Mass Effect, Final Fantasy, and the Trouble of Gaming Dialect

RPG vs RPG

A few months back, I was struck by a quote from Bioware’s Writing Director Daniel Erickson. Erickson, when asked about the mingling between story and gameplay in the upcoming KotOR MMO, made the claim that RPGs from Japan were not actually RPGs.

“You can put a ‘J’ in front of it, but it’s not an RPG. You don’t make any choices, you don’t create a character, you don’t live your character… I don’t know what those are – adventure games maybe? But they’re not RPG’s.”

As someone who spent a good chuck of adolescence with games like Final Fantasy and SMT, I was initially offended that Mr. Erickson had taken it upon himself to exclude half of the genre from itself, as though the term RPG was a kind of exclusive and special club to be a part of. It was only recent experiences however, that showed me that this was not a personal grudge of his, but a sign of one of the biggest dialectical debates in recent gaming culture.

Mass Effect 2

It all begins with Mass Effect 2.

I finally bought it a few weeks ago and have been tearing through it with an almost surprising amount of joy. Without exaggeration, it’s been among my best gaming experiences in the past few years. But at some point, I don’t know when exactly, I realized I wasn’t playing an RPG. At least, not as I thought of them.

You see, Bioware games have always shared a number of key mechanics with those Japanese games that may or may not be RPGs. Few remember that KotOR had a carefully disguised turn based combat system. DA:O uses a modified D20 system for pretty much everything the player can do. Even the first Mass Effect had a much more complex system for customization than its sequel. For all these games, growth is at least partially about numbers, and it’s what made RPGs different. More than just the increased importance of story and character, I played RPGs because I liked the mechanics of turn based combat.

If this all sounds poorly explained, then that’s part of the problem I’m getting at. RPGs as I knew them, and what Bioware means when they say JRPGs, have slowly started lacking definition. How does one describe Chrono Trigger and then say that it is in the same genre as Kingdom Hearts? Yet no one considers the gap between RPG and Action RPG that wide. RPG has come to mean RPG, and you either understand what it means or you don’t.

Bioware has taken the opposite approach with Mass Effect 2. Any game is an RPG if it’s a proper “Role Playing Game.” That is, they’re promoting the literal definition of RPG. Mass Effect 2 is mechanically closer to Gears of War than Final Fantasy. Upgrades are almost painfully straight forward in nature, and the leveling system has been simplified. It plays like a shooter, and a damn good one. It is an RPG almost solely on the virtue of the paradigm/renegade system, and perhaps its secondary, exploratory mechanics.

FFXIII

Which brings me, at long last, to my point. Two genres exist currently, both with the same name. One is a literal definition of the term, the other is an organic evolution within gaming language. Until fairly recently, they were close enough to be thought of as the same thing. But recently there has been a shift, more towards extremes. Just as ME2 plays like GoW, FFXIII has a flow closer to Half Life than any RPG I can think of. WRPG and JRPG feel like two completely different genres now, and language is failing them both.

What Mr. Erickson said doesn’t make sense, because our terminology isn’t prepared to handle the culture war between these genres. Because too few gamers recognize them as distinct, companies like Square-Enix exchange petty barbs with Bioware in an attempt to make their idea of what an RPG is more valid. In fact, validity has nothing to do with it, and what makes Mass Effect good is entirely distinct from what makes Final Fantasy good. As a community, we need to take more responsibility for our terminology, or it all will become meaningless.

Written by Tabris

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Mass Effect, Final Fantasy, and the Trouble of Gaming Dialect, 9.7 out of 10 based on 3 ratings

3 Comments

  1. paercebal says:

    If one wants to talk about legitimacy of using RPG for this or that computer game, one should go back to the roots of the term.

    The term RPG had evolved, even before it reached computers.

    The first version (1970s and 80s) was about players and a game master around a table, playing characters with character sheets and dice throws, and looting their way to upper levels and more spells and armor class and thac0. The point of the games were usually going through dungeons, solving puzzles, avoid traps, fighting monsters, looting their treasure and accumulating experience points. Everything existed around the game rules. Players and game masters spend most of the time rolling dices. This is what I call ROLL-playing.

    Around the 80s and 90s, players and game masters realized there was more to it than they thought. They realized that people (including the original game designers) ROLE played their ways through their stories. The rules took a secondary place, behind the character and the story itself. The important part there is that you could create your own character, with their own backstory and their aim, and play your character all the way to the end of the story. Players and game masters spent most of the time ACTING their player character or non-player character roles. This is what I call ROLE-playing.

    Computer JRPG come from the “old school” tabletop RPG. The story is mostly linear, and the characters, their viewpoints and their opinions are defined by the designers. The only input the players have is on the character sheet. There is no storywise choice given to the players, who are railroaded in the story. This is ROLL playing.

    There are other computer “RPGs” which are more about building a sandbox world and letting the players interact with it. This is an attempt to simulate the gamemaster by making the world as realistic as possible, and accumulating quests and stories. For this to work on a computer, they have to make the character generic. Meaning that no matter who is your character, the world won’t really react on it. It will only react on the choices you, as a player, will do. In the end, while those worlds are fascinating, and sometimes very complex, they can seem, from a character viewpoint, quite bland, as the player is the sole responsible to imagine their own character dramatic evolution. I call it SANDBOX-playing. Skyrim is a good example of that.

    Another take at that is the Bioware-style of games. Bioware tries to make the whole universe orbit around the character. Your character is a woman? This will change things. Your character is evil? This will change things. Your character decided to save (or not) the Council, this will change things. At least, this is the theory, because to handle all this well, with full character dialogues and different cinematic scenes, is difficult as the complexity is exponential, each choice adding a new combination of consequences (your character is a woman and is evil and saved the Council?). So, sometimes, they cheat. And sometimes, their attempts fail (e.g. ME3 original endings). Anyway, a lot of time in those game is spend in dialogues, and in choosing which answer to give (which can be surprising for a “shooter game”). This is ROLE-playing.

    One thing the ROLE-playing school style of computer games has the other models don’t can be found in Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC: Perhaps your Shepard almost broke into tears as she spoke at Thane’s memorial service (there is a slight but impressive difference in the actress’ voice if your character did or did not romance Thane), but another would have skipped the memorial altogether and would have been singing with Tali while looking at Fleets and Flotilla (that is, if Tali is still alive). My Shepard could have been overjoyed to see Wrex save the day… But yours could have killed Wrex back on Virmire, missing all Wrex’ greatness on the Citadel. Or perhaps yours betrayed him and the whole krogan species on Tutchanka, and had to silence him when he found out? Did your Shepard went sniping bottles with Garrus on his favorite place on the Citadel? Or did you let him die in the Suicide Mission? Or perhaps you did romance him, and ended dancing tango? Those Shepards are all different characters. And the game acknowledges this by making their story different at a personal level. This is very difficult to do, and sometimes, it fails. But at least, they’re trying. But one thing is certain: This doesn’t happen in the SANDBOX and ROLL models. Because while ROLE is all about the character, SANDBOX is all about the world, and ROLL is all about the character sheet.

    In the end, all games are legitimate STORY-playing games (SPG?). But each game has its own peculiarities. Actually, the SANDBOX and ROLE playing games are converging (Skyrim got a lot of quality voiced dialogues, and Dragon Age 3 is adding a lot of SANDBOX-style features).

    Now, back at Final Fantasy: There are no ROLE there. Only ROLLs and a very complex and original story.

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  2. Tabris says:

    It also seems to me that the term RPG itself has a cache that other genre’s don’t. It’s sort of a volatile buzz word among gamers in general, with a fair few assumptions behind it, both good and bad.

    People care about the genre the same way they might show particular interest in a series.

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  3. Bryan says:

    I definitely agree. The development of western RPGs has broadened the definition of “role playing game”, but I don’t think anything less of JRPGs. I would still put a game like Chrono Trigger at the top of my list, even though I cant fully customize my characters looks. I often feel silly using classifications for games since so many games cross multiple categories. I usually just stick the fact that a game is either good or bad.

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