The Elements of Role Playing Games

Posted by Arun Menon at Jan 29, 2010 12:25 PM |
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This article, the first in a three part series addresses the definitions of role-playing games (RPGs) and their elements, the integration of elements from other genres facilitating to what might lead to the hybridization of genres and the relation between online and offline games as well as solo gaming with respect to the ‘Alone Together’ phenomenon.

What are  RPGs?

RPGs include a broad family of games where a player assumes the role of a character who interacts with the game(s) world (often imaginary) in some manner. It is to be noted that even an empire building game, which technically belongs to another genre has mild elements of role play where the player is a ruler and certain elements of characterization that follows are noticeable in the Caesar series designed by Sierra. The in-game character from generation (character generation is prominent among most RPGs, particularly fantasy based, and this marks the beginning of a particular route or path that a player wishes to take) to growth and development along various pathways and strands in multi-pathed RPGs would be an interesting read and is duly examined in the third and final part of this series. Role-playing games examined here are not table top games or board games but simulations, which sufficiently justify the basic RPG elements as well as the incorporation of other generic elements from turn based gaming, real time strategy, and simulation.

The ideal examples used are ‘Dragon Age: Origins’ (DA: O) and ‘King Arthur: The Role-playing Wargame’ (KA).

What are some of the key elements of RPGs? 

Interviews given by Chris Beleszinski from Epic Games and Ray Mayzuka from Bioware echo similar statements on the future of shooters  (both first person{FP} and third person{TP} shooters), on the lifting of the pillars of RPGs, and the merging of genres, which may inevitably lead to some form of hybridization of genres. The key features among many of RPGs are (also described as the three key pillars, with the fourth pillar being a new addition/merger):

  • Combat/Conflict: Some of the new RPGs such as Mass Effect, DA: O and KA have options of combat centred on the choices that are made. In KA allies and enemies and such other categorizations depend on the ability of the character. All RPGs have some form of conflict which may present itself in the third person form in DA: O or in the slightly merged Real Time Strategy (RTS) form in KA.
  • Progression: Progression is hard to define since there are different levels of progression often simultaneously operating in RPGs. It may be based on Quest/Plot progression without which the game (most if not all) do not progress (for example, finding Dr. Young is imperative in Batman: Arkham Asylum. This quest cannot be overridden or bypassed as is possible in others with a more flexible quest progression system, such as DA: O or KA). Progression may also include character progression in terms of statistics such as health, agility, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, and mana/magic. They are the six main attributes that defer among character classes. Depending on the fantasy game there are considerable differences or overlaps in their attributes (refer the RPG terminologies listed earlier). Progression could also mean levelling in a war game where there are no identifiable characters but cities/towns or some similar collective.
  • Exploration: Another main feature of any RPG almost always present in a shooter (FP/TP) also reiterated by developers such as Bioware and Epic Games in their RPG shooters is Exploration! This is most notably found in Dungeon Crawlers (with non-persistent characteristics being the best example), which contributes to replayability. Exploration often contributes to the immersiveness of the game environment in conjunction with storytelling. Exploration is also linked to quest and character progression in that the game does not sufficiently progress without a minimum amount of exploration meanwhile some content/areas are always hidden and accessible only through certain quests and characters. For example - in T.O.M.E, an ASCII based game which follows Tolkien’s fictionalized world of LOTR, it is nearly impossible to locate ‘Sauron the Sorcerer’ in the dungeons of ‘Angband’ level 99 without first finding/defeating ‘The Necromancer of Dol Guldur’ in the dungeons of ‘Dol Guldur’. In the LOTR world ‘The Necromancer’ is the disguise Sauron uses to conceal his presence from Middle Earth. In fact Greg Zeschuka developer (and co-founder) from Bioware, mentions ‘developing of vast parts of content that an ordinary player might never see in an interview to Gamasutra. Almost 30 per cent of the content including sub-quests and related content are available but generally not explored by a casual gamer (the distinctions between casual gamers and hardcore gamers is problematic, but in this case suffices to say that the casual gamer would be an ordinary player who spends a few hours a week gaming compared to the hardcore gamer).
  • The Story (The Narrative) as the fourth pillar of RPG: Releases such as Mass Effect 2 and DA: O are by the developers own definition catering to a new RPG (shooter) and a more traditional RPG (in terms of classical role-play). The narrative is one of the elements of an RPG that has in recent releases strengthened enough to be termed as a key pillar particularly by prominent developers such as Epic Games and Bioware whose efforts are to create immersive game worlds, which respond to a player’s actions and characterizations.
    Another feature important to gameplay but which do not possess such commonalities is social interaction. Although focus is given to social interaction in RPGs, there is no identification of social interaction as a relevant feature. This may manifest in two phases, one is the ‘alone together’ phenomenon and the second is the emulation of social interaction through choice (moral) in games such as DA: O.

The Playing ‘Alone Together’ Phenomenon

 The ‘Alone Together’ phenomenon refers to gaming on and off MMOs in either solo play or in small manageable teams. These phenomena are noticed in MMO Games and multi-player games. ‘Alone Together’ elements are also imported into the offline gaming scene. This is not a new phenomena, rather it is something which has gained more prominence with MMO releases and offline/LAN games trying to incorporate these elements for better gameplay. DA: O has a specific in-game function where you can login and post screenshots/character profiles and achievements online through the game. This is also noticeable in newer releases of T.O.M.E (v2.35 and 3.00 alpha 19 release). Fan content and MODs were usually put up on the Games official website or fans sites, a few games incorporate these modifications as custom maps and thus incorporating fan content into the game. The incorporation of this element in DA: O suggests the merging or the blurring of lines between genres, explored in the following sections.

Unification and/or Merger of Genres

Ray Mayzuka and Chris Beleszinski echo similar sentiments. Genres are ‘almost a vestige of the past’, says Mayzuka, and Beleszinski echoes this as he says that the future of shooters is lodged with RPG. Mayzuka stretches this to predict a future, which may no longer subscribe to traditional classifications and have borrowed elements from multiple genres. The rising importance given to story and narrative technique by game developers such as Epic Games and Bioware are telling, since generically opposite developers (Epic works on shooters, while Bioware is renowned for its RPG) are working towards similar goals—goals which focus on creating games which are more realistic and require the addition of elements that traditionally remains the exclusive domain of one genre. Traditionally, Shooters and RPGs have been simulating the same experience (fighting) from two different perspectives, the former focuses on the action and combat, and the latter focuses on development and story behind warfare. The inclusion of the story in shooters enhances its immersiveness. Beleszinski states that the content is there for a purpose just like a script and as such the feedback by the in-game character contributes to the immersive environment for the player/reader. Feedback becomes one aspect of the immersive environment, one that responds and reacts to the player as and when the game is played. The player creates the game as it is played and takes part in the process of authorship of that playthrough. This element of authorship gives an amount of independence and moral choice that allows the player to create the narrative as the game progresses and this among many elements contributes to the immersiveness of the game environment (by environment I mean the game world including all its design aspects as well as the programming aspects which create this world).

The second part will review the debates around narratives and gameplay and focuses on the 'Demands of the story' and the 'Demands of the Game' derived from Greg Costikyan’s ‘Where Stories End and Games Begin’.

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Arun Menon