Is Skyrim a Role-Playing Game?
This question has been asked so many times in game forums across the Internet since Skyrim's release in November of 2011 that surely most people are sick of it by now. I know I am. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to write this article because I think there is something interesting to be learned from the controversy over whether or not Skyrim deserves the label of RPG (and certainly "greatest RPG of all time").
There is a good chance that you've already made up your mind about this question. I'm not here to change your mind. What I am here to do is indicate why some people think it is, and why some people think it is not an RPG, and why it might just be possible that both opinions are right. If you feel strongly about the matter, you may not think there is much to talk about, but I think there is something to talk about, and that it's actually pretty interesting.
Let's start by taking a look at the different types of gameplay elements that exist in games in general, and then in RPGs in particular.
Player agency is the defining characteristic of videogames. It's what sets them apart from other mediums, like television and music. When you play a videogame, you have some impact on your own experience, you have the ability to change what happens. This is often reduced to the concept of interactivity, but interactivity doesn't really capture the feeling of control you have when playing a game. You can interact with a book by turning the pages, or a movie by pausing and fast-forwarding, but you don't have any control over the content. Agency does a better job capturing the fact that you are actually an agent in the videogame, helping to shape the final experience that you have.
While all videogames are about agency, role-playing games in particular take the concept of agency to extreme levels: not only do you have some impact on your experience of the game, you have an impact on the narrative (the way the story unfolds), the character's abilities (the way your character develops over time), and what your character does when (where you go and how you interact with the world). For the sake of this discussion, I'll call these narrative agency, instrumental agency, and investigative agency. Those terms might seem a little arcane right now, so the first thing I'm going to do is explain what I mean by them in a little more detail.
Narrative agency refers to the player's ability to interact with and to some degree control the way that the game's narrative (story) unfolds. In a linear game, the player has no narrative agency, they are simply herded from level to level, sitting passively through cut-scenes, and sooner or later end up at the climax of the narrative. The player has no freedom over how the protagonist chooses to live their life, no option to pick a side in a conflict between two factions (or avoid conflict entirely), and no ability to develop meaningful relationships with non-player characters (NPCs) that isn't already scripted. Games with no narrative agency are a lot like movies and novels.
Role-playing games, by contrast, typically offer the player some degree of control over the shape of the narrative. This control is provided by allowing the player to choose from different options in dialogue trees when interacting with NPCs, the ability to decline and abandon quests or to choose from different possible quest resolutions, and the ability to perform actions which clearly change the course of events (such as killing someone important to the main plot). These actions frequently (though not always) lead to different narrative endings, the ultimate validation for players exercising their narrative agency.
Narrative agency is not restricted to RPGs, of course, and can be found in many different types of games. Silent Hill 2, for example, has six possible endings. Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books are the clearest example of a 'game' that gives you narrative agency but no other kind of agency.
Instrumental agency refers to the player's ability to mold his or her character into a useful tool for completing gameplay objectives. Players are given instrumental agency over their characters when they are allowed to customize them, choosing from different abilities, skills, spells, weapons, armor, and other gear. They are given instrumental agency again when they improve these characteristics later in the game by leveling up, equipping better gear, or otherwise manipulating various character statistics according to the particular game rules to gain an 'edge' on enemies and obstacles in the game. The cornerstones of traditional fantasy RPGs are game mechanics like classes, races, attributes, and inventory management though the particular mechanics a game uses are irrelevant as long as some set of mechanics is in place to provide players with this form of agency.
Typically, in an RPG, as players play the game and engage in various activities, they accumulate experience points (XP) or improve their attributes and abilities directly through use and find unique weapon and armor upgrades that can be equipped in various ways to create strategic advantages. By giving the player the freedom to choose which characteristics to improve (either indirectly, through point allocation, or directly, through use) and what weapons, armor and other gear to use, they are given instrumental control over their character and directly impact the character's ability to survive and thrive in the game world.
Like narrative agency, instrumental agency is not restricted to RPGs. Most games give players instrumental control over their character or avatar to one degree or another. Most action games, for example, allow the player to choose from a variety of weapons and other gear for completing objectives, making instrumental agency an important strategic consideration. Even choosing which power-up to grab in an arcade-style side-scroller is a simple, if limited, form of instrumental agency.
Investigative agency refers to the player's freedom to explore the game environment. A game with a lot of investigative agency will allow the player to explore freely, running, jumping, climbing, and swimming their way across the landscape without imposing any insurmountable (real or invisible) walls. They will also allow the player to interact with a large number of objects in the game world, turning appliances on and off, picking up bottles, opening doors, throwing chairs and otherwise making a nuisance of themselves. The amount of visual and auditory detail a game world presents to the player is an important factor in games that provide the player with a lot of investigative agency, which is why many open world games are also visually stunning.
Investigative agency is especially pronounced in sandbox and open world games, though it exists to a lesser extent in many types of games. There are also many types of games that do not provide the player with investigative agency. Many side-scrolling games and racing games, for example, do not provide the player with much of this kind of agency. Fighting games, where the player must proceed through set matches, sports games, puzzle games, adaptations of card and board games, and even many strategy games do not provide any significant amount of investigative agency. An action game that funnels the player down a set path through the use of real and invisible walls is a good example of a game with little investigative agency. (These kinds of games are typically described as being "linear" or "on rails".)
Investigative agency and narrative agency are often closely connected, though they don't have to be. A game may provide the player with a lot of investigative agency and no narrative agency and vice versa.
Each of these three forms of agency is considered an 'element' of role-playing games. Consequently, any game that includes some combination of these elements (though not, typically, a game that provides only one of these elements) is often said to have 'RPG elements'. BioShock, for example, provides players with instrumental and investigative agency, and, to a smaller extent, narrative agency, which is why it is described as having 'RPG elements'.
Most RPGs provide the player with some degree of narrative, instrumental, and investigative agency. These affordances on their own, however, are not sufficient for defining a role-playing experience.
In Rage, for example, the player has access to all of these in the form of voluntary missions, weapon and vehicle upgrades, and freedom to explore the map at leisure. Not many people would consider Rage a role-playing game, however, because it is missing a fundamental ingredient: in order for a game to be considered a role-playing game, the player's avatar (character) must be an individual in his or her own right, distinct from the player, with his or her own strengths and weaknesses. In other words: the player's ability to complete gameplay objectives must be limited by (and possibly extended by) the character's ability to complete them.
In twitch-based games, like Rage and BioShock, the player's ability to succeed at game objectives depends primarily on his or her reaction speed and hand-eye coordination and his or her ability to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles. When player's are given instrumental affordances (eg. weapon upgrades, plasmids), they serve primarily to enhance a particular aspect of the player's ability. They make it easier for the player, through his avatar, to do more damage or sustain more damage in combat. In role-playing games, instrumental affordances serve to enhance the character's ability, not the player's, and this is a subtle, but very important distinction which is at the heart of all discussions about what is and is not a role-playing game.
It is easiest to understand the distinction between the player's skill and the character's skill by referring to turn-based RPGs.
In a pure turn-based RPG, the player has no control over how well his character performs an action. Everything is controlled by the game logic and 'die rolls' (chance). Reaction speed and hand-eye coordination are irrelevant. The player's avatar and every other character in the game will stay exactly where they are, replaying the same animation over and over again waiting for the player to make a move. Whether or not the player's character hits an enemy and how much damage he does is controlled not by the player's ability to align a retical with a target, but by the character's statistics (or, more commonly, by a comparison between the character's statistics and the target's statistics). There is an (almost) absolute separation of player and character, and, for many players, this is the only important criteria for determining whether or not a game qualifies as an RPG.
This concept is so important and fundamental to discussions about RPGs that it is frequently expressed in the form of an equation:
character > player
As this formula clearly indicates, it is the character's abilities that are ultimately more important in determining the outcome of an RPG than the player's. The peculiar pleasure and challenge of a good RPG does not come from 'beating the game' but from designing a character that is both interesting and capable.
Real Time RPGs
In real-time RPGs, this separation of player and character is inevitably muddied to some extent.
In real time RPGs, the player's reaction speed and hand-eye coordination do matter to a greater or lesser degree. The player can compensate, in other words, for the limitations that the character possesses. If the player is able to circumvent the limitations of his character entirely through superior gamesmanship, many players will decide that the game no longer qualifies as a RPG. This happened in the lockpicking mini-game in Skyrim, where the player's ability to pick a lock largely determines the outcome of the mini-game as opposed to the character's skill. In this instance, the player has subverted the limitations imposed by his character's statistics and the mechanic is no longer seen as being in the service of RP, but in the service of action. It is easy to see why if too many gameplay elements become amenable to player subversion that many players are more likely to classify the game as an action game, or, at best, an action game with 'RPG elements'.
Is Skyrim an RPG?
If RPGs are built on three kinds of player agency and the principle of character > player, can we call Skyrim an RPG? Let's start our analysis with the last form of agency, investigative agency.
When it comes to exploration and world interactivity, I don't think there are many people who would argue that Skryim does not deliver. The world is huge and extremely well-crafted, both the exterior and interior environments. Aside from loading screens between interior levels, the entire world is delivered seamlessly with a noticeable absence of invisible walls. Most of the game world is also highly interactive: you can pick up and move around most objects, pick flowers, collect mushrooms, chop wood, forge ingots into weapons and armor, and even pluck the wings off butterflies. On this point, I'll give Skyrim a 5 out of 5.
The second kind of agency, instrumental agency, is a little more complicated. Skyrim does do a very good job of delivering instrumental agency to the player through skill use and perk allocation, but the absence of attributes, classes, and meaningful racial differences makes it feel somewhat narrow in scope compared to many RPGs. There are fewer mechanics in place to differentiate one character from another character.
All characters in Skyrim start out essentially as clones (the racial modifiers are relatively insignificant) though it is possible to create character builds over time that are meaningfully different from a gameplay perspective (ie. Skyrim does provide the player with instrumental agency). The 'learn by doing' and perk allocation mechanic, in principal, are quite good and solid mechanics. The player is given both direct and indirect agency over his character's build. Unfortunately, the perk trees are not terribly inspired or well-balanced; while some of the perks are interesting and useful, too many of them are trivial or too expensive (from a requirements perspective) for the mechanic to be considered robust. On this point, I'll give Skyrim a 3 out of 5, though many would give it a 2 or a 4.
The third kind of agency, narrative agency, is the area where Skyrim suffers the most. Players do have narrative agency in Skyrim: they are free to ignore or decline quests, abandon them, and, in a couple of cases, choose alternate outcomes. But the vast majority of quests are short, linear, and lacking in meaningful consequence. Players are rarely given branching dialogue trees that affect the outcome of a conversation; they rarely have any ability to influence an NPC's opinion toward the player's character (disposition having been reduced to very simplistic friend/foe categories, fame/infamy mechanics are essentially absent, etc.); they rarely have any choices within quests; many NPCs are flagged as being essential, and therefore unkillable; etc. The net result of these lost opportunities and narrative restrictions is that the player rarely feels that he or she has any narrative agency. The player can choose to experience or not experience content (by choosing not to pursue quests) but can't choose to experience the content that is available in any meaningful way but the way in which it has already been presented. On narrative agency, then, Skyrim scores very poorly; I'll give it a 1 out of 5.
The final criteria, character > player, is another stumbling block for Skyrim. In Skyrim, your character's skills, perks, and attributes do have an impact on how well you perform in combat, spell-casting, stealing, and other activities. If you've used your instrumental agency to build a skilled warrior, your warrior will be better in combat than a character with a different build. If you don't invest points in Magicka, you will not be able to cast higher level spells. If you don't take perks in sneaking and pickpocketing, you are more likely to get caught in the act.
The character's skills and perks, therefore, do have an impact on how well the player can succeed at any given task, but the design does not prevent you from attempting any task at any time, resulting in an almost overwhelming temptation for players to play jack-of-all-trade characters. This isn't necessarily a design flaw--after all, players should be free to develop their character in the way that seems most fitting--but it does weaken the barrier between the player's skill and the character's skill. If you can succeed at any game objective at any time, there is little real limitation being imposed on the player by the instrumental choices they make building their character.
Combat is another area where this relationship is threatened. Because Skyrim is a fairly responsive real-time action game, you cannot ignore the impact that the player's own reaction speed and hand-eye-coordination has on the outcome of combat. Like freeform class design, this isn't a bad thing, per se (after all, it makes Skyrim a better game from an action perspective) but it does further erode the separation of player and character. A character controlled by a good action gamer is going to perform better in combat than the same character with the same stats controlled by a poor player. (The same criticism, of course, could be leveled at any real-time RPG so it is not a failing exclusive to Skyrim.)
What is more damaging to Skyrim's reputation as an RPG is the perceived movement away from a strict player/character separation in lockpicking. Lockpicking has become a bit of a sore point for the game for precisely this reason: because it allows the player to subvert the character's ability, lockpicking in Skyrim is no longer considered a RP element by many players. (Your skill and perks do have an impact on your chance of success, but that impact is negligible for many players.)
This degradation of the 'pure' RPG experience, in combination with the removal of traditional instrumental mechanics (class, racial modifiers, attributes), has resulted in a more free-form, flowing style of play, but at the expense of instrumental agency and increased opportunities for character subversion. On this last point, I'll assign Skyrim a score of 3 out of 5, though many would rank it much lower.
Adding all of these points together, Skyrim scores a 12 out of 20 for me in pure RPG mechanics. A "passing" grade, in my opinion, but not a strong one, and I don't think it's hard to see why many people would grade it lower, giving it a failing grade, thus disqualifying it from the genre. (I encourage you to rate it yourself to see where you stand on the issue.)
Bear in mind that this rating only refers to how well Skyrim meets the criteria for being a 'classic' or 'traditional' RPG; it is not a rating that reflects the game's overall quality. There is no law saying that Skyrim has to conform to any RPG standard, or that it would be a better game if it did; but it does indicate, in my mind, that as far as the implementation of RPG mechanics goes, Skyrim is not really a strong contender.
Hitting the High Notes
In spite of my fairly serious criticisms of the game as an RPG, I think Skyrim is an excellent game overall, and it does certain things (exploration in particular) better than any other game that I can think of. My rating for Skyrim, regardless of whether or not it hits the RPG high notes, is around 8.5 or 9 out of 10. I've put hundreds of hours into it already, and I'll probably invest a few hundred more.
At the end of the day, though, I can't help but wish that at least a few of those golden opportunities, the one's that would have taken Skyrim from being a great game to a timeless classic, had made an appearance. I wish that the NPCs had had a bit more life and reacted a bit more realistically, that the quests had a few more twists and a little more impact, and that the mechanics defining my character were a little more comprehensive, rather than a little less so.
In Skyrim, I'm always left wanting a little bit more. That's not a bad thing if the thing you want more of is adventure, but the thing I want more of is substance. And I have an unpleasant feeling gnawing away in the back of my mind that in the next title in the series we're not going to get more RPG, but less. If that's the case, then let's hope that the action is really, really good, because Bethesda will find out the hard way that the action genre can put up some stiff competition.
Then again, maybe a little competition is exactly what Bethesda needs.