What Makes a Great Role-Playing Video Game?
I don't talk about JRPG ('Japanese' RPGs) at all in this article simply because I'm not very familiar with them. They tend to emphasize those elements of the genre which are of less interest to me personally, so I just never get around to playing them.
I'm sure many of them are great games and much of what I've written about Western RPGs will apply to them as well. My apologies for any bias in the article.
If you're a fan of computer RPGs, you've no doubt seen some games classified as RPGs that you would not classify as RPGs. You've probably also seen games that you consider RPGs being dismissed by other gamers as not being worthy of the title.
No doubt, you've also wondered about games that claim that they have "RPG elements". What, exactly, are those elements? Should a game that only has a couple of RPG elements be considered an RPG? How many RPG elements does a game have to have to move from the realm of action or adventure (or strategy or any other genre) to the realm of RPGs?
In this hub, I take a look at some of the elements that are typically classified as staples of the genre. In my opinion (hey, I wrote this for fun!) a game that contains all of these elements is not only an RPG, but a great one!
Many great RPGs start with a great setting. By setting I don't mean the 3d or 2d art that is used to create the map that the players explore, but the history, geography, races, cultures, religions, technology, traditions, factions, lore and legends that inspire the player and make them want to get involved.
Any great setting can be a great start for a RPG, which is why you often see popular franchises (eg. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc.) being turned into role-playing games. But even games with very unoriginal or derivative settings can make for great-role-playing as long as enough of the other elements are well executed.
The Elder Scrolls, for example, could hardly have been called 'original' when Arena was released back in 1994: most of it was obviously derivative. Over successive sequels, however, the developers have managed to create a deep and rich history through books, dialogue, architecture and other elements so that players who have grown familiar with the setting can now immerse themselves in one of the most elaborately detailed fantasy worlds ever created.
2. Character Building
Once you have a great setting, it's only natural to want to immerse yourself in it, and the best way to do that is to create a character that can be used as a vehicle of exploration. If you are exploring a world filled with interesting races, factions, and occupations, it's only natural to want to try out a few of those options yourself.
Personally, I prefer RPGs that give me complete control over my character's race, gender, appearance, class, skills, equipment, and history. The more control I have, the more connected I feel to my character and the easier it is for me to immerse myself in the environment.
Many RPGs, though, don't give you a choice when it comes to character creation: instead, they assign a character to you, or allow you to choose from a selection of pre-made characters. Once you assume control of that character, you usually have some degree of control over that character's progress and you can choose things like which skill trees to develop or how you want your character to interact with NPCs. The amount of control that you have varies depending on the game.
Developers usually take this approach of assigning pre-made characters so that they can tell you a specific story. They've probably invested a lot of time and talent making this story as exciting and engaging as possible, and, indeed, these RPGs often excel in narrative structure, dialogue, characterization, cinematics, music, and voice acting. But in order to provide this quality and attention to detail, they often have to sacrifice player choice. It's hard to write dialogue directed at the player's character if you don't know beforehand what their race, occupation, or personal history are.
Different players have different views about player choice vs. narrative power when it comes to RPGs, so it's best just to leave this up to personal preference. There are always going to be some developers who prefer to focus on narrative and others who prefer to focus on player choice.
Once you have a character and a setting, the first thing you're going to want to do is explore the game world. Game worlds take on a variety of shapes and sizes, from strictly linear 'links in a chain', where the player progresses through narrative fragments, or scenes, and isn't allowed to stray from them, to zoned world maps where players must progressively unlock later maps after completing earlier maps, to completely open game worlds where the only real limit imposed on the player is the outer edge of the map.
Exploration covers more than just moving around the map, however. An important part of exploration is how interactive the world is and how dynamic it feels. If you can pick up many different kinds of objects and move them around, open doors and containers, turn lights and taps on and off, etc., the world feels much more real than a world that only allows you to interact with a limited number of quest objects. Similarly, a world with dynamic weather, a realistic day/night cycle, moving water, realistic plants and animals and all the appropriate ambient noises will feel much more alive and inviting.
Personally, I prefer open world maps with real weather and day/night cycles. Choice is an important element in RPGs, and being able to choose where your character is headed at any given point in time is an important element of choice for me. If I'm restricted to exploring a limited area, the weather never changes, and my character feels frozen in time it doesn't really feel like I have very much choice.
