No really, what is it? I know what it stands for. I know what it was. Though what is it now? At it’s core it means Role Playing Game. A game where you play a role. Sounds simple enough, right?
Prepare to be surprised. Because it’s not. Not even a little. The original RPG’s were based around the pen and paper Dungeon and Dragons style tabletop games. Those games are about like, do you honestly don’t know? Fine, okay, I’ll play along. So you roll a set of dice to get a series of numbers to allocate to a list of stats. These stats make you special and unique. Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Accuracy, Luck, and well it differs from game to game. The game host would control the NPCs (Non Player Characters) and the Enemies as they guide the players through a scenario. You would have role to play. Both your class, like thief, as well as your personality. These are often made using an alignment chart.
These games are more about joint story telling. With an infrastructure in place to fairly decide what players are capable of doing. So obviously a lot had to be lost in order to bring them to a single player computer based set up. Big emphasis on the computer side of that. Real story driven RPGs that still have choice and narrative control have always worked best without a storage size limit. Old systems used carts and lacked DLC or updates so you only got what you could shove into that plastic box of joy. Oddly enough they don’t tend to be thought of when people say RPG. They often get called Western RPGs. Most people think JRPG when you say RPG. Turn based menu driven combat that is heavily based on equipment and character levels. This isn’t that far off of a Role Playing Game. Often you had silent protagonists who you could project motivations and story into them. You do have your own reason for playing after all. You have a connection to the character, their world, or the mission they are on. This doesn’t have to be limited to just turn based stat based games. I think the bigger part is character customization along with the lack of narrative for the main character or characters. Even Zelda 2 had you choose what stat to increase in a limited capacity.
So I seem to know what I expect right? So why am I confused? Well as technology got better the game’s got bigger. You started getting full stories for each character. Dialogue gives depth to the motivations and driving points to the story. This isn’t a bad thing but let’s use two older games as an example here. Final Fantasy IV (2 in the US) and Final Fantasy VI (3 in the US) both of these games are on the Super Nintendo. They are also both on the list of best games I ever played. In FF4 you follow the story of Cecil a loyal knight, and adopted son, of the King of Baron.
You go on a mission to collect the elemental crystals by any means necessary. Usually murder, let’s just be honest, that is what any means necessary implies. He is brought to odds with not only his loyalties but himself when he is double crossed and left for dead. Journeying back home for answers he ultimately has to embark on a quest to fight the evil he helped bring to the world. To overcome his doubt and his past to redeem himself. An intense emotional quest largely focused on his past actions. Depending on the aid of kingdoms he just recently lead armies against. His friends and lover being torn between trusting him or staying true to the life they already know. Your party grows and changes as you meet and lose allies along the way until finally the day is saved. Each party member has a set progression to their skills and stats. The story is fixed and you just get to read it out in-between exploring dungeons and towns. This game is the same start to finish each time you play it. This is a standard JRPG to this day. Oh right, sorry, the J is for Japanese in JRPG. They are typically all this linear with the exception of a few stand outs. Games like Final Fantasy VI. Remember a bit ago when I showed you the protagonist of FF4? Well here is FF6.
Boom baby! Look at all those characters. Arguably Terra is the main character. Her or Locke that is. They are the first characters you are introduced to during the opening moments. Terra, Tina in the Japanese version, is one of the few people still naturally gifted with magic in this world. A slave to the empire she has her memories and will suppressed as she is forced to track down and retrieve magical beings known as espers. After the mission goes wrong her binding is undone, and the empire is closing in to retrieve her and take over the town while they are there. So a kindly INN keeper contacts his treasure hunter friend to sneak her out to safety. That guy is Locke, a thief with his own tragic backstory involving the love of his life falling into a coma and the only cute being a rare and illusive plant. This isn’t revealed until much later, but it’s why he even agrees to help Terra in the first place. The adventure is about trying to find her home and get her away from the evil general Kefka as he hunts them down. Along the way you meet princes and rebels. Hire mercenaries and samurai to help you get past the empire. Fight against and along side of each faction as the greater story unfolds. Drawing you in organically as you are often completely removed from your current party. Getting fresh characters and getting to see who they are and why you should care first hand. You will always keep your Gil (money) and items between groups so you are never left unprepared. These people keep crossing paths or getting somewhere shortly after each other. The game will let you choose which path to take when you get there leading to a final showdown on a floating island. A showdown that you will lose.
Where most games would end this one honestly just begins. Gone are the green fields and cheery music. You are back down to one character on an island barely surviving. Quickly start to realize that your actions had weight. You have to journey around to find your friends and to finish what you started, and failed, to do in order to save what is left of the world. The people you didn’t save? They are dead. The people you didn’t help, they won’t help you. Heck you don’t even have to get over 2/3rds of them back. It’s your choice who gets a happy ending. It’s your call who to invest time into helping. This also isn’t a problem because you get to choose what magic each character has. Each party member has a unique ability, but they all can learn magic by equiping magicite. Though it’s not as simple as learning spells. Each magicite stone changes what stats get boosted when the person equiping it levels up. You can micromanage your stats if you are into that style of gameplay or just over level for the boss you need to tackle next. Both this game and FF4 are on the same system. They have the same limitations. Yet one is way closer to what I expect of an RPG the other is a good story with a fun game sliced in-between each chapter. More and more games are leaning into the FF4 approach of RPG. Which doesn’t make it a bad game, not at all, but where is the “role” here? They have action RPGs that have the leveling system and skill trees just with a real time run and gun/stab style gameplay with it. You still pick your role. Do you want to be a sneaky knife guy? You got it! Big ol’ head smasher? You can. So take the skill and told choice out and they call it an action game. So why are turn based games shouldered with the weight of being called an RPG? I can’t say to be honest. Just comparing Final Fantasy 4 to Final Fantasy 6 feels like comparing Mario to Mega Man. It can be done, but not in any meaningful way. What we are left with is the “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” argument. A discussion that will always break down to personal opinions and a lose interpretation of implied limitations on themed groupings. It makes me question why we still use something as archaic as genres anymore. In movies and games nothing is as simple as when they first started. As the mediums we use to express ideas become more crowded the products of these mediums become more nuanced. Each game and movie borrow from the ones that inspired the creators. A blending of ideas and mechanics until you are left with something like this.
A taco pizza, a food that doesn’t satisfy my craving for either. That said, I do love myself a good taco pizza. Just not when I am trying to buy a nice cheesy slice of za.