The Many Faces of the RPG

The more I think about it, and this might just be the old-age setting in, there really aren't any distinctions of note between western RPGs and those from Japan. I mean games are just different, right? Nobody says because one FPS has, say, magic type Bioshock powers in it it's totally divorced from Quake or any other precursor. And I think we all agree that eastern and western RPGs all come from the pen and paper games of the late 70s and early 80s.

But there was a split. Maybe it wasn't necessarily as important at one time, or maybe just different cultures having artists and designers with different knowledge from previous projects lead to some of these changes, but by the mid 90s these games couldn't look any different from one another.

The Many Faces of the RPG

And they most certainly looked different from each other. Well, kind of.

The Many Faces of the RPG

Err...Well,were they really that different? I mean, people say Japanese games were more narrative focused and linear, with certain ways villains worked, but the biggest US RPGs worked the same way, right? I mean Ultima games did the same sort of stuff, setting up the world, then setting up a villain, and often sort of poking holes in this stuff all along the way.

Well, maybe the battle systems are more of note. I mean I love a tough boss battle, I enjoy looking at all the options for characters and gear and classes and making a party that can defeat the challenge. It's a great feeling, right? Skyrim is sort of the big example of western RPGs right now, and golly that game's climactic battles are fairly square.

The game doesn't so much give you a challenge as put something between you and more loot you'll never use because it doesn't look right on your character. Or epic skills you'll never use because they don't actually make the gameplay any easier.

But the Elder Scrolls, some of the Ultima off games, they all had that first person dungeon crawling thing going. When you think of the old Japanese games it's all battling in a turn based style with the good guys on one side of the screen and the baddies on the other. That's sort of the big difference between the growing styles of games, combat wise.

The Many Faces of the RPG

But first person dungeon crawling wasn't something just from the western developers. Same with a lot of other ideas as well. I mean people can say the new Final Fantasy 13 game is a sort of rehash of many different western RPG elements, but I think a lot of those ideas aren't actually just "owned" culturally by one side or another.

The Many Faces of the RPG

I mean most of the reasons games were designed the way they were "way back when" was memory constraints. Some of the ideas carried over because they worked. Like, while people might not feel that the turn based combat really felt visceral it was at least more organized and more fair than the killer rats in Ultima Underworld.

The Many Faces of the RPG

But there has definitely been a shift in the face of RPGs in the last decades. I mean, that there was a face at all was actually something weird:

The Many Faces of the RPG

Cloud, then probably Pikachu, and well... who else?

The Many Faces of the RPG

Shephard.

Actually, some of the biggest games in the mainstream world were kind of secret RPGs. I mean, while people were playing the Mass Effect games there were definitely a contingent of people who were playing Shepard "their" way, and spending skill points how they saw fit, but because it had shooting and cover mechanics they didn't think too much about what that meant.

There were loads of us though that totally knew what that meant. Something that seems like a specific vine of the RPG tree, stretching through Bioware and Bethesda and the Looking Glass people and whoever else connected to it. A game that seems to have truly been a genre defining moment in a way that Japanese games never quite hit, something that not just shook up how things worked-in a good way-but brought people deeper into how and why these games were so important.

The Many Faces of the RPG

Planescape: Torment is one of those big moments. Planescape is kind of like a dimension in the Dungeons and Dragons world. It's a place where gods walk around. Like all the different worlds of D&D it's more or less set up so people can screw around with the crazy stuff. DMs can use all sorts of stuff they'd have no right to otherwise, and players can similarly free themselves up from the normal constraints.

How do you get this sort of idea across in a game? How do you get real role-playing across? Not a silent protagonist, as so many developers go for today but a much more complicated yet fulfilling option: a character with an open history. Maybe you play him like he's a bad guy, maybe you play him like a good guy.

This has kind of been lost on western RPGs in recent years. Yes, there is a bit of freedom in play when you don't have a history for a character, like JRPGs often give players, but a complete blank slate is just as oppressive. No matter what I do in Skyrim I'll never figure out why I was on the chopping block. I'll never talk to anyone from where ever I came from. Cause your character's life before the events of the game doesn't matter.

Or Commander Shepard, you can choose whether you grew up on earth or on a colony, but it has no impact on the story ever.

So, if I leave this post with anything I hope I give people a slightly different way of thinking about RPGs. A lot of this stuff we think of as being really important to the genre actually seems to come and go, and in all honesty many of the best games feel behind us. I see the previews of The Witcher 3, and it looks amazing, but can it really satisfy everyone? I mean while some people think of a Commander Shepard central character when imagining RPGs there are as many others that want a blank slate like a Fallout protagonist.

As many people who really want to explore the open world there are others who want to see their decisions actually matter. At the end of the day is there any point in putting a face on RPGs?