Other players, however, feel that having an open world results in bland, unfocused gameplay. They would rather enjoy a tightly focused narrative than a more sandbox style of game. Both preferences are valid forms for RPGs.
Most RPGs have some sort of quest or mission mechanic. These give your character a reason to get out and explore the world, gain experience using your skills, accumulate wealth, and make an impact on the game world.
Quests are important because they extend the length of the game in a meaningful and fun way. Games with more quests take longer to complete and allow your character to progress more. Generally speaking, the better the quests, the better the RPG. Really good RPGs provide a wide variety of quests, many with interesting twists or branching paths. RPGs that don't provide much beyond simple fetch or escort quests aren't generally as much fun to play.
5. Gameplay Variety
RPGs typically offer the widest range of gameplay options when it comes to video games. Most non-RPGs are highly focused on a small number of elements, like racing games, FPSers, sports games, arcade fighters, puzzle games, etc.
Most RPGs give you a variety of ways to complete mission objectives. For example, in a fantasy RPG you might use combat, magic, or stealth to complete a quest. In a modern or sci fi RPG you might use combat or stealth or enhance yourself through gadgets or other kinds of upgrades.
You also generally have access to other gameplay elements: other ways to move about the game world (eg. swimming, flying, riding, driving, climbing, etc.), crafting (finding materials through exploration and turning them into new inventory items like weapons or armor), solving puzzles (logic puzzles, physics puzzles), solving mysteries or crimes (where you don't necessarily have to fight someone at the end to beat the quest), forming relationships with NPCs (getting married, joining factions and guilds, hiring retainers or attracting companions), and engaging in other non-combat activities (eg. buying and decorating homes, hunting, fishing and farming, owning a business, buying and selling items, etc.)
Generally speaking, the more gameplay options a game gives you, the easier it is to immerse yourself in the world and role-play.
6. Character Progression (and Stats)
One of the key elements of any RPG is character development or progression. If your character doesn't change somehow between the time you start the game and the time you finish the game, it's probably not an RPG.
Character progression can take on a variety of forms, typically, RPGs allow the player to view their character's attributes, things like strength, intelligence, agility, health (or 'hit points'), mana (or 'magic points'), etc. They also generally allow you to control things like skill progression, either by allowing you to use any skill and progress by using it, or by providing you with a set of skills bundled in a class and then allowing you to choose how you develop certain perk trees within that class. The number of different variations in game design here is tremendous, so you are likely to see a wide variety in how character progression is implemented. No two games--even from the same developer in the same series--are likely to be exactly the same.
The principle mechanic that controls character development is something called leveling. When players complete actions (kill an enemy, complete a stage of a quest, etc.) the game awards them experience ('xp'). When the player earns a sufficient amount of xp, they gain a level, or 'level up'. When the player levels-up, they are generally allowed to make some sort of improvement to their character, either by increasing attribute scores or by learning new skills, perks or spells. One of the chief satisfactions of playing an RPG is leveling your character and becoming the best that you can be.
7. Party Mechanics
Party mechanics are one of those things that are so common to RPGs that I would be remiss not to mention them. At the same time, they are one of those elements frequently neglected by many very good RPGs, so while they are common, they are by no means essential.
Most RPGs, however, do provide some way to manage more than one character. Some are built around parties and utilize strategy and tactics as a central gameplay challenge. Others only provide you with indirect control over NPCs for a limited time. Other games (like MMOs) allow you to form parties with other players and adventure together. How parties are handled has a significant impact on the experience you have and help to define the game.
Having access to a number of different characters can both help and hinder immersion. On the one hand, being able to customize your party is great for immersion: it allows you to build a team of characters that have a reason for being together and that complement one another. On the other hand, you won't feel as attached to any one character as you will if you only have direct control over one. Like customizable characters, this is an area where equally effective RPGs may be entirely lacking or overflowing with potential.
8. User Interface Tools
In order to manage character progression, track quest progress, and locate yourself in the game world, most RPGs provide the player with a number of tools or widgets. The most common tools are the character sheet, the inventory menu, the quest journal, and maps.
The character sheet allows the player to track their character's progress as they advance in level, allocate attribute or skill points or assign new skills, perks or spells when they level up, view their standing with various factions, view the number of enemies they've killed or the number of places they've visited, etc.
The inventory menu allows players to add and remove items from their inventory, equip and unequip weapons and armor, combine inventory items to create new items, and share items between their character(s) and NPCs.
