What makes a game an “RPG”

A few days ago my girlfriend asked me what made a game an RPG; I gave her a brief answer about character development and stats, but after having some time to think it over I have come up with a few ideas about what makes RPGs distinct from other genres.

First let me state my disclaimer this post is in regards to video game rpgs vs non rpg video games, table top games are already pretty distinct from board games that they won’t be mentioned here.

The key element of an RPG, in my opinion, is a customizable character.  Some action/adventure titles feature character upgrades that you can purchase at certain experience levels, but it is nearly always possible to complete every ability tree by the end of the game.  RPGs tend to have a choice between two or more mutually exclusive paths, you can be a warrior, a thief, a mage, or some combination that is more versatile but less powerful in any given area than a more specialized character.  Combat in RPGs tends to be turn based, but games like Elder Scrolls, Fallout 3, and Mass Effect have real time systems that use your character’s weapon skill as a basis for how likely you are to hit or damage your foe.  In a pure shooter game like Halo 3 player skill and equipment are the only deciding factors, there is no combat stat or method to make the character better other than being a better player.

Another component of the RPG is a choose your own adventure rather than linear style of gameplay.  There are often more ways to go about solving a problem in an RPG than in other genres, often at least two paths that can dramatically alter the possible interactions in the future.

Interactive dialogue is an RPG element that isn’t prevalent in other genres, being able to determine how your character talks to others rather than watching a completely scripted cut scene is far more immersive and shows the choose your own adventure and custom character aspects.

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~ by katallos on October 1, 2009.

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