Thursday, May 13, 2010

Playing A Role

By Kirk Hamilton

In a post from earlier this week, I wrote of Square Enix's DS game The World Ends With You that "the story has so many original ideas firing at once that it hardly even feels like a JRPG." After I wrote that sentence, I started thinking about what the term "JRPG" even means, about what kind of game does "feel like a JRPG."  And what is a "JRPG" in the first place?

I certainly don't associate the acronym with the words it proports to represent; that is, I don't think of a "Role-Playing Game From Japan." I think of predefined characters, linear stories, sixty-hour campaigns, turn-based combat, big hair, big swords, and melodrama. I think of Square Enix, I think of the PS1, I think of people saying "..." a lot and I think of great music. I think of the 90's. But I don't really think of "role-playing," at least not in the sense that I used to play D&D back in the day.

I saw a post today on Kotaku that linked to a pull-quote from Bioware's writing director Daniel Erickson. After being asked a question regarding Final Fantasy XIII, he said:
"Well, before I address the main point I just want to take a slightly more controversial route: You can put a 'J' in front of it, but it's not an RPG. You don't make any choices, you don't create a character, you don't live your character... I don't know what those are - adventure games maybe? But they're not RPG's.
Which raises all sorts of interesting (if not entirely groundbreaking) questions for me. What, exactly, is a role-playing game? Is it enough that we simply insert ourselves into the shoes of another character, that by doing so we are "playing a role?" And by that definition, isn't any character-driven modern game a sort of RPG? Is defining the specifics of gameplay (stealth, combat, magic, etc.) an integral part of the role-playing experience? Or perhaps adding moral choice, factions, and a branching storyline? If we are going to save Tamriel/Slay the Archdemon/Defeat the Reapers one way or another, is it necessary that we are given a modicum of control over how we get there?

I recall that when I first started playing electronic role-playing games there was quite a bit of discussion among the tabletop RPG community about "CRPGs" and whether they could ever truly replicate the tabletop experience. Neverwinter Nights gave players the quest-building Aurora Toolset, which allowed many to come pretty close. Jason Rohrer's fantastically interesting new two-player game Sleep Is Death seems in many ways to be more of a "Role-Playing Game" than most of BioWare's releases.

Those two examples make me think that perhaps an authentic role-playing experience requires humans at both ends of the game. That is to say, perhaps for player-characters to have true, non-illusory agency, the gameworld, its NPCs, and the quest itself must be authored with an equal degree of flexibility.

All I really know is that it's an interesting question. I throw it to y'all - what makes a game a role-playing game?


Daniel Bullard-Bates said...

In video games, role-playing game has come to mean one thing only: Character progression, usually through gained experience and new powers.

In Half-Life 2 you play a role, but you don't gain levels and all your new powers are based on items you find, not character progression. When Modern Warfare's multiplayer was first being discussed, it was deemed to have "role-playing elements" because it includes a rudimentary system for leveling up.

Personally, I prefer my role-playing games to give me as many options for customization as possible, both in character creation and the storyline. I like to get into character.

Failing that, though, I still like most games that let me level up, like Final Fantasy XIII and Borderlands, even if they don't quite scratch that role-playing itch. And there are some things that only pencil and paper games played with good friends can provide.

Tim Mackie said...

I think Daniel's on to something here; the term has simply come to mean statistically quantified advancement for most people. This is why we can call "JRPGs" RPGs, because they most certainly have that. But when I think of RPGs, I also think of becoming my character. I have to agree with Kirk on this one; the idea of playing the role is a very intangible thing, a thing which is very, very rarely accomplished in video games these days, and necessarily so. I think, in the words of the Architect, "the problem is choice."

When I play D&D (or other tabletop RPGs), my teammates and I sometimes make unpredictable decisions. The DM has to be prepared to wing it and play off what we're doing. This is something that, with current technology at least, video games cannot do. It is extremely difficult to become engaged and involved with one's character when one is physically limited by the constraints of the game.

The only successful alternative I have encountered thus far is the BioWare route: give people as many options as possible. I'm near the end of my first playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins. Now everybody reading this has probably already played it and knows what I'm talking about, but I'll be vague and say that just before the final sequence there is a difficult moral decision. I agonized over this decision for what felt like a really long time but was probably only five minutes or so as I tried to figure out what my character would do. Unfortunately, I have yet to finish it and see what exactly the consequences of this decision are, but whatever happens, I feel good knowing that I made the right decision for Eldrick, the oppressed yet somewhat temperamental idealist who became more jaded to those ideals as his quest progressed. The fact that I can even summarize my character's plot development in that fashion is an achievement for BioWare which I have yet to see in other games.

In short, if I'm going to think of something as an RPG, I need it to make me feel like I am becoming my character. The most effective way to do this in a video game is to give me a broad array of choices for my character to make, with additional bonus points for not judging these choices under any sort of morality system. (Dragon Age is the only game I've played so far that does that; I hope it becomes a trend.) Of course, there are limits to how well a video game can do that, and tabletop will always have a place for that reason, I think.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Yeah, I get the sense that some sort of statistical progression is tied to a lot of people's sense of "role playing," sorta like the term has been redefined. And Tim, I totally agree re: Dragon Age - it was the first game I've played where there are so many choices, not tied to a clear black/white morality system that it started to feel like I was playing a role.

MMORPGs bring another wrinkle to the question, since one can really "role-play" one's character in terms of interactions with others. You can act like them, talk to others as your character... I believe some people even dress up to play WoW! Which may be easy to mock, but I actually think is kind of cool. Like real roleplaying, even though the quests and storyline are as predetermined as in Dragon Age.

I'm interested in more games that make the DM role playable, like NWN did and Sleep is Death, too... open-ended systems that allow DM-level flexibility. Especially since more games that are definitely -not- Role-Playing games are adding statistical growth and customization (loadouts in Reach, MW2, character progression in Tom Clancy games, etc). It'll be an interesting semantic exercise to redraw line a bit.