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.
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.