Survey the gaming scene today and it won’t take you long to find a role-playing video game (RPG). The very definition of an RPG is often debated, since, if you look hard enough, you’ll find elements of the genre where you wouldn’t normally expect to find them.
Whether you like it or not, RPG elements are now creeping into more and more games. Whether it’s through characterization and customization or skill vs. luck elements such as loot, games across the board are becoming more RPG-like.
With this being the case, the natural question becomes: is this a good thing?
In this piece, we’re going to try and answer that question. However, before we can dive into this new world of RPG hybrids, we need to try and define what exactly the basic elements of an RPG are.
Character progression and customization: Traditionally, a non-RPG game sees you take control of a relatively static character. In other words, you don’t have any influence over the character, and it does change or evolve over the course of the game.
In contrast, role-playing games allow you to inhabit the role of your character/s (it’s right there in the genre’s name). Moreover, you’re responsible for the development of both their skills and personality through a process of customization and choice.
Deep narratives: When you’re playing a game, ask yourself whether the narrative is fixed, or can you influence it in any way. If the game leans more towards the latter, it will have a deeper story to tell and be much more like an RPG. In fact, it was the RPG that first introduced the idea of a character's moral alignment, one of the first tools for creating branching paths in a narrative.
Luck and random numbers: RPGs are all about statistics and random number generators that dictate almost everything. From determining your changes to successfully land an attack, to what loot and weapons are going to be in that hidden chest.
Knowing what action to take when, and how to play the numbers in your favor. Or just grinding until you find that super-awesome gun you’ve been searching for. This interplay between making the right moves at the right time is where skill and luck intertwine.
Rich, interactive worlds: RPGs are known for having expensive environments that are open for you to explore and play around in. You are constantly interacting with the world around you, be it through quests or talking to characters and, in MMORPGs, other players you encounter.
Furthermore, your actions have the potential to change the world you’re playing in. This, in turn, can make your experience within the game different from that experienced by another player. It’s another way role-playing games defy the linear nature of so many other video game genres.
OK, so now that we’ve given you a general overview of RPGs, you should be able to spot one at a hundred paces. However, what about games that have some of the elements we’ve described, but not all of them? Well, this is where things get tricky.
Take as an example the recently released Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Depending on who you ask, this game may or may not be an RPG. According to developers Nintendo, it’s an “open-world RPG,” but gamers tend to disagree with the second part of that definition, with many cataloging it as an “action-adventure”. After all, the Zelda series pretty much invented that genre.
In reality, it might not be a “pure RPG” like the modern Mass Effect series or classic Final Fantasy games. Mostly because there’s no emphasis on character progression and stats. However, when you play the game, you do encounter many RPG-like features. For example, the open-world structure means you can go anywhere and interactive with anything you want. Additionally, the main character, Link, can be enhanced through runes and items. There’s certainly some crossover with typical RPG features such as gearing, loot and achievements.
Another game that seems to leak into the RPG world is Call of Duty: WWII. Now, Call of Duty is clearly a first-person shooter, but the game does check a few items in the RPG elements checklist:
However, that’s not nearly enough to categorize a game as an RPG. Call the game an RPG in front of a CoD fan or an RPG fan, and they’ll give you a weird look and slowly back away. And with good reason. Apart from the different classes, most other RPG elements in this game are a little more than a fancy way of giving you more guns to play with.
Perhaps the most contentious hybrid in recent times is Assassin’s Creed: Origins. According to PC Gamer’s Tom Senior, Assassin’s Creed went into a two-year hibernation as an action series and emerged in 2017 as an RPG. The fact that your character’s level and equipment determine how easily you can kill different enemies is indicative of an RPG.
Basically, you have to complete side missions to progress the story and gain the necessary components to upgrade your gear. Only by improving your level do you have any shot at killing certain enemies. Indeed, if you try to move too far ahead too soon (i.e. without the necessary weapons), you won’t have enough power to kill the enemies (because you need to upgrade your gear and skills). Frankly, the game does tick quite a lot of items on our list, and that’s why fans are still arguing among themselves where this new entry in the series stands.
Depending on your perspective, adding RPG elements to a game like Assassin’s Creed is either positive or negative. In many ways, these new features bring more to the game. By forcing you to choose the appropriate battle garb, the new outfits have a purpose rather than being nothing more than skin changes. Similarly, you can choose the type of warrior you want to be. You can unlock everything and go crazy or travel light and really test your stealth skills.
On the flipside, some could argue that RPG elements make the combat element of the game too difficult. Because you can’t kill an enemy with one shot or without the right equipment, it forces you into an RPG narrative that you might not want. Action-adventure games are, unsurprisingly, all about action and adventure. Sometimes, you just want to load up the game and dive into some fights without having to worry about your level or gear.
Of course, your opinion comes back to personal preference, but developers seem to have good reasons to add RPG elements to other genres:
Connection: RPG elements help create a greater connection between players and their character. Super Mario could have easily been any purple dragon, as he simply served as a medium to guide you through the game, a way for you to experience the gameplay and the game world.
In contrast, when you look at Vikings: War of Clans, a strategy game that recently added new RPG elements, there’s no separation between the characters and their environment. Each is integral to the other and this means you have to engage more with the character.
A personal experience: When RPG elements are introduced into a game, your decisions have a bigger potential to impact your character and the world. This allows for a greater level of both personalization and immersion that, ultimately, creates a more engaging experience.
Complexity: Instead of linear progression through a game, RPG elements open up new possibilities. As we’ve said, AC Origins forces you to upgrade your character to a certain level before you can tackle certain areas, otherwise, it’s too tough to survive. While that might frustrate some players, it’s something that does make you invest more and, therefore, makes the game more complex.
So, is every game better with RPG elements? The obvious answer is no. As we’ve discussed, some RPG features can actually spoil the core appeal of a game. For example, Assassin’s Creed: Origins might be a great game. However, your fighting skills restrict you from freely exploring the world, which is a pretty big part of the series. As a counter to this, the latest incarnation of The Legend of Zelda and its open-world system does make things more intricate, immersive and, therefore, entertaining.
In reality, it all comes down to the experience you want to have. There’s no doubt that RPGs allow for a more personal experience where players can, to some extent, determine their own fate. However, there’s also a place in the market for games with linear progression and fixed patterns. Too many RPG elements can spoil a “cinematic” experience, which some players love.
RPG elements are great, but not in all situations. Yes, RPG elements can make the gaming experience more immersive, but not all players enjoy having to deal with some of the most intricate ones. A great hybrid game finds the right balance between RPG and it's core genre to keep all players happy.