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Genres in Gaming: RPGs

Article posted on 4/22/2021

Everyone has preferences in gaming.


Some people prefer to play a game for some heart-pounding, fast-paced action. Others might enjoy something a little more serene, like a nice puzzle or “find it” game. Some play for the mechanics of the game itself, and others might play a game primarily for the story.


There are lots of reasons that I play games, but one of the things that compels me the most about them is the story. The gameplay could be incredible, and I’d probably still enjoy it, but if there isn’t some interesting story or lore to back it up, it honestly only holds my attention for so long.


Obviously, my preference is far from everyone’s preference - but, I’ve covered the strategy genre, rambled on about how terrified I am of the horror genre, and explored the concept of story versus immersion. I haven’t talked about my favorite type of game: RPGs, or Role Playing Games. It’s high time I get into it.


What is an RPG?


Like any genre, it’s impossible to define everything within it so that the definition is all-encompassing. In general terms, however, an RPG is a story-driven game that places the player in the position of the main protagonist, either via a first or third person lens. An RPG features a well-defined world and often focuses heavily on character development. 


Protagonist Cloud Strife versus antagonist Sephiroth, Final Fantasy 7 Remake


In many RPGs, there is an element of stat growth or allotment, since this style of game has its roots in tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons. In some instances, the player will have heavy influence in how those stats are distributed - such as in games like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and so on - while in others, it is a more arbitrary level up system that increases everything automatically every time the characters gain a level, as in more classic RPGs like most of the Final Fantasy series.


I’m a writer and an actor who started playing Dungeons and Dragons when she was 10 years old, so it’s no wonder at all why I took immediately to RPGs as my preferred video game genre. 


Story versus Narrative


As with anything, there are variants. I say most RPGs have an immersive and well-developed world and a carefully crafted story. In an RPG, you’re generally “on the rails” - meaning that the story guides where you go and what you do. The gameplay is a very crafted experience, much like reading a book - except, you get to interact more directly with the world and also beat stuff up, which is a bonus as far as I’m concerned!


To me, there is a difference between a story and a narrative. A strong narrative is more of a suggestion of story while still retaining RPG-elements. I want to discuss Overwatch here, even though it’s a first-person shooter (FPS). It still has some RPG-like elements that make it a perfect example. It doesn’t have a story, not really - but it has an extremely strong narrative that is supported through background lore that Blizzard disseminates to players in various ways through either animated shorts, comics, short stories, or limited-time in-game events.


The cast of Blizzard Entertainment's Overwatch


You don’t play Overwatch to interact with a world full of characters and follow a designated plot with twists and turns and surprises, it doesn’t have that kind of story. But, it does craft a world that makes you feel immersed and at least a little invested in the characters you’re selected to pit against each other in high-pressure shootouts. 


What Makes an RPG?


Characters from CD Projekt's The Witcher series


Some primary elements that you might find in an RPG are:

  • A strong story. An RPG will take you through a story with a prominent plot, often with a “save the world” element, much like a book might.
  • Well-developed characters. There are some RPGs that feature the “silent protagonist” which allows you to project more of yourself into the main character, but they are almost always supported by a rich and interesting cast of other characters that make the game feel more immersive.
  • A well-developed world. The world of an RPG usually has many places to visit, from dangerous dungeons and sprawling caverns to quaint towns or sprawling cities. The plot typically guides the player toward where they will go, correlating each location with a piece of the story.
  • Quests and Exploration. While some RPGs might have a more open ended quest system (ie, take quests whenever you want and complete them in any order, like in Star Control: Origins), accepting tasks from NPCs (non-player characters) and completing tasks is at the core of almost all RPGs.
  • Experience, Levels, Abilities, etc. Almost all RPGs have an “experience points” system that allows your character to grow statistically as you progress the story. Some RPGs feature special abilities for each character, or have a more extensive system where you can equip or set certain abilities to different members of your party.

The list of things that make an RPG what it is isn’t exhaustive by any means. Some RPGs might have a few or all of these elements, while some might only have one. The idea of “genre” means little more beyond helping to define a game for someone who likes a certain type and wants to have an idea of what they’re getting into when they buy a specific title. A game’s genre definition doesn’t really matter for any other reason in the long run.


Examples of RPGs


As I’ve said before in other genre discussion blogs, games tend to cross over and span several different genres all at once. It’s rare, especially nowadays, to find a game that is ONE thing and nothing else - but there are definitely games that are “more” RPG than the other genres they encompass.


Let’s talk a little bit about one of my favorite subgenres of RPGs: JRPGs. A JRPG is a Japanese Role Playing Game, and while there are plenty of similarities to its Western counterparts, these games have a few defining features besides that they were created in Japan.

Perhaps one of the most recognizable JRPG series is Final Fantasy, which has dozens of iterations (the main series is up to XV now, but there are plenty of spin-offs). Other JRPG game series include The Legend of Zelda, Dragon Quest, and Persona. While all of these games are in the same “series,” they are not necessarily connected by plot. 


The many different versions of Link from Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda series


For example, the story and characters in Final Fantasy 7 have no relation to the story and characters in Final Fantasy 8, or any other of the games. In the case of The Legend of Zelda, one constant is the main character, Link, and the games are connected through certain core concepts (Ganon threatens the world, Link has to save it) but the stories aren’t connected through a concurrent plot.


I also want to mention games like Star Control: Origins, which fall under the RPG blanket but also touch into other genres like sandbox and ship shooters. The game is very strong narratively, dropping you into a rich and well-defined world with lots of aliens to meet, planets to explore, and quests to conquer. It does have a main story line that compels you to a goal, but otherwise it completely cuts the fetters and lets you go and do whatever you want in any order.


The cute and cuddly Mowlings from Stardock's Star Control: Origins. Praise Jeff!


Some people blast through the story and then take their time exploring side quests afterward, while others get so absorbed in quests that it might be 20 or 30 hours before they return back to the main storyline. I like to use this example because, yes, the game is absolutely an RPG, but also incorporates elements of other genres and doesn’t follow all of the conventions of the RPG genre. 


As I've said before and will say again: genre is just a concept, it's not mean to be a strict definition. I enjoy exploring how games stretch across many different genres. Honestly, it's really rather brilliant - a game with multiple elements, like say RPG meets FPS (Mass Effect, anyone?) might encourage someone who has never considered trying a specific game type to pick up a title that explores it more. I know lots of people who love first person shooters but don't usually worry too much about story become pleasantly surprised when they picked up something like Mass Effect, which gave them the shooter elements they wanted but also introduced an incredible story as well.


What kinds of games do you like to play? I've made my favorites fairly obvious here - I'd love to hear about yours!