Saturday, January 30, 2010

Defining the RPG

This comes from a comment Desert Rat made in my "golden age of CRPGs" list, he took issue with Diablo II being included.

He's not the only one to take issue with Diablo, or even Final Fantasy games, as RPGs.

So, since I have given this subject *way* too much thought over the years, I thought I'd give my take on the subject.

The reason most folks want to exclude Diablo is because of its lack of "role-playing". Diablo is hack and slash, its all about combat, combat and more combat. Along with some character progression and then more combat.

The thing is, I think Diablo has exactly the same amount of role playing as Mass Effect, which is to say, none.

Role Playing is social

In my opinion, role-playing can only take place with other human beings.

While Mass Effect has a ton of choices in it, and Diablo has almost none, except "will I explore the left corridor first", I don't think selecting choices off a dialog wheel is role-playing. If you have color coded responses, with the teal choice being good, and the red choice being evil, are you role-playing?

If you can go online and find out exactly what you need to say to bed that sexy blue chick, and if you can bed her every time by making exactly the same dialog choices, is that role-playing?

If you don't think this happens, go look at the many, many faqs for Bioware's amazing Baldur's Gate II, that will tell you just what you need to do to bed the good girl *and* the bad girl in the same game.

Is this role-playing? I say no.

Role-playing is inherently social and if that were your criteria, you'd have to exclude all single-player RPGs, while including things like LARPs and games with a heavy online component, like MMOs and (wait for it) Diablo.

RPGs are mechanical

Now the other way to define an RPG is mechanical. Think back to the days when Gygax and Arneson were slowly transforming the historical wargames they played into the first RPG. What were they adding to the games they played?

These games were already social, so it wasn't that aspect.

No, what was added was personalization and persistence.

Instead of controlling an entire army, moving your French grenadiers here and your cannons there, RPGs put you in the role of a single hero. And not only a single hero, but a hero you got to name and who was different from other heroes thanks to his ability scores.

But what really made RPGs different from what had come before was persistence. If I played Napoleon, no matter how badly I trashed the British last week, this week we started the battle over from scratch.

If my Hero reaches second level though, at the start of the next game he's still 2nd level and the game has changed along with him. I'm fighting Hobgoblins now, not Kobolds and my character continues to grow and change, and the game along with him.

In short, mechanically speaking, RPGs feature customizable, persistent avatars controlled by a human player.

One last point

Bringing this discussion back to the original question that started us off, another consideration with Diablo specifically is the game's heavy online component, where multiple human players link up online, form parties and take down monsters together.

Diablo and Diablo II are proto-MMOs and so, even if you reject my reason for putting Diablo in the same category as Mass Effect based on mechanics, I think the heavy online component, which is played with all the devotion of WoW, puts Diablo firmly in the RPG side socially as well.


Desert Rat said...

Heh. We'll probably need to agree to disagree on this one. I see what you are getting at, but the perfect path of dialog choices are going to happen in any computer game, RPG or not.

There are only so many dialog choices, and there are only so many types of monsters to kill, which is why I believe tabletop RPGs will have the edge they have on CRPGs for some time, at least in the hands of a good GM and a creative group of players.

I've always defined an RPG (computer or tabletop) as one where your ideas, your dialog, your choices have real consequences, and chances are, you will run into those consequences.

Diablo and Diablo II are linear. They're basically the action equivalent of the old Sierra Online graphic adventures. You're on rails. You never leave them. Sure, you can take that train ride with your friends, and you can even spend a lot of time hanging out in the same train station, and visit the Graveyard and kill Blood Raven 20 times, instead of progressing to the next quest, but that's it. That's all there is to do. And if you start a new game, you're going to ride that same train track again. And again. And again.

The NPCs in the game are little more than the animatronic creations that inhabit a typical ride at Disneyland. Don't get me wrong, it's a flashy train ride, full of light, and sound, and fury, but in the end, the only choices of any consequence you make is how you allocate skills and attribute points.

Diablo is little more than a festival of mouse clicks, compared to the choices available to players in a Baldur's Gate II, or any of the Elder Scrolls series or Bioware titles you mention. You can lose yourself in Morrowind, or Fallout 3 for weeks, and never be quite done with everything. Diablo? Eh, not so much.

Meshing your definition and mine though, I think the best RPG ever made (at least outside of a true role would have to be the Baldur's Gate series. Think about it. Persistent world. Teamwork. Deep interaction with the world (something noticeably missing from the Diablo series) and the other people. MMO's may approach this, but frankly, I've yet to find an MMO that I felt was immersive enough to really lose me in a world yet.

Finally, let's take it one step further. A lot of more recent First Person Shooters have begun to incorporate more RP'esque elements into them. The later entries in the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series actually have you as a player upgrade your armor and your weapon accessories based on your experiences as a player. And there's never been an FPS that didn't have a multiplayer component. Is this a CRPG by your definition?

Vigilance said...

I definitely think a lot of games these days have strong RPG elements.

I don't know if I'd call them true RPGs or not, since I haven't played any of the games you mention.

And even I understand how Diablo can be debated, but there are people who consider LARPs to be true RPGs too.

And of course, in the CRPG realm these questions are always dicier than when one is talking about the real thing, which will always be the tabletop game.

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