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The World of Western RPGs


Here I define some common concepts one can meet in the RPG world.

RPG - As I said, the acronym RPG does not mean anything. You can call whatever you like a role-playing game. Halo 3 is the best example. But I like to use two definitions – my own and the historical one. The historical definition of an RPG is that if the designer of the game thinks his game is an RPG and he gets a lot of people to believe it, then an RPG it is. The historical definition is what I like to call the Peter Pan phenomenon – clap your hands if you believe in fairies and there will be fairies.

And now on to my own definition. RPGs are brilliant, psychological devices that allow the player to discover himself in a safe environment. This psychological part already existed in "pen and paper" games. But when it comes to RPGs as video games, the first designers just transferred numbers and dungeons from the "pen and paper" experience into a video game equivalent. However, it was not long after the early days (in fact it was in the early days) when a game was about the player himself. This game was Ultima 4 and the year was 1985. Since Ultima 4, it has taken a long time for the genre to fully realize this concept, but with the arrival of Fallout in 1997 a lot of significant people in the industry started to focus on this aspect of RPG design.

An then there is a third definition – RPG stands for Repetitive Procedure Generator.

Choices and Consequences - C&C is a device that allows you to experience the story of the game in the most interactive way, the way you would experience the story if you were the character. C&C is interactive storytelling. It is not exactly a branching plot, though that is an element of C&C. The goal of C&C is not to provide you with different stories to choose from; it aims to break the barrier between you and the game, to experience the story in a unique, personal way.

That is the way C&C works in story games - games where the narrative is the story. In games where the narrative is the world, C&C allows you to manifest your personality in this world the creators have shaped, and see how the world responds to your actions.

C&C is not about right or wrong choices, C&C is not a puzzle. C&C is a device that allows you to go on a journey and through this journey discover things about yourself.

In a way, C&C is an aspect of interaction with feedback - similar to how physics engines work these days, or how text descriptions in Sierra/Legend games offer feedback. It provides a response to the player. C&C is however inside the narrative, regardless if it is the world or the story itself and it allows you to experience yourself in that narrative in a really intimate way. C&C is about discovering yourself and that is what role-playing is about.

C&C is a prominent feature of Western RPGs, but there are also Japanese RPGs that have used the device. For example, the SMT series allows you to test out your beliefs in a world where all religions are true... and evil, and they allow you to confront yourself.

Western RPGs – Bluntly said, RPGs made by white people. Started out as simple "numbers and dungeons" games, but evolved into two separate categories – world games and story games.

Japanese RPGs – RPGs made by Asian people. Most of the games in this genre come from Japan and thus it inherited its name. Started out as simple "numbers and dungeons" games, but it was not long when the focus was moved to the stories, making it the only genre aside from adventure games to explore this area in the early days. They are however characterised by their strictly traditional approach, which brings to each title a nauseating feeling of déjà vu. At their best they allow you to experience really awesome stories. At their worst they tell the same story you have already experienced tons of times. Lately they have been trying to introduce some elements of Western RPGs.

Action RPGs – like the word RPG itself, this does not mean anything. It was actually used as an insult in the early days. Before stories became important in RPGs, it was used by hardcore RPG players to separate their complicated games like Bard's Tale from "simplistic" games like Diablo. With the rise of a new generation however – to whom the story is important – it is used to separate their story games from titles where the main goal is to kill monsters. Thus games like Bard's Tale have become action RPGs. Even more, with the rising popularity of more straightforward gameplay, every developer of RPGs decided to market his game as an action RPG – which is what all games in the genre have become. Games as fundamentally different as Gothic 3, Bloodlines, Jade Empire and Oblivion are all action RPGs. Currently it just means that the combat takes place in real-time. It really does not tell anything about what kind of an RPG the game really is.

Immersion – marketing speak that no one actually understands and is considered a synonym for "cool".

Next-Gen – a synonym for "cool". See "Immersion."

Innovation – see "Immersion".

Dungeon Crawler – the first style of RPGs born in the early days when people just transferred numbers and dungeons from the original "pen and paper" experience into video games. While for a long time it was just about killing monsters, this changed with Ultima Underworld that allowed you to explore a living world with realistic characters, and with Lands of Lore that told an entertaining fairy tale story. Later with Diablo, the primitive version of this style was brought back and then changed quickly because of the game's popularity, transferring the killing monsters" aspect to new environments such as forests and towns.

In a way the early shooters are also dungeon crawlers, but this mentioned further in this article. I just want to give a hint to fellow MobyGamers to write an article about this to cover games like Dungeons of Daggorath, early shooters like Castle Wolfenstein and recent shooter-RPG hybrids like Deus Ex and Stalker.

Diablo-clone – a descendant of the early RPGs, meaning that it is only about numbers and killing monsters. At first, this style was about dungeons alone, but later dungeons were ditched for more appealing locations. It is currently the most unpopular style of RPGs, since no "big guy developers" are doing this. But this might change when Diablo 3 is released.

Dungeon Master clone – Dungeon Crawlers that use the same interface, puzzles and style of gameplay that Dungeon Master introduced to dungeon crawlers.

Party-based – you are required to create a party of characters to play the game. Old-school RPG players praise this style, because they fondly remember how they imagined that their all-female party consisted of travelling pornstars and how they slept with all those monsters and how their mother discovered the erotic fantasies that they had written and... Usually exists in Dungeon Crawlers, especially the older, primitive ones, where make-believe is a must for the full enjoyment (according to veterans).

Single-Character-based – you are required to create and play just one character. Usually exists in games that flirt with the psychological aspect of RPGs – the ones that are about the player. With the rise of barbie-dressing this has become the most popular design style.

Pre-defined character-based – an existing character whom you take control of, instead of creating your own. Usually exists in story games, but Diablo-clones also have this (but there you pick from five different characters). This is used when the designers want to create a really dramatic tale. It tends to throw off some people because they cannot create and customize their own character. However, BioWare has been smart enough to get around this. They allow you to create the look of your character, but the character will still have a history. Most famous example: Mass Effect where you can create the gender and appearance of your character, but it will still be Commander Shepherd.

Barbie-dressing - the ability to customize your character's appearance in any way you want – be it from the variety of clothes to wear, or adjusting height and body build, or creating any face you want. This barbie-dressing started with Serpent Isle and Daggerfall, where you could change the barbie-doll representation of your character in the inventory screen with various different clothes and armors. With Diablo, barbie-dressing started to change the appearance of your character in the game itself.

Starting with Fallout and Baldur's Gate, the armor you wear changed your appearance in quite a significant way. But it is not until going 3D that RPGs have perfected this barbie-dressing phenomenon. Particularly Morrowind and Oblivion have been the leaders in this. Nowadays, barbie-dressing is a must. It has slowly turned into the most important aspect of RPGs.

World games – the focus is on exploring the game world. Can exist with or without C&C, but usually world games are more fondly remembered if they have C&C. After all, what good is a huge world if it does not react to your actions... The more C&C heavy ones are Fallout and Arcanum. Lesser ones are the Elder Scrolls games.

Story games – the focus is on experiencing the story. Most JRPGs automatically fall under this category. Can exist with or without C&C. Nowadays, story games from the West usually come with C&C, because designers have discovered that players prefer when the game is about themselves.

Make-believe – the requirement from the player to imagine that his adventure party is a group of travelling pornstars, because the developers did not bother to add any sort of story, characters or anything at all in the game, besides killing monsters with swords.

Continued: Forefathers

Table of Contents: The World of Western RPGs