I have written a few reviews for digital roleplaying games (RPGs), but in many cases I find the label is completely inappropriate. When I think of a “roleplaying” game, I think of a game in which I take control and can make important narrative choices. But most digital RPGs don’t let you make narrative choices at all. For that reason I would say that the label of RPG has come to be associated with a mechanic which is common to most RPGs, but isn’t the attribute that makes them RPGs. The mechanic in question is that of leveling up, and I hate it*.
Now, I don’t blame the digital gaming industry for adopting the level-up. Hell, the tabletop gaming industry still has a horridly awful time abandoning it. It makes you feel like your character has grown in a significant way. Leveling up is like graduating from elementary school, and then middle school (or junior high), then high school, and so on. Leveling up was designed to both award players with cool new abilities and/or better stats while also making them feel like their character was growing as a person.
That narrative intent is fantastic, and on the tabletop where you have a human storyteller managing the game and handing out experience points as is appropriate to the story – making sure that player characters level up when they should- this works out wonderfully. Unfortunately when transferred into a digital medium without constant human management we run into the issue of where the experience points come from. Most often players are awarded experience for successful battles, and after that for successfully completing missions/story arcs. But on the tabletop a storyteller controls how many fights the players get into. They can craft the whole experience in a way that players only level-up when it makes sense for the story by reducing the number of conflicts or reducing the reward for “random” conflicts.
Random conflict is actually one of the big sources for the digital RPG’s misuse of leveling up. To make the world feel more real, threats had to be available outside of the narrative. Who knows when you will run into a rabid bear in the middle of the woods, or a group of misguided bandits with nothing to lose? For most RPGs this realism is executed by making non-story conflicts occur randomly in travel routes. Unfortunately these encounters are still worth experience points towards leveling up, and often in-game monetary resource as well. Since most have flat difficulty for story events, this means that players could then just wander around fighting in non-story encounters to level-up, get stronger, and make the story conflicts easier to complete. Unfortunately that means the realism of a world filled with threats has just undermined the realism of growing at a narratively appropriate moment. Also unfortunately, in designing more and more RPGs developers decided to stick with that formula. I’m not sure if the formula went mostly unchanged due to a sense of tradition/comfort, not wanting to spend money on figuring out another mechanic, or because over time it has been discovered that this mechanic paired with variable reward scheduling ends up maintaining layer interest like nothing else ever has (see: World of Warcraft and most other massively multiplayer RPGs).
No matter the reason the mechanic has persisted and games with said mechanic have continued to be tagged as RPGs. Eventually the mechanic of grinding to level-up became the mechanic which defined digital RPGs. It got to the point where a narrative could have a predefined character and a linear storyline (so absolutely no room for player choice), but as long as that character would level-up the gme would be called an RPG. There is no roleplaying in Final Fantasy X. There is no roleplaying in Borderlands. There is no roleplaying in Pokemon: Red/Blue. Managing party members, powers, and item inventories are not roleplaying. Those activities are mostly just number crunching and optimization.
But there are some games which have tried to adopt true roleplay mechanics. For the most part they accomplish this via dialogue trees which at least hold influence over the more immediate situations your character (oh, yeah, and they also let you make your own character for the most part) finds themselves in. Mass Effect lets you choose the background for your specific Shepherd, as well as his/her specialties for conflict resolution (including social conflicts). Elder Scrolls and Fallout give you a completely blank slate of a character and even go as far as to let you freely explore the environment as you see fit. Yes, they all have larger stories which go on mostly unchanged due to your actions, but the difference between them and the RPGs I listed in the previous paragraph is the fact that you get to make decisions that influence the events of the game at least a little bit (as opposed to just witnessing a narrative).
This element of choice is what truly makes an RPG in my opinion. And as such I find most Japanese RPGs don’t fit the bill. Not all Western RPGs do either, but there are more Western RPGs than there are JRPGs that actually let the player influence anything about their journey besides stats. The presence of stats shouldn’t make a game an RPG. As I said, it’s the element of choice. What’s great is that this means you could even have a statless RPG. A first person shooter could be a roleplaying game. Hell, we already have one in Spec Ops: The Line. That game is built upon moral choice, and sticks you in a role required to make those choices.
Even tabletop games have come to realize leveling up isn’t what makes a game a roleplaying game. Shadowrun and any game published by White Wolf all use organic progression systems where you spend experience points like currency to slowly grow your character. Instead of hitting a special life event and growing quite a bit in one fell swoop you grow slowly over time. The fact that this style of play works in the tabletop is evidence that we don’t need level-ups to make RPGs. Since it is too late to remove the RPG label from games which lack roleplaying, but possess level-up mechanics, I will instead pull an SAT on the label. RPG now doesn’t stand for anything, but will be used to label any game which has mechanic growth in player character abilities. Games which grant the player agency so that they may influence the world and narrative around them will be referred to as roleplaying games (and now I’ve lost my nice shorthand for that…).
Now excuse me while I go play the roleplaying tactical RPG Shadowrun Returns. Or maybe the roleplaying survival FPS S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl.
*That’s actually a lie. I love leveling up. I hate grinding.