“RPG” Defined

Is Grand Theft Auto 4 an RPG? Is Okami? Maybe Beyond Good and Evil? Intuition says no, but what really makes something an RPG? If RPGs are defined by a good story, any of those three games qualifies as an RPG. Conversely, the original Dragon Quest would probably not count as an RPG any more: its story is simpler in concept and execution than most FPS games nowadays; “Find the dragon king and kill him.” That isn’t a story. That is a mission objective.

If it’s game length, then again, the original Dragon Quest would no longer be considered an RPG, nor would Arc the Lad 1.

If an RPG is defined by turn-based combat, then Okami is not an RPG, but neither is Vagrant Story or Oblivion.

Confusing, eh?

Origin of the Term RPG
A few terms come to mind when thinking of the term RPG, as applied to video games: RPGs are very long compared to other genres (usually 40-60 hours), use turn-based combat, are set in a fantasy world, involve leveling characters, and have a good story. Many RPGs do share all, or most, of these elements, but an RPG can have some, or none, of them.

The problem: the term RPG comes from an entirely different gaming experience, now known as tabletop roleplaying games. The term was adopted by early video games without qualification. Because video games are necessarily a different playing experience from tabletop RPGs, the term could not mean exactly the same thing. But… nobody defined what the new thing was.

What ISN’T an RPG
Many people latched onto the “roleplaying” part of it, assuming that a video game RPG is a game, where you take on the role of a character, and had a quest focused on that character. Through various obfuscating terms, people tried to make it sound like RPGs are the only genre where you don’t play as an invisible hand moving objects. It’s complete nonsense. Most games at least nominally put the player in the role of a character, and some heap on more personality or choices than many RPGs. Try to tell me with a straight face that the hero of Dragon Quest 1 is more of a character than anybody in Heavy Rain.

The same applies to story. The story in DQ1 is “Defeat the Dragon Lord and save the Princess!” No plot twists, no character development, no cunning plans or clever obstacles in the way. Our silent protagonist from from point A to B to C, etc., looking for the latest doohickey that lets him get into the next place. That’s not a story. That’s busywork. Try “Amnesia”, a horror game where the player slowly unravels the secret behind his character’s amnesia, the mysterious castle in which he is locked, and the people and events which brought him there. It’s scary and disturbing. But we still consider DQ1 to be an RPG, and Amnesia is survival horror.

If anybody suggests the answer is game length, they need to remember that DQ1 can be beaten in less than 20 (10? 5?) hours, easily. I’m fairly sure Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is longer than that.

What IS an RPG
Scratching in vain to find that elusive definition, some people suggest an RPG is about turn-based combat. But is Final Fantasy XII really turn-based combat? You can move anywhere you want; you can even leave a battlefield because there are no defined barriers. What about Vagrant Story? The player doesn’t take turns in that game; any time you tap the attack button, you immediately execute an attack – no waiting.

And yet, this is part of the definition of an RPG. An RPG uses some form of restriction over character action: the characters cannot just attack whenever the player wants them to attack. There is always some type of delay. We have a special term for games like Vagrant Story: “action RPG”. It’s the term we give a video game that plays like a platformer without platforming, and substitutes hit points for heart icons.

Internal character advancement is also present, and important, in all RPGs. Characters gain either levels or stat improvements. DQ1 has it. Vagrant Story has it. Heavy Rain doesn’t. Internal character advancement is different from external character advancement. The latter, which is also present in many RPGs, refers to things like picking up bigger guns, better body armor, or new gadgets. Granted, the difference is somewhat arbitrary: what’s the difference between a game where you do more damage because your strength score went up, and a game where you do m ore damage because you picked up a bigger gun? But there it is.

Most RPGs are relatively lengthy for their time, and consequently have more time to develop a strong narrative with interesting characters. The focus in most RPGs is almost as much on the story as it is on the combat. But these things do not need to be true for a game to be an RPG. They merely are usually true.

What’s It All Mean?
RPG is a nebulous, misleading term. Many people associate it with a strong narrative, but many non-RPGs have narratives as strong as modern RPGs. An RPG has internal character advancement and restricts player input during battle. Many RPGs also have a strong narrative, and are relatively lengthy, but neither is technically necessary for a game to be an RPG. But to be a good RPG? That’s for another discussion.

Fun Times in Bad Weather: Heavy Rain Review

Want film noir? Half the time I wondered whether it wasn’t set in the 1930’s. Yes, the game is definitely set in the present, but there is something about the feeling of it all, which makes it feel like the game is set in a previous time. I don’t know; maybe it’s Scott Shelby’s role as a P.I., and the classic detective trenchcoat he wears.

But there’s more to the atmosphere than the film noir. It’s always a little depressing and creepy. The rain never lets up (appropriately). People are constantly in a foul mood, and it shows on their faces. So much of the atmosphere is contained in those faces: so much pain, weariness, confusion, and sometimes even madness. Even the happy moments are muted. That’s a bit beyond just the graphics, but the graphics do add so much to it.

The cinematic feel is bolstered by the lack of icons on screen. No health bar. No inventory. Just the scene and a camera. The camera, notably, is beyond the player’s control. But that’s not an issue: imagine that, a game where the camera actually works to its advantage, setting up shots like any good movie. I haven’t seen such good camera work since “Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter.” And it surpasses even that.

A moment ago, I said there are no icons. Well, that’s true, and it isn’t true. At any time, the player can press a button to see what the PC is thinking, and select from a list. To make it even cooler, the “thoughts” are words that float around the character’s head, and which rotate at different speeds, sometimes shaking – their appearance is affected by the character’s mood. If the character is freaking out, the words might swirl quickly, almost unreadable. At times, the player must pick a thought, to say something to somebody. Frequently, the player has a time limit, and a limited amount of times to speak, which means that the player must think quickly and make smart decisions. Thus, while the presence of floating words by itself disrupts the atmosphere, the creative implementation makes it cool nonetheless.

