“The self-made irrelevance of the RPG”

Eric Scwarz has posted an opinion piece on Gamasutra arguing that RPGs are not about story or decision-making so much as they are about rulesets:

As narrative elements began to creep into RPGs, as players began to get attached to the characters they played as and the universes they inhabited, RPGs began to become associated with storytelling in addition to those mechanics.  While the name, role-playing game, reflected