What Is an RPG Anyway? – Our Many Problems with Game Genre

After we published the best RPGS of 2017, something peculiar happened. Readers wondered why I snubbed great games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Nier: Automata. In truth, I loved both of these games and did not omit them from the list for any lack of quality. I omitted them from the list because, frankly, they aren’t RPGs.

I say that without any way to definitively prove it. One of the weaknesses of game analysis and criticism is a general lack of shared terminology. There isn’t a handy glossary of terms that will tell you what an RPG is. The best I can actually say is that I, personally, don’t consider them RPGs.

I can explain why I don’t consider them RPGs. Growing up I knew two styles of RPG, the JRPG and the ARPG. JRPGs, popularized by Squaresoft at the time, generally involved massive linear narratives and turn-based battle systems (which would later change to active-time battles in games like Chrono Trigger but these are still fundamentally turn-based.)

ARPGs were exemplified by games like Baldur’s Gate. They were more open and gave you the ability to create your own character. Their battle systems would sometimes edge toward real time, but their equipment and leveling systems were no less complex.

To me, the fundamental core of each genre was how you experienced a story. JRPGs put you in the passenger seat of a grant narrative while ARPGs allowed you to forge your own narrative by roaming the world and interacting with it as you choose. Both of them brought with them a ton of numbers to crunch along the way. That was what an RPG felt like. It had to have a story and it had to have levels and stats.

In the old days of low-bit games, figuring out the difference between RPGs and other genres was easy. Mario was obviously not an RPG. Its core gameplay was platforming, not storytelling or progression. Metroid was not an RPG. It had a sense of progression like RPGs, but its run and gun gameplay and reliance on hunting down power-ups didn’t fit the RPG mold. Even Zelda wasn’t an RPG. It had a story and progression but it didn’t have a level-up system and its equipment system was very basic. Heck, even its story was very basic and in RPGs stories had to come first.

Things have changed in modern times. During the polygonal revolution, almost every game started to integrate “RPG elements.” Usually this just meant increasing the complexity of their mechanics, introducing things like levels and equipment and such. However, around the same time genres that were known for their lack of story, such as the action genre, started to dabble in deeper complex narratives. The RPG was no longer the genre you went to for a narrative first experience.

This is why our actual definition of the RPG genre is so flawed. According to Wikipedia, a roleplaying game is any game in which players assume the role of a character in a fictional setting. By that definition, 99 percent of all video games are roleplaying games. I suppose Tetris isn’t a roleplaying game. That’s it.

In these circumstances I usually call games by whatever their marketing materials call them, but this can be a sticky situation as well. Horizon Zero Dawn was billed as an “open world action RPG.” That’s three genres all mashed together! In situations like this I usually call a game by whatever genre comes first, since it’s usually the first thing you notice.

For example, Bioshock is an FPS RPG but if I were categorizing it in genres, I would put it in the FPS genre before I put it in the RPG genre. I tend to think of this in terms of how a fan would react if I recommended the game. If I was asked to recommend a new FPS, Bioshock would probably be a good bet. If someone asked me for a new RPG, giving them Bioshock would just confuse them.

This means I would categorize Horizon: Zero Dawn as primarily an “open world” game. It has all the trappings of that genre, the primary being the... open world. However, it also has tons of side quests, a focus on exploration, stealth elements, survival elements and other mechanics that are fairly common in the open-world genre. While, yes, it has roleplaying elements and action elements, Horizon: Zero Dawn would be the answer if someone asked me for a “new open world game” to play.

Similarly, I consider Nier to be primarily an action game for the same reason. If someone asked me for a new RPG to play, they might be confused if I gave them Nier, but if they were looking for a new action game Nier would be a perfect fit.

I think this brings up a bigger question, though. What actual use is there labeling things with genres? You’d think the use would be to allow gamers to find games that line up with their preferences. However, it’s pretty clear that our current genres aren’t doing a great job of that.

Steam handles genre in a slightly different way. It uses a “tag” system in which numerous descriptors are used to give gamers an overview of a game. In a sense, this is the same system that we use when marketing our games. When we call Horizon: Zero Dawn an “open world action RPG” we are essentially tagging it with “open world,” “action,” and “RPG.”

While this might be the most descriptive way to sort games, it still lacks something. We may, in fact, need one of these tags to serve as a “primary genre.” That way we can tell the difference between Bioshock, an FPS with RPG elements, and Fallout 4, an RPG with FPS elements.

And don’t even get me started on Puzzle games. How the heck can Tetris, Ace Attorney and Portal all end up in the same genre!?

To many, these issues with genre are just nitpicks and I understand why. Even though our concept of game genre has flaws, it’s certainly worked well enough over the past 50 some-odd years. Yet they always seem to crop up around award time. Why do certain indie games get snubbed for the award in their respective genre simply because they fall into the indie genre? Why do open world games get classified as action games and adventure games get classified as RPGs?

Well, to be honest this problem goes well beyond our issues with genre and gets at a fundamental problem with the way we, as the gaming community, give out awards, but that’s a topic for another time.