Similarly, sometimes the player is required to input button commands. Onscreen representations of buttons and joystick movements tell the player what to press, what direction, how quickly, and so forth… They’re obvious, logically-placed (a motion for opening a door handle will be over a door handle), and quickly disappear if they become irrelevant. These motions are the other source of action in the game. Sometimes the game demands a complicated series of motions, or quick reflexes. Because the game plays out like a movie, these motions (and the dialogues) are done as the action continues. You don’t usually need to do something perfectly, but if you dally, expect the scene to go on without you.

And, yes, you can die in this game. And the game saves frequently, to prevent reloading. Didn’t do a scene right? Missed a clue? Character died? Too bad. But don’t feel too bad. The game goes on. Events might play out differently, and screwing up does mean the situation gets worse, but it’s always worse in an interesting way. In other words, the story is interesting no matter what you do.

One might reasonably ask what’s the point of calling “Heavy Rain” a game if it can carry on without input. But consider: the player still decides how the story will go, and getting the best ending does require a good memory, reflexes, and clever thinking. That makes it a game.

If you’ve seen “Saw”, the plot might feel a bit familiar. Except whereas “Saw” is all about the gross-out, here there is an actual story. I enjoyed following the four protagonists, as they did increasingly desperate things, and their paths interwove. The PCs’ personal struggles are central to the story. Without their struggles, the game would feel like an empty action flick. I liked all of the protagonists; even at their worst, they were interesting people.

Because the plot can play out differently depending on the player’s actions, I want to play through this game again. I might succeed in places where I failed, or intentionally fail in some places, or just choose different options, to see how events play out differently. Unlike “Dragon Age: Origins”, where the player could predict with ease what would happen, it’s harder to predict the exact impact of decisions here. Even when I can imagine generally what would happen, I cannot say what specifically would occur, and the story is good enough that I would like to see how events play out.

Although Heavy Rain passes itself off as a mystery, most of the important revelations don’t come until the end. Don’t expect to be significantly closer to the puzzle’s solution until the story actually gives it to you. Even that would be forgivable, but the revelation of the Origami Killer’s identity is a let-down. It’s not the worst option the game could have gone with, but calling the killer’s identity a “mystery” would be a miscategorization. The player shouldn’t be able to guess it, without making an unwarranted, if easy, logical leap. I will grant this: the killer’s motivation isn’t random and the methods are explained. I still felt both were a little weak, but they don’t kill the game. Yet the killer’s identity still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Heavy Rain is an exemplary cinematic game. The characters’ struggles drive the game through tightly-focused scenes that the player controls. With a creative game mechanic, the game is fun to play without strongly reminding the player that it is a game. It feels like a movie, from the strong atmosphere, to the strong camera control, down to the quickly-pacing plot that the player gets to guide. Because the game accounts for degrees of success and failure, the game continues where other games would give a “Game Over” screen. Furthermore, the branching paths are intriguing because individual scenes are fun and, in a plot driven so much by the characters, it’s amusing to see how the story changes based on what those characters do. The game is more of a suspense thriller than an actual mystery, and the villain’s identity is disappointing, but the story itself is logically presented, with characters making logical leaps of intuition based on evidence gathered. Backed by its moody atmosphere, fun story, and unobtrusive game mechanics, Heavy Rain is a great example of how to make a game feel like a movie while remaining worthy of being called a video game.


The following spoiler is a more in-depth analysis of the Origami Killer.

Who is the Origami Killer? I bet you won’t guess. I know I didn’t. And I’m upset at the game, not myself, for that. Oh, I didn’t see it coming, but there’s a good reason for that. “The detective cannot be the killer” is a well-established principle. “Heavy Rain” breaks it. Scott Shelby is the Origami Killer. He is also one of the four protagonists. Making him the killer seems clever; the ending even explains how he so effectively led his criminal career, and gives a decent explanation as to why. However, he is treated exactly the same as every other protagonist throughout the rest of the game. That is to say, you control him, and all of his actions, and see everything that he sees. Except for one scene, where he actually kills somebody. The game tricks the player into thinking that the character happens upon a murder, when instead, the game omits showing Shelby kill somebody. This is a betrayal to the player because of the unspoken assumption that the player is the investigator, and is investigating through the eyes of the four protagonists. The game might as well have taken place on a different planet; seems weird, but the same logic applies: “Hey, we never said this was earth. That’s just an assumption you made.” But it’s a reasonable assumption because most stories that appear to take place on earth are actually taking place on earth; it would be nonsense to watch a show like, say, “House”, and be waiting for proof that it took place on Venus in the future, or reading Sherlock Holmes and wondering whether the setting was really England. While I give “Heavy Rain” points for the villain’s credibility, it loses points for the way the mystery is hidden.

Update Later Tonight

Busy, busy, busy… Like I said a while ago, I have some things to post. And even more things I’ve thought up since then. But… I haven’t posted anything for a bit, have I? Darn! What have I been up to?

The answer: animated shows.

Yes, over the past few weeks, I watched…
“The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”, Season 1
“Avatar: the Last Airbender”, All Seasons
“Batman: the Animated Series”, All Seasons

I also started my second semester of law school, so my schedule filled up again.

Plus, manga, more anime, tabletop gaming… in other words, I have been very distracted lately.

But it feels like too long sin ce I last did an update. Therefore, I will update tonight. And, if I have time, I will queue up several more posts for the coming days.