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Which sort of RPG is the Witcher?

Sexy albino!

John somehow – i.e. Couldn’t Think Of A Funny Joke (But – hey! – as if that’s ever stopped him before) – missed out the Witcher from his round-up of PC game releases this week, so it’s worth bringing to your attention, as it’s the biggest release unless you’re a foot-to-ball fan. It looks like this.

And that’s you, The Witcher. No matter what you want – like, say, looking like someone who isn’t a incy-wincy bit derived from top Albino Eternal Champion and general glorious self-obsessed fuck-wit Elric – that’s still you. This threw Dan Whitehead over at Eurogamer in his review, where he argues – pretty much – if you can’t create your own character, it’s not a role-playing game. Which was such a debatable claim, it (er) immediately provoked a debate. In fact, I initiated it, because upon reading the review’s intro, I mumbled “Christ, Dan, you’re going to get slaughtered for that, mate”, so I thought by getting it rolling in a relatively pleasant way, it’ll save the inevitable Final-Fantasy fan arriving throwing a stroppy trantrum in the manner of a final Fantasy character.

But still, it is a perennial question (i.e. It gets argued on forums only slightly less often than Whether Games Or Art) and I thought I’d try and do relatively brief take on it. Feel free to provide yours, as one of the main reasons to lob this stuff in public is so people can pick it to pieces, so I can rethink gaping flaws.

Let’s quote Dan’s position to start us off…

“Let’s talk about the term “role-playing game”, shall we? It’s one of those phrases that has slipped into the gaming vernacular so easily that we tend to forget what it actually means, and end up using it all wrong. Common wisdom has it that any game in which your character earns experience and levels up accordingly can be tucked away under the RPG blanket. For me, that’s only half right. The clue’s in the name – role-playing. Games in which you create a role and then act out that character in the gameworld. Without the freedom to come up with your own virtual identity, what you’re really talking about are adventure games with a few RPG trimmings.”

Okay, Dan’s got an immediate flaw which we’ll gloss over which is irrelevant. There’s no link between the phrase “role-playing” and “create a role and act out that character in the game world”. Dan believes that the ability to create a character is absolutely fundamental to the genre. So, Final Fantasy and any other JRPG aren’t an RPG which he’d recognise. In the comments thread he says that Planescape: Torment (i.e. You are the Nameless One) is the exception to prove the rule, but – like most exceptions which prove the rule – is just a big nasty flaw. If I made half a dozen games like Planescape Torment, would there now be seven exceptions to the rule? At what point is the rule just wrong? (Clue: As soon as there’s an exception).

Riffing off him, and other people’s positions, the general argument that a role-playing game is based around the idea of meaningful character customisation. Some (i.e. most western ones) front-load some of it – so allowing you to define your character in a way before you start. Almost all will allow you to customise it as you progress – so the character you are at the end of the game will be very different from the one at the start, and almost certainly very different to what you’re mate’s character would be at the end (even if they started at the same place). Some would argue that this customisation must be irreversible (i.e. you are changed forever) and some would demand it has to be an abstract system rather than anything justified in-game (i.e. Levels and stuff rather than gaining mechanical bonuses). The latter would mean System Shock 2 isn’t an RPG, and Bioshock – which both apply to, as you’re able to swap in and out your abilities- certainly isn’t. Though the latter would also make Guild Wars not an RPG too. Or City of Heroes with its Respecs, because – surely – it doesn’t matter how big the periodical gap between completely redefinining your character is if you can redefine your character.

The second part of the RPG – which Dan doesn’t touch – is trope of RPGs resting upon some manner of abstracted statistical element. So your characters abilities will increase, they will do more damage, just because they’re a better character without any direct input from the player. In other words, while RPGs can have a player’s skill effect the result (i.e. they know when to use certain abilities or whatever), they RPGs are indirect tests of skill. Direct tests of skill are the province of arcade games.

As far as how RPG is used in general discourse, those two pretty much cover it. But in any debate, there’s a second position which comes up – what can best be termed as the Naive position. That is, “Role-playing game” – it’s a game where you play a role. That is. People who are making this argument are normally – consciously or not – trying to expand the definition to include things which are covering RPGs’ traditional terrain without without being built on Dungeon & Dragons’ foundations. We’re mainly talking about things like Elite. Elite, by entering a world of space-trading and piracy, you go forth and genuinely craft yourself a life by your choices and actions.

While there’s merits to the argument as a thought-piece or propaganda, within a half-second people of it being posed, someone will note that this definition is ludicrously fluffy and all-encompassing. In Doom you play the role of a marine trapped in a space-station, so Doom is a RPG. In Space Invaders you play the role of the pilot of a turret, as the final line in defence of a besieged Earth. In Tennis for Two you play the role of a tennis player, disembodied probably.

Reductio ad absurdum (You Wot? – Ed) would imply this argument just can’t be true, and people move on. Except you can accept the results and you end up in a position where – yes – 95% of games are role-playing games, and that’s just how it is. Which, frankly, is something I have a degree of time for – as it focuses in on some key points to do with how videogames and pen and paper games are connected.

Basically, they were designers approaching the same problem (i.e. creating an immersive fantasy world for people to lose themselves in) with massively different technologies. If you’re working with paper, dice and human imagination, one of the few (Probably only, but I’m sure that there’s a smart-arse who could) ways that you can create a game which allows you to simulate a fantasy world is something that looks a lot like D&D. They can’t put player skill being part of a game, unless they go the Physical LARP direction. Which, you may note, that some people eventually did.

So, abstractly, in a universe where D&D didn’t appear (Which is feasible. D&D is an odd one in that it’s a type of game which could have been invented for the entire length of human history only came about in the late part of the twentieth history. We had dice and paper and thinking forever, after all…) it’s possible that videogames could have been called “Role-playing games” as a group. It fits, after all.

Which leads to me my take on the RPG, at least in terms of daily use. “RPG” is a purely historical thing. In the same way “Spartan” doesn’t mean “From Sparta” any more, but rather a set of values and beliefs (i.e. Less pillows and bedclothes. Less fancy clothes. Sit-ups now, probably), “RPG” is completely divorced from the meaning of the words. It just means “mechanics derived from D&D” and even games which fulfil the aims of RPGs better than 99% of RPGs (i.e. Elite) aren’t. Any attempts to push it further than that is deliberate perversion and demagoguery on the part of the developer.

(Which isn’t a bad thing – Looking Glass considered System Shock and Thief RPGs by other means…)

Or that’s my take, anyway. Tonight. For at least fifteen minutes.

That said, the Eurogamer thread did lead to a definition I’d never heard before from AlpTighen when someone threw the Naive Position out there.

Ehhhm… no. But that’s a common misconception. A role-playing game is one in which characters have disparate abilities, and players must use cleverness to accentuate their positives and eliminate their negatives.

“Roles” in this case being things like “tank” or “healer” or whatever.

Which is an interesting take I’m not quite sure what to make of.

(And I’ve got to run to John’s 30th birthday party now, so I suspect there may be typos-a-plenty in here. I’ll fix them in the morning, so be gentle)

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Kieron Gillen


Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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