RPG Analysis

Posted on Jan 22nd 2013 at 08:30:36 AM by (Fleach)
Posted under RPG, Collecting, Categorization, Zelda, Genre

The first article in my new RPG Analysis series sparked some great conversation about community members' thoughts of the pricing of Role Playing games. We discussed some of our favourite titles and touched upon the timelessness of the genre. One comment, however, stood out from the lot. Addicted cited The Legend of Zelda as the first RPG he had played to completion.

There is no doubt that Zelda series boasts many great games in its catalogue. The debates lies here: can the Zelda games, which commonly accepted as Action Adventure games, be considered RPGs?

First, we must consider the characteristics of a Role Playing game. The most obvious distinction of an RPG is the character development both via the narrative and stat building.The characters of these games are dynamic in that they grow as the story progresses. Consider Mistwalker's The Last Story in which we are presented with Zael who believes in all that is good in the world despite faltering as a leader. As Zael moves through the world and witnesses the corruption and greed of rulers who have abused their powers as nobility, he learns that being a hero involves much more than simply defending the weak. By the conclusion of the game the protagonist evolves into a true leader, one who command his friends, inspire bravery in the weak hearted, and most importantly, honours the responsibilities of his newfound heroism. All the while, Zael becomes a proficient knight as he gains experience in battle.

Conversely, a character can lose his sense of self identity. In Final Fantasy VII Squaresoft depicts Cloud, a battle hardened soldier, who cannot make clear his memories of the past. As a new recruit Cloud idolizes a fellow soldier named Zack so much so that after they parted ways Cloud begins to associate himself with Zack's traits. This game is known for its convoluted story, but it only adds to Cloud's dilemma; it forces the player into his disjointed psyche.

An Adventure game, on the other hand, does not portray the same kind of depth. The principle character of an Adventure game tends to be a hero from birth. Link seems quite comfortable wielding a sword immediately after receiving it from the old man in the cave. Another notable example would be Naughty Dog's Uncharted protagonist, Nathan Drake. He knows what he must to do, he knows how to go about it, and can always rescue his companions. This type of game does something very different from an RPG: it makes the player the hero, whereas a Role Playing game tells the tale of the yet-to-be hero. The player does not witness Link or Drake become a brave leader, much less someone who learns about the hardships of the world. It can be considered that the character development occurs the backstory of an Adventure game, while this development is most often the focal point of an RPG.

This is not to say that RPGs are superior. Both are highly successful and popular gaming genres. Even though Role Playing and Adventure games differ in their protagonists are presented they share one resounding similarity. The player takes on the role of the hero. It is here that the debate begins and it is at this point that I chose to avoid categorizing my games by genre. As games continue to become more complex and heavily driven by story the line between the Adventure and Role Playing genres will become increasingly blurred. 

The floor is open to discussion. Do you agree with me? Is the genre debate important? Discuss anything you feel relevant, I just ask that you reserve your solutions to this conundrum for Part 2.

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I kind of like how it gets messy with these two genres often blurring together for people. Sure it makes it annoying when trying to categorize them into a database like the one here at rfgen, but it typically means that if you are a fan of either genre (however you define that genre) there is likely to be an overlap in games that you might enjoy. I don't think a lot of other genres have nearly as much crossover appeal.
Part of the problem, and potentially the solution, is the vague nature of the terms themselves.  In most video games the player is controlling the role of protagonist, so most games could be literally considered a 'role-playing' game, and most games take the protagonist on an 'adventure'.  Since there have yet to be specific delineations universally decreed as what separates them into genre, over the years both players and critics have taken it upon themselves to lump games into either due to gameplay conventions.  A few decades ago this was easy to follow; menu driven actions with visible statistics meant 'RPG,' while real-time button-to-immediate-response control would suggest the terribly generic title of 'action game.'

The Zelda series, from its very first title, forced a reconsideration to these terms.  The original Legend of Zelda married the quick action of an arcade game with traits typically reserved for a more menu-driven, 'deeper' experience akin to an Ultima or Wizardry game.  This included a more prominent setting and background story, acquiring various gameplay and story-based items, and an avatar that developed more abilities as the game progressed, albeit without a typical leveling system.  Many an AD&D campaign were set in Hyrule after that shiny gold cartridge released...

