Following on from comments made by Bioware writing director Daniel Erickson on Strategy Informer regarding Final Fantasy XIII’s status as a role-playing game (RPG), comment sections across websites have exploded in either agreement or in pure rage, depending on what side of the fanboy spectrum people are sitting on. Now, while he says in a nutshell that Final Fantasy XIII isn’t an RPG, I have to take point with this. I feel that there’s certain core game mechanics that make up whether the game is classed as an RPG, and not the story the mechanics revolve around.
From whatever games I’ve played in my history, the ones labelled as RPG usually tended to be the ones where you could repeatedly grind against enemies to up your stats, in order to make further enemies easier on yourself (of course negated in games like Final Fantasy VIII where enemies worked on a progressive levelling scale and went up along with you). There’s a certain degree of item collecting as well, and doing so can unlock even further character ability customisation options, be they aesthetically or statistically. “Classic” RPGs also tend to have preset commands that you select from a menu as opposed to live gameplay.
The problem with the RPG I think, isn’t that the traditional RPG series (is that plural as well as singular? Or is it sereii?) we all know and love are branching out into other areas of gameplay while retaining familiar elements. It’s that other games are taking its elements and bolting it on.
Take Borderlands as Exhibit #A. It’s obviously a FPS game, but what of the character’s unique abilities, and the levelling system in it? Does that make it an RPG? Clearly these skills give you some buffs that can make later enemies easier by making you stronger, give you better loot, better chance of critical hits, and so on. But is that enough to make it the main genre? Just because it doesn’t have the familiar “classic RPG” gameplay doesn’t instantly rule it out. It’s more of a sub-genre than anything else in this case.
Monster Hunter will be my Exhibit #B. It’s a game I’d consider to be an RPG. There’s grinding enemies to boost your stats (by way of forging and upgrading weapons and armor), there’s item collecting, which gives you said weapons and armor. It fits the criteria rather well when you look at it like that, but what of time/turn based combat of the RPGs of times past? Nowhere to be seen, everything is as-is, no picking commands from menus. It still holds enough in its main gameplay to be classified first and foremost as an RPG more than a hack-and-slash/shooter (for the ranged weapons), even though there is no real story to the game itself.
Any EA Sports game with the Be A Pro mode will be the last objectionable example – Exhibit #C. This is an absolute wildcard of a thought really, and I kinda wanted to use Fallout 3 instead, but given that I used Borderlands, I kind-of didn’t want to lump another FPS into the equation. Although Fallout’s largely story-based whereas Borderlands is a bit of a clusterfuck in that department, I reckon I made a good choice as I want to leave story elements completely out of this. This is about gameplay more so than story, which is kind-of funny considering I picked a sports game, but bear with my Tim Rogers for a minute here. You start your pro off on his career being a relatively poorly skilled player. The more you play, the more experience points you get to spend improving his abilities. You can also (in some cases, FIFA hasn’t but I know NHL has) unlock items that further boost stats, like new sticks, skates, helmets, et al. Obviously nothing’s turn-based and there’s no menu command system, but for that one mode, you could class RPG as a sub-genre.
And to finish, on an off-topic note, this snippet from Kotaku commenter D-K caught my eye:
Nothing says all that like open world/sandbox. Whether or not something is beneficial to the story is irrelevant as grinding is irrelevant to the story progression as well. Shooting random people in GTA could be considered grinding.
Shooting people in GTA would only be considered grinding if there was some sort of player ability or characteristic stapled onto it. I’m not calling you wrong, because San Andreas did have this with a few weapons, notably to unlock dual wielding and improved long-range accuracy, but in other games in the series all it got you was a wanted star in most cases. Whether you could call that grinding to unlock the police chase mini-game is debatable, since outside of the main story the act of committing crimes is entirely up to the player. If you want to stop at red lights and be a law-abiding citizen that’s just there for the sake of being there, then so be it, but given that crime’s kind-of the point (as well as the name) of the game, it won’t really get you anywhere other than conserving ammo for missions.
I’ve a bad feeling that this is by-and-large a massive brain fart on my behalf, but now that I’ve kinda expanded on my own theory a bit, I guess it kinda makes sense more than it used to when I first drafted this.