JRPGs, they think about a lineup of characters, all under your control, who take turns whacking at the enemy side. Turn-based combat has been popular for a long time, since the early Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior days. However, once again, this is not the defining characteristic of the genre. From very early on, there have been JRPGs that aren’t turn-based. The Tales series is a perfect example of a combination of JRPG tropes, while maintaining real-time battles.
c. Anime Influence:
Undeniably, many JRPGs have been influenced by anime, or similar styles. Many western gamers associate the genre with characters with big, goofy hairstyles or cute magic girls swimming in the mystical waters of moe. One look at the Atelier series would seem to confirm it. However, many JRPGs don’t rip their art style and aesthetics directly from anime. Early JRPGs were more influenced by Dungeons and Dragons, and prominent games such as Final Fantasy VIII have bucked this style altogether in place of a more realistic approach.
d. Lack of Customization:
Many JRPGs lack a wide variety of customization options. As mentioned above, this has led many people to claiming that JRPGs are thus not RPGs. The best example of a customization-free JRPG that I can think of is Final Fantasy IV – a game where you have no control over any part of your character progression. Nevertheless, Final Fantasy IV is still considered an RPG, mostly because of its use of other tropes more prominently. At the same time, JRPGs that allow massive amounts of customization, such as White Knight Chronicles, remain JRPGs even though you can design a character and remodel their skills.
It is often argued that JRPGs are linear, while WRPGs are open. I’ll get to the WRPG side later, but this is generally true of all games to an extent. Most JRPGs provide choice or non-linear options at some points of the game, just as WRPGs do. Even Final Fantasy XIII, which is frequently accused of being a hallway simulator, has a large segment near the end of the game that is completely non-linear. The same can be said with Final Fantasy VI’s World of Ruin. There are also JRPGs with huge worlds for players to explore and quests to complete at one’s leisure such as Xenoblade Chronicles.
f. Massive Story:
Story isn’t that important to defining something as an RPG. I know many people define RPGs as being story-heavy, but the solid fact is that story does little to differentiate a game as an RPG, no less a JRPG. Some JRPGs have huge, and complicated stories about saving the world with rich characterization. Others, like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, are barebones. Others still like many Dungeon Crawlers and ARPGs that are caught in the JRPG category have little to no story at all. Furthermore, many non-RPGs have huge sprawling stories such as the Metal Gear Solid games.
People love to point out that JRPGs all have stories involving a bunch of spikey-haired kids trying to save the world. Sometimes this is ture. Most of the time, it isn’t. Persona 4 conforms to the kids trying to save the world part, but its detective story/dating simulator approach is drastically different than say Dragon Quest VIII’s massive open world adventure. Other JRPGs, such as Pokémon have small stories that are just there for an excuse for the action. Many JRPG plots are overly convoluted like the Final Fantasy XIII series, while many are not.
You may notice that the WRPG, or western role-playing game, is significantly more broad in terms of its targeted geographical scope than the JRPG. In many ways, it is a catch-all category used to define a genre of RPGs that were distinctly different from games such as Final Fantasy and the like. You’ll notice that many of the tropes stand in direct opposition of the JRPG ones. However, this doesn’t mean that the genre is any more haphazardly thrown together, nor does it mean that the qualifications of being an WRPG are any less arbitrary.
a. Made in the West:
Once again, taking the literal meaning of the acronym, we must assume that every western RPG must fall into this category, and that, conversely, no Japanese-made RPG can. Once again, I like to use the example of Dark Souls. This is a game with deep customization, real-time battles, an open world, and a barebones plot. Yet, some call it a JRPG simply because it is an RPG that was made in Japan. The W in WRPG represents the western style more than it represents the country of origin of the game in the same way that the J in JRPG can apply to Korean or even western-made RPGs that follow that style.
