I discovered a cool new gaming podcast called “Axe of the Blood God” (that name alone earns it quite a bit of kudos from me). It’s focused on RPGs and you can find it here: http://www.usgamer.net/archive?tag=axe-of-the-blood-god.
The first episode, they are tackling the age old question “What is an RPG?” right out the gate. It’s one of those questions, like “are games art?”. They seem important issues that need resolving, but are in truth utterly pointless to stress over. In that episode, the guys and gals discuss how they would categorize games, what they think is elemental to an RPG and look at some edge cases. Are RPG about stats? Are they about narrative agency? Do they have to have turn-based combat and parties? Where does a Dark Souls or Zelda fit in?
All the while I was listening to their back and forth, it became pretty clear that genre labels are outdated. I’ll try to follow that train of thought some more here.
Role-Playing-Games, Shoot-Em-Ups, Beat-Em-Ups, Jump-and-Runs, What-The-Fuck?
In the beginning, game genres didn’t exist. There only existed games that had some form of gameplay, some mode of user input and output that entertained the user. Games like Zork for example. Others would recognize the way these games were designed, and they’d copy their concept with a different story. With more computing power and innovation in game design, slowly you could see more and more games that would gravitate towards a limited number of designs. There were the games with puzzle solving, there were those that tested you reactions, some required strategic thinking and so forth. A game like Wolfenstein 3D would come out and games that completely stood on its shoulders would pop up from that. Gamers would start to identify with games of a certain kind, with specific genres. “I only play racing games” or “I don’t enjoy strategy”. The audience was divided by people’s taste in genres, so it was only sensible to start marketing games to specific target groups and thus to label their games with a specific genre.
My little happy box
I think at some point with RPGs, the depth of gameplay systems and narrative ambition got so far that the genre was difficult to get into. For the people who’d been playing them, that was great. They could enjoy a steady stream of games that they knew they liked and it gave them something to identify with. It was a good time, and a happy time. But the box was opened because it became clear that some gameplay elements you’d see in these RPGs, such as stats based progression allowed for some great fun when used in other kinds of games. Call of Duty’s online multiplayer is a good example. In other games you’d see XP systems used to gate and pace the escalation of ability (which really means new modes of interaction, such as combat moves) choice. God of War is an example there.
The mainstream saw this trend and before you knew it, “RPG” elements were sprinkled for good or ill all over the industry’s games. On the other hand and due to other circumstances, those old-school RPGs were abandoned in favor of more accessible games with more shallow gameplay aimed at instant gratification.
To step away from RPGs, let’s look at other genres that were muddied. Platformers, experiencing a resurgence thanks to the rise of indie game development were paired with gameplay twist after gameplay twist. Something like Spelunky exemplifies one of the most fruitful marriages between two venerable and very different genres, the roguelike and the 2D platformer. Now what genre does Spelunky fall into? The roguelike? Platformer-with-a-twist? Roguelikelike? Indie games?
The bottom line
Bottom line is, our traditional genre labels are becoming increasingly misleading and irrelevant. So new genre labels are made up. MOBA’s, roguelikelikes (that’s a real thing!) are new age genres. Still it seems silly to me. At the end of the day, games are programs designed for entertainment, and the mode of interaction is the gameplay. There are so many different gameplay mechanics nowadays, combined and remixed in ever new pairings that it’s more apt to look at them as formulas. A game like Pillars of Eternity is clearly following a formula that’s been established in the past. Isometric view point, painterly, static background art, a party of adventurers with item and skill management, non-linear narrative progression, text used as the primary mode of communicating events in the world, combat that is pause-able and an emphasis on side quests and so on. All these elements are what define PoE and it’s predecessors. It’s just not enough to say that it’s an old-school CRPG, which struggles to describe a huge number of gameplay formulas.
I’m writing this not as a way to propose a change in how we talk about games. Most of the internet gaming news outlets do a fine job describing the experience of playing a game in review form these days. I’m just fussed when I hear people wanting to draw the lines in the sand so as to clarify in their own heads what is or what isn’t and “RPG”, a “platformer”, an “adventure game”. If we could stop clinging to the old notions of these labels and start thinking about games the way most modern game designers think of them, a combination of gameplay modes of interaction, then we might be able to appreciate the novel ideas more, things like the much maligned “walking simulators” for example. I think a shift in our thinking will go a long way towards further maturation of games as an art form.