The quest journal records conversations that the player has had with NPCs, provides more or less detailed directions to quest locations, makes lore available to the player in the form of books or journal entries, and sometimes provides tips or hints on gameplay.
Maps come in a variety of forms. They may be complete geographical representations that start out with only a few marked locations (major towns or cities), blank voids that must be filled in through exploration, or something in between. There may be various levels of maps (world maps, local maps), they may be editable by the player, and a mini-map may be provided which shows up on the HUD while the player is playing.
In order to simplify gameplay, many RPGs also offer in-game icons to indicate which NPCs the player should talk to, which direction they should travel, and which items are worthy of inspection. These are generally called map markers or quest markers or icons.
Finally, in order to make all of the complex gameplay manageable for the player, many RPGs provide elaborate hot keys, shortcut menus, dialogue menus, and other widgets to give the player ready access to a wide variety of actions and inventory objects.
Although a game's interface is primarily responsible for making game content accessible to the player, rather than providing that content itself, many RPGs are made or broken based on the quality of these tools.
9. Dramatic Narrative
Face it, when you're playing a RPG, you're usually playing the role of a hero. It only makes sense if that hero is faced with a challenge of epic proportions. Good RPGs usually have a good story arc to go along with them.
But that epic story arc conceals a hidden danger for RPGs: if the story is too tightly scripted, you can only guarantee the player will experience its full potential by removing choices from the player. Generally speaking, the stronger the narrative, the fewer choices the player will have. Writing a strong, rousing narrative that doesn't limit player choice is a challenging task. When playing RPGs keep this in mind. If the narrative is really good, I don't mind if I don't have a lot of choices. By the same token, if the game gives me a lot of options, I don't mind if the story is a little shallow. I recognize that it's very, very difficult to write a good story that can appeal to a wide variety of players and play-styles. Narrative style is one of those key elements that defines a game.
A good deal of the narrative in RPGs comes in the form of dialogue with NPCs. It's here that players are given a chance to express themselves, find out what motivates the NPCs that populate the world, and uncover clues about the setting. This is also one of the main ways that players make decisions that have consequences for themselves, NPCs, and the game world in general.
Closely related to dramatic narrative is the element of consequence. Consequence is that element that allows your actions as a player to shape the world that you're exploring. If it doesn't matter which dialogue option you choose, your choice has little consequence. If it doesn't matter whether or not you complete a quest, your actions have little consequence.
Your actions and decisions in dialogue should reflect on your character, shape the opinion of NPCs, and alter the game world in more or less permanent ways. Unfortunately, consequence is one of the hardest things to get right. Too much consequence and players won't enjoy their experience: they'll hesitate to play because they'll be afraid of cutting themselves off from rewarding experiences. Too little consequence and the players will wonder why they're bothering to help anyone at all.
The best RPGs take a balanced approach to consequence in that if you choose to do something that closes one door, another will always open. This keeps the game fresh and interesting every time you play.
Additionally, it is important to mention that consequence only applies when you have a choice. In a linear game where your only 'choice' is to pass or fail a level, there really isn't any consequence. Whether you pass or fail doesn't shape the world, it just brings it (and your game) to an end. (Until you reload it, anyway.) Consequence is special in RPGs because you have to live with the consequences of your actions, they will continue to affect you to one degree or another for as long as you play the game.
What Do They Mean By RPG Elements?
Many games incorporate many of these features. Most games, for example, have a well-defined setting, a dramatic narrative, some gameplay variety and various interface tools. Only RPGs have some amount of all of these elements, though in some cases, those amounts may be very small.
One element that seems common to almost all RPGs is character progression and 'stat watching'. Typically, when a game says that it contains 'RPG elements' it means that it gives you some degree of control over how your character improves over time. Usually, it means that you can choose to pursue different skill trees and perks every time you play the game, allowing you to explore different strategies for completing the missions. Sometimes it may be nothing more complex than weapon and armor upgrades. Don't be fooled, though: an action game with RPG elements plays nothing like a real RPG where you are given real choices that have lasting consequences on your character and the game world.
Ultimately, RPGs are about choice. Sometimes its about choosing the character that you play, sometimes its about choosing the path that a pre-made character takes, but all of them require you to make decisions that affect your character's growth and the shape of the world that the character lives in. And there's nothing quite so intoxicating about a game as having a choice.