Considering these two genre categories, Action and RPG, mostly originated because of a gameplay design and focus, it only makes sense that as our gameplay tools have grown over time, these would merge to varying degrees.  Where Action Game once meant Defender and RPG meant Dragon Warrior, by the time something like Wing Commander was released, genre terms were more vague adjectives than pidgeon-holes.  A Cinematic Space Action Combat with Arcade (hey, it featured a simplified training simulator with scoreboard) elements and a sprinkling of 'Role Playing?'  Sure, its easy to just label WC with 'Space Combat Simulator,' but I sure didn't read reviews of Star Wars Arcade or even the more complex Star Raiders as featuring 'Cinematic Role-Playing.' 

Even the freedom to use categorization as adjectives instead of genre can fall apart for movies; the Star Wars flicks are far closer to High Fantasy compared to, say, Moon, which itself is more of a thriller/film noir character study in a sci-fi  setting.

Sometimes, even accurate descriptors of the media product's content gives away spoilers, such as a surprise twist of a setting not being where/when the initial narrative suggests, which may change, for example, period piece to sci-fi, or mystery into psychological thriller.  (wink wink Identity wink.)  Then you have something like Assassin's Creed, which presents what could be a spoiler as a simple narrative device.  Would an Assassin's Creed movie be a period piece, or Sci-Fi?  (Or follow the game's lead, and make me fall asleep while the lead chases flags instead of developing plot? Wink )

tl;dr @slackur

I'm excited to see the direction of this series, thanks for presenting it!
Totally agree with your analysis, as well as what Crab has offered, as well as the fact that this can be (note emphasis) a fascinating subject.  There is certainly a difference in choice available to the characters in both genres (this also has the possiblity of sparking off a debate between the JRPG and WRPG camps, which would also be fascinating).

Now lets see who read the final paragraph in your blog post, Fleach.
though I won't call Zelda an RPG proper, I've always felt pretty good about lumping it in with ARPG's y'know? Sure there isn't the same leveling up as in something like Sword of Mana with stats and all, but you do get extra heart containers and stuff. It's close.
@slackur: It's because games don't fit so conveniently into just one genre anymore that this is such an interesting and exciting topic. There's no wrong answer, and so there are so many opinions.

I like that you pointed out the Moon/Star Wars bit. That's a great analogy using the film industry. Personally I liken RPGs proper to the character study theme and Adventure to the High Fantasy realm. But that's just me.

@Crabmaster2000: These two genres go hand-in-hand so nicely which I believe is why so many games blend and cross over from one another.
There is no need to speculate, as Nintendo already told us that LoZ is an adventure game, right from the start: http://www.anjelsyndicate.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/NES_1987_poster.jpg
i agree with duke, although there are similarities to RPGs, the Zelda series is officially an adventure series. excluding Zelda II which is too close to an action RPG to call it anything else.

when you start wondering about the blurring lines between genres because of some similarities between them, where do you draw the line? is Call of Duty: Black Ops II multiplayer an online RPG because of a levelling system and new items acquired through it? i think most genres need a clear definition, or you start getting into weird things like my CoD example.
@techwizard: We have these debates and conundrums because these two genres are so versatile. This is what makes the topic so nteresting.
I've gotten in some heated debates about genre labels and categorization. RPGs, action, adventure all seem to be the worse offenders as their definitions are just vague by themselves.

I always categorize games for myself based on gameplay mechanics and not style or presentation. So I use monikers like RPG, Action, Adventure, Simulation, Strategy as big overhangs and look at more in depth classifiers within. So it ends up being more like a tree for some games that include a lot of mechanics.

For example: Azure Dreams = RPG > Roguelike > Turn based > Monster trainer > dating sim
Another example would be Dragon Quest VIII = RPG > Console > Turn based > Menu interface
All video games are role playing. It's not really you that you are controlling!  Wink

@gamer2112: There are games where I can play as Duke Togo Wink
I don't really thing it matters what genre you place a game, music, band.  It is what you felt it deserved to be to your experience.  I hate music genres because I just don't understand them.  Sometimes what you are trying to classify wasn't created to be so narrowed.  One of my favorite bands was tagged as being part of the 80's Big Hair movement, even though they were wearing tight and glittery back in '72 during the original glam rock era.  Twisted Sister was a hair band before it was even a thought.  The Legend of Zelda was a Huh in the days that no one knew what Huh was. 

Try to classify Led Zeppelin or The Godfather in a single genre and receive the same reaction as what you see toward another blockade slammer in LOZ.
@Duke.Togo:There are games that I can play as Duke Togo.  In fact, I'm playing Minesweeper...  as Duke Togo! : P

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Role Playing games are my favourite genre of the gaming library. I feel it is appropriate to take a look at the games that have touched me in my time as a gamer and collector and share them with the community. Feel free to discuss your thoughts, ideas, and challenge my opinions. The conversation is welcomed.
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