Genre Analysis #2: Role-playing game

The problem that arises with critiquing any entertainment medium is genre must be taken into consideration, and often it is not. Do action movies need deep characters? Do horror films need a complex plot? Video games are the same way. What genres value graphics more than others? What about sound and game length?

In this series of articles, I aim to identify what characteristics are most valuable to certain genres of games – by assigning a score (1-5) of “importance” to a number of important game qualities. The score is purely subjective and completely my opinion, but I think I am level-headed enough to get at least close.

My hope is that with these articles, we can get a better understanding of genre norms and constraints, hopefully making for better reviews and critiques of games.

Don’t miss the first in the series: Genre Analysis #1: First-person shooter

The Role-playing game

If the FPS is the action movie of the film world, the role-playing game is the sweeping, Oscar-darling melodrama. RPG’s are story-driven, plot-heavy epics that often deal with heavy subject matter in their narratives: like war, death and politics.

RPG’s are home to powerhouse, double-digit sequel-inducing, tried-and-true franchises like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior/Quest. Taking a look at the genre, one that is rife with numerous sequels and often “stagnant” gameplay, we can learn how it remains relevant and successful today.

Graphics – 3 out of 5

Role-playing games are most closely related to books in the video game world. As a result, graphics are of little consequence in the genre. Go back and play FFVII and tell me it’s not a compelling game. Do the graphics look dated? Of course they do. But does it matter in the least? No way. A good story could be paired with graphics from 1987 and the game would still shine.

This doesn’t mean graphics can’t enhance the experience. The cut scenes during many big RPGs are absorbing, and can make an otherwise good experience truly sublime. I remember being blown away when FFVIII hit, the opening cut scene made my jaw drop. As is the case with most great games, the graphics aren’t the thing we remember the most. In an RPGs case, it’s the story.

Story – 5 out of 5

Without a story, the RPG means nothing. As a RPG players, we understand there will be a good amount of reading/controller setting down in order to let the story unfold. What make this practice go from unbearable to engrossing, is the story. I would say no genre relies on a single element of games more than RPGs do on stories – they’re that important.

Although the genre has been bogged down by the “save the world from an ancient evil” storyline over the years, it’s the liberties and augmentations writers take that make stories memorable. Almost every Final Fantasy has the same story – but deviations and twists make them unique in their own way. Most movies are this way too. There is almost no original plot out there anymore, but there is still a lot writers can do with old ones.

Sound – 4 out of 5

One of the more underrated aspects of RPGs (and gaming in general) is the soundtrack. In the vast majority of RPGs players will be fighting a lot of enemies. One key to making this practice less mind-numbing is having a catchy battle theme. We can all recall humming particularly good battle themes when we were knee-deep in the newest RPG. It’s a small part of the overall experience that actually means a lot.

The dramatic nature of the genre also lends itself to broad orchestral soundtracks. Strings building up during an airship battle cut scene or tinkling of piano during a character’s death can add a dimension to the emotional attachment we have to the story that is unseen in other genres.

Length – 5 out of 5

For better or worse, RPGs are long – some pushing 100 hours of gameplay or more. The genre is held to much different standards in terms of length than others. An RPG of 20 hours would no doubt be deemed “short” or “not fully fleshed-out.”

In the modern market, an RPG must have a number of side-quests, hidden characters and other unlockables and secrets to not only sate hungry completionists, but to increase length. With a lack of multiplayer component and little replayability, RPGs need to last longer than other genres – the first play through may be the only play through.

Multiplayer – 1 out of 5

RPGs are solo experiences, with a few exceptions. Obviously, MMORPGs are excluded, but games like Eternal Sonata and Secret of Mana attempted to incorporate multiplayer. While fun for a while, multiplayer in RPGs is not ideal. There is a lot of micro-managing (often in the exciting menu!) and having a second person interrupting can be a problem. Arguments over which character gets item X or weapon Y is just not something I want to deal with in an RPG.

What does it all mean?

As our games go online more and multiplayer begins becoming a standard, RPGs will continue to carry the “traditional” one-player experience. Engrossing stories, epic soundtracks and a lengthy adventure is what we’re looking for in the genre. At the most basic level, an RPG could be text based with Atari-level graphics – as long as it had a compelling story and hours of gameplay – and it would be enjoyable.