b. Real-time Battles:
In a modern setting, it is difficult, if not impossible to find a WRPG that does not use a real-time battle system. This may lead some people to believe that all WRPGs must involve real-time battles. However, many early WRPGs such as the Might and Magic games used a turn-based system the same way that many older JRPGs did. Also, the way many Dungeons and Dragons-based games such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, approached combat blurred lines between turn-based and real-time. While the genre has mostly evolved past turn-based combat, these older games are a good example of how the WRPG genre is not defined solely by their real-time battle systems.
c. Dungeons and Dragons-Inspired:
Many see WRPGs as being firmly entrenched in the style of Dungeons and Dragons. It isn’t hard to see why when hugely popular WRPGs such as Neverwinter Nights or Baldur’s Gate are built as extensions of that game. When it comes to gameplay, throwing saves and the like have pretty much been entirely vetted out as the genre developed, though they held a strong presence for many years.
For art and aesthetics, Dungeons and Dragons borrowed heavily from Tolkien, and Tolkien’s hand is indeed felt strongly across a multitudes of WRPGs. However, not all WRPGs are high fantasy. Many, such as the Mass Effect series, are science fiction, which rely on other tropes of the genre to operate, meaning that this influence is not determinative in defining a WRPG.
Like the JRPG’s apparent lack of customization, some define WRPGs as being nothing but pure customization. But what does this mean exactly? Some WRPGs allow full character creation with stat-building customized as you see fit like The Elder Scrolls games. However, others, such as The Witcher have you playing a single non-customizable character with customizable abilities. Customizable abilities are found prominently in many genres including JRPGs, and customizable avatars are not uncommon as well, making this trope somewhat confused.
e. Non-Linear Gameplay:
WRPGs are often seen as non-linear in nature. However, not all WRPGs are as open world as Skyrim. Bioware is a company that is prized by gamers for giving choice about level progression, but their games are extremely linear if you peel back this illusion of choice. Most follow the flow of being able to pick a place to go first, then being set on a linear path until the choice comes up again. While you choose your level, the levels themselves are extremely linear.
While it is true that choice is a major feature of WRPGs, it is not unique to this subgenre. Choice is prominent in JRPGs such as Persona 4, which gives you lots of choice in the story and dialogue. And JRPGs like Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter give you lots of choice in how to approach each combat situation.
Before we continue, I think a larger example is in order. Since we’re keeping things simple at this stage, pretend for a moment that only JRPGs and WRPGs exist. Let’s use that limited scope to deconstruct the recently released Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. The gameplay trailer below should help people unfamiliar with the game.
What is this game? Is it a JRPG or an WRPG? Let’s take this step-by-step. It is a game made by Square-Enix, so it was created in Japan. The battles are real-time. There is minor anime influence, but not to any great extent. All of Lightning’s abilities and even her appearance can be fully customized right down to the colour of her clothes. The gameplay is open-world, allowing the player to choose where to go and what to do for the entire game. Finally, the story is overly complex and nonsensical.
In many ways, Lightning Returns conforms more with WRPG tropes than JRPG ones. However, many, myself included, would consider it a JRPG. Why is this? I put forward that the reason for this is because we only use the tropes as guideposts in determining what is a JRPG and WRPG, not as steadfast rules. As guideposts, we assign differing weight to these tropes on a personalized case-by-case basis. In other words, we individually know a JRPG when we see it, though a definition that would catch it for all remains illusive.
JRPG vs. WRPG Conclusion:
We know intrinsically that games like Skyrim or The Witcher 3 are WRPGs, the same way we know that Final Fantasy IV is a JRPG. What we aren’t sure about is how the tropes and conventions arrange themselves in order to definitively flag the game as a member of that subgenre. These tropes and conventions aren’t omnipresent. Not one thing makes a JRPG or a WRPG, which means that a combination of factors goes into the classification of these genres.
Since these terms evolved organically as the industry grew, there aren’t specific rules in place for how we should weigh certain elements. In other words, the definition of JRPG and WRPG will vary from person to person.
The SRPG is perhaps one of the easiest RPG subgenres to define. Standing for strategy role-playing game, it is a genre that mixes heavy RPG elements such as character-building, story, etc. with a slower strategy-based gameplay. Nevertheless, the subgenre is still wide and difficult to get a grasp on.
Many see grid-based and turn-based games such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem or Disgaea as the prototypical SRPG. However, these are not the only kinds of SRPG. Games such as Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen are also SRPGs, though they lack the grid and use a battle system that is a much different expression of the turn-based style found in grid-based games. Other SRPGs such as Valkyria Chronicles, throw off grid-based and turn-based combat entirely.
My point for touching on SRPGs is to point out that as genres and subgenres grow they become increasingly difficult to define. The SRPG is easier than most to narrow down a definition for because they are less prevalent. Exceptions to the norm such as Valkyria Chronicles and Ogre Battle are less common than in the larger subgenres where half of the games released are exceptions.
This is where things begin to get complicated and extremely opaque. For years, ARPGs were used as a residual category that caught JRPGs that didn’t fit in perfectly with the established tropes, and used more action-based combat. This is one of the reasons why people get so confused about JRPGs and the perceived requirement of turn-based battles, since there is a category for RPGs that use real-time battles. However, what’s important to understand is that these subgenres aren’t mutually exclusive. Diablo III, for example, can be considered an ARPG, WRPG, and Dungeon Crawler, while a game such as Secret of Mana is a JRPG and an ARPG.
What makes ARPGs absolute nightmares to define is the fact that simply having RPG elements and an action bend is enough to potentially qualify, though there is no indication of how many RPG elements or what action means. Does action mean real-time sword and sorcery like in Secret of Mana? Can it include guns and partial turn-based battles such as Parasite Eve? Is the action requirement limited to the action we find in action genre games or can it cross boundaries, making first-person shooters or even strategy games ARPGs?
If this wasn’t a difficult enough question on its own, as the industry has grown, RPG elements have been inserted into just about every game out there. It’s easy to point at a game like Kingdom Hearts and say that it’s an ARPG, but what about Borderlands? It has lots of customization of appearance and abilities. Is that enough to become an ARPG? Metal Gear Solid, Halo, and God of War all have RPG elements scattered throughout their gameplay. Does this qualify them as ARPGs? If not, why? What is the cutoff line?
This isn’t a new argument. Fans have been bickering for years whether or not The Legend of Zelda series is an RPG or an action/adventure game. There are certainly RPG elements in the character development and progression of Zelda games, though the focus on action has led many to deny its entry into the RPG genre. While they wouldn’t fit nicely into either the JRPG or WRPG subgenres, Zelda games could conceivably be considered RPGs by virtue of meeting the murky ARPG criteria.
What we’re left with is a residual field, which could potentially house almost every game created nowadays. This is a major reason why the definition of RPG is so hard to get a handle on. RPG elements provide clear and useful tools for developers to show character progression and to empower and entice gamers to keep playing. They also have the side effect of making the already ill-defined RPG genre even harder to get a handle on.
The point of this entire, long-winded diatribe was to show how poorly thought out the RPG genre is. There isn’t a single element that makes something an RPG, and the absence of supposedly critical elements isn’t determinative. When someone says that Final Fantasy XV isn’t an JRPG because it isn’t turn-based, I silently check off dozens of JRPG tropes in my head that affirm it as possibly fitting in that subgenre. However, how I weigh these elements is different than someone else would, meaning that one cannot simply declare a game definitely not an RPG in many cases. It’s weird, but it’s a side effect of the organic evolution of this genre in video gaming.
As mentioned above, what this leaves us with is having to determine each game on a case-by-case basis. Some games are easy – Tales of Xillia 2 is a JRPG. Other’s aren’t so simple. But, unfortunately, there isn’t a single unified definition that we can all use. I know an RPG when I see one, but that’s about as far as I’m willing to go.