RPG Analysis

Posted on Jan 29th 2013 at 08:47:55 PM by (Fleach)
Posted under RPG, Collecting, Categorization, Genre, Gameplay, Narrative, Adventure

In Part 1 of my critique on video game categorization I posed the question "Can the Zelda games be considered RPGs?" My stance is that these games cannot be labeled as Role Playing games on the basis that they do not depict the character growth, statistic building, and depth of narrative required of games of the genre.

The Zelda series no doubt presents many enthralling story lines, but the characters are subject to the direction of the narrative. Consider these games to be akin to a Greek myth in which the hero is a victim of the fate determined by the gods. Like Odysseus, Link must take up arms, embark upon a journey of epic proportions and cope with an unalterable destiny. The characters of Adventure games are driven by the story. RPGs display the opposite. The characters push the narrative forward.

Despite this critical fact that separates Adventure and Role Playing games one cannot argue that both involve playing the role of a hero on an adventure. This is why I am not comfortable with the term "RPG." Modern video games, and even many retro titles, cannot be pigeon holed into just one genre category. A game such as Secret of Mana is rooted in the RPG basics and incorporates gameplay elements from the Adventure genre. Titles that merge these two genres are too conveniently labeled as Action RPG. This does provide insight on the game's play style, but does not accurately identify the game as a whole. My solution to this is to look at the adventure itself, the context in which it takes place, and whether characters grow as the game progresses.

Narrative Adventure

This is the typical RPG whether it is turn based or played out in real time. These games depict stories which are driven by the protagonist and his or her companions. Character development is illustrated via statistics, but more so in the dialogue or cut scenes. As the characters grow the story becomes deeper much like a film or novel. These games tend to be longer as more time is spent allowing the player to experience the characters and setting. The structure of the narrative often follows Joseph Campbell's Monomyth.

Fantasy Adventure/Action Adventure

The story is set in a fantastical world which has power over the hero. The protagonist's shortcomings do not impact the story; in this case the story predetermines his or her weaknesses. The focus of these games is directed more to the player having to adapt to and overcome challenges presenting by in game obstacles. These games also follow the Monomyth structure, but take the shortened path which is shown in the upper portion of the diagram.

I've enjoyed looking at what constitutes an "RPG" and like that there is no definitive answer. My solution for the categorization problem uses the characters and storyline of the games, as I feel they are integral to a great gaming experience. What are your thoughts on these labels? How do you identify what is and isn't a Role Playing game?

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Extremely well put, sir!  Are those your diagrams, by the way?  If so, very well done!

My opinion has always been more about the minutiae with the tools that the hero uses than the narrative.  Are you customizing the hero, weapons, armor, vehicles, magic, or environment in such a way that it can move you away from the narrative?  This has always been my personal scale, and why I've never considered any of the GTA games as role playing (maybe with San Andreas being the sole exception), even though the stories are often intricate and well done.

Again, very well done, sir.  Front page material.
Thanks! Those aren't my diagrams. I used them because they illustrate my point very concisely.

I like your stance about using the player's interaction with the character and finer details when thinking about a game's category.

Maybe it's because I studied a fair bit of mythology in school, but I find video games to be the modern form of story telling. It's a continuation of the oral tradition that started with spoken legends, before being recorded in written, and then on film.
While I can understand how these specific details highlight a deconstructed narrative path, the same (as you mentioned) techniques used in storytelling since the beginning, I feel we're discussing too different issues.

What we're seeking to define is not so much the design of narrative arc that is near universal; what makes games unique is the potential (granted, mostly unrealized) to move beyond a static narrative.

Let's take one of the classic (and one of my favorite) games used as ammo in the 'games as art' conversation; Shadow of the Colossus.  The art design, sound direction, and overall construction is focused and intentional; everything from aesthetics to ambiance is made with a strict purpose, as the sublime and meditative study on loss and the thin line between heroic sacrifice and selfish, unaccounted drive.  We feel Shadow of the Colossus is representing something close to High Art because it moves us to emotions with its intent and display, and the interactive nature compels a connection, a tether to these events we drive forward through gameplay. 

But, Shadow of the Colossus is still an overall static narrative.  It has a defined beginning, middle, and inevitable end, as long as the player completes the game.  The paths through it may differ between play-throughs or player, but the general journey cannot be truly altered.

We may play a role, 'Role Play,' as it were, a character with a limited progression system, but we must still follow the static narrative arc if we are to get anywhere beyond wandering the game world or just turning it off.  Story told, be it verbally by the camp fire, written on a scroll, or through pixels with a controller.  Labeling a static narrative arc is only giving a nod to the specific details; this one is sci-fi, this one is a Monet, this one is a TV Soap Opera, this one a First Person Shooter set in Modern Times.

Where games have potential to break from the classic static narrative monomyth (and the element that can separate games from these classifications) is by using interaction as a tool beyond static narrative structure, from toybox to sandbox to social experiment.  Examples could include Second Life, World of Warcraft, the endless mode of Minecraft, even the Sims.  I'll just headline one of my favorite examples;

Eve Online.  Sure, label it a Sci-Fi MMO.  Call it a generic universe, call it exclusive, call it limited.  This thing goes beyond a static narrative; it is a libertarian playground, a virtual economy simulator, an introspective analysis on social competitive hierarchies.  The story is written by the players, with no real monomyth in the design, yet countless narratives weaving an overarching series of social commentary.  Easy to list a series of categories it can fit into, each missing the bigger picture.  Yet it is a video game, through and through.
@slackur: That's a very insightful critique. I really appreciate how you look at a game as a whole as well as all its individual parts.

I believe video games to be a modern method of story telling, so that's how I approached this topic. In hindsight it may be limiting to leave out aspects such as the ones you brought up.

Mentioning Shadow of the Colossus is very interesting. I find it almost impossible to describe this game. Like you said, it's an analysis on themes of loss and loneliness and it's more than just a game. I consider it to be among emotion/though provoking games like Journey or Flower.
@slackur:I have a few questions for you, slackur, and please do not misconstrue them as an attack.  What do you mean when you say, "games have potential to break from the classic static narrative monomyth"?  Haven't they (or many of them) done so already, or are you looking more for an "across the board" action?
I don't consider earnest questions and dialogue to be an attack, though given the trolling nature in some forums I do appreciate the gesture.  RFG is one of the few sights I comment on because the community tends to be far better for good conversation. Smiley

Anyway, I know this point has been argued against, but the vast majority of video games with any mode of progressive story does indeed follow the classic trope, (some may even say trap,) of the static narrative monomyth.  Our Hero of a Thousand Faces shows up in some capacity, or at least a standard and familiar narrative is used that ties story-progressive video games into the most modern cultural story telling method, as Fleach has highlighted here.  Where the conversation began with how to stratify genre classes, I want to point out that in exploring this, it is a short step to unraveling how interactivity gives video games a tool to not be contained within the same static narrative devices commonly used in story telling.

In a game with predetermined story outcomes almost always follows the same classic narrative tropes as every other storytelling medium.  And there's nothing wrong with that; its used because it works, and resonates with the audience.  A player giving up, running out of continue opportunities, etc, is not a break from the classic narrative, and does not change the story.  It is little different than not finishing a book or turning off the TV show; our lack of continuing the story isn't altering the story, it is discontinuing our involvement in the narrative.

Games with binary options, a 'good and evil ending' selection for example, starts to break the trend, and begins to highlight how interactivity begins to break down the static narrative convention, but in effect we are just choosing a variation on the same narrative.  A Choose Your Own Adventure novelette is not quite 'Role Playing,' anymore than the weather changing when viewing Architectural art makes it a different structure.  We are viewing a variation of the narrative, which does break it from being static, but only to replace it with a different closed system.  Open to interpretation, as is the nature of Art, but the system observed is itself closed.

Larger scale designs such as Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Planescape: Torment may give the illusion of freedom by offering more degrees of interactivity, but the narratives are still themselves static, and such experiences become more akin to a series of short stories with ultimate culminations.  Each degree of permutation has to be accounted for, by nature of design; otherwise the game is 'broken' and cannot continue.

If degrees of freedom do not actually equate to a break from the static nature of classical storytelling, but another mode of variation (Choose Your Own Adventure books or how the movie 'Clue' had three different endings in the theater, are equatable examples from other media) then how does gaming's interactive nature give us anything more than story variable?

Simulation.  The ability to use gaming as a narrative device, but through open tools and without the typical narrative structure.  Sandbox gaming is an easy example, but Eve Online is a more direct example.  Even with some narrative devices in place, the real stories of Eve Online are not the interaction between players and narrative, but players and players.  The worthwhile story in Eve Online, I would argue, is the examination of how external and internal forces have shaped the virtual economy, the player factions, the large and small scale rebellions and retaliations, the social hierarchy.  There is a wealth of information of varying degrees of relevance to observe, and the whole game plays, to me, like a large scale interactive cultural art project.  A book, a TV Series, a cave painting, a movie, with tens of thousands of interactive, personal elements that disappear into a mosaic.  Paul Signac painting with tiny players to create a huge visible canvas, Henri-Edmond Cross creating a pointillism vision that cannot be comprehended when viewed too close. 

The tool of interactivity, when used to propel a static narrative, has the ability to endue us to a story beyond mere observation.  But when developed into dynamic simulation, gaming may give us eyes to see things far less visible.
@slackur:Ahhh.  Thank you.  Now I have a counter-point.  While most games do have a terminus that signals the end of the game, there are a few that do not, and thus give you access (if you are willing) to create a new narrative.  My example: Morrowind for Xbox.  I put well over 300 hours into Morrowind GOTY Edition when it was released, but only 100 or so in the main story.  After beating the sorry boss at the end my character took on a new identity, that of a roaming vampire, plundering villages for wealth and blood.  I resided in those strange Dwemor pyramids, filling up the rooms and beds with my spoils.  It got to the point that the game would start to "forget" some of my wealth, and I would randomly find things missing only to have them appear again.  Towards the end I quested to find the "indexes" (I may be forgetting something here) that would allow me to transport between the dwemor pyramids, but I ended up leaving the game before I found them.

My point is that there are games that allow one to play after the story is completed, thus allowing one to find additional narrative through interaction;  what interaction and how is completely up to the player, but it is still there.
We've got some good discussion here.

I'm starting to think that I wasn't wrong in my little analysis, but I definitely left out an important part of the bigger picture (player interaction influencing the story).
@Fleach:  You definitely weren't wrong.  Maybe you were a bit brief, but I think this subject is thesis-worthy, and could easily fill up 20+ pages of analysis and breakdown.
@bombatomba: Oh yeah. This could easy be a huge essay. When I started writing this I realized that I bit off more than I could chew with the topic so I split it into two parts and didn't want to bore readers with pages upon pages of analysis. Seems like there's still a whole lot to discuss in terms of narrative and RPGs.
@Fleach:Well, I didn't necessarily want to derail the conversation about genre stratification per se, but to point out that the interactive nature of gaming makes such stratification subject to a more permeable model by necessity.  This is not just about RPGs or sandbox openness, but about how we approach and limit our understanding about how interactivity is, literally, a game changer.

Here's a quick thought in relation to my point;

I always played the original F-Zero on SNES as intended; a straightforward racing game in a sci-fi setting.  I never thought to consider it otherwise, and the strict design elements brought its conceptual focus into such tunnel vision that I would have no reason to venture outside such bounds, or even realize that they existed.

Then I walked in on some friends playing F-Zero, and they were not playing it as intended.  At all.  They would set their vehicle at a 90 angle, perpendicular to the path of the track, a short distance from the jump pad.  Then, an errant hovercraft would come hurtling down the track, and inevitably smack into the avatar vehicle, which would slide into the jump pad and into the air, sideways.  The player would then hit the gas, and his hovercraft would fly a short distance off the track until descending and exploding onto the ground below.

The contest, the new 'game' as it were, was to isolate the best variables to gain the most distance and air time.  By mixing cars, tracks, locations, even difficulty levels, greater air time was reached, and it became a creative exercise to think of new permutations that would give greater success. 

Did this new 'minigame,' using the confines of the F-Zero engine design, change F-Zero's genre from standard racing to puzzle solving, akin to Burnout's Crash modes?  Entirely new sub-genres, from MOBAs to MMOs, spawned from such experimentation within the confines of a game engine not necessarily made for such gameplay.  Of course, part of the fun is finding new experiences within the limits (or beginning to break them.)  This is, in a way, approaching interactivity from a different, though not opposite, direction from sandbox gameplay.

Using such techniques and infusing them into narrative design can give us experiences that focus more on interactivity design and game engine elements that make genre classification moot, if not possibly irrelevant.  At least, that's my thought on the matter. Smiley  Genre stratification can become boundaries that narrow our potential experiences during gaming, though they certainly serve utilitarian purposes.

Now that you mention this I think I've been receiving my gaming content too passively. I always just allow the game to give everything it's got to offer. If that won me over, that was great. If not I probably stopped playing.

I've never tried to intentionally play a game the "wrong way," but I see how this can lead to new discoveries and renewed excitement for the game.

You've got the gears in motion with that comment. Thanks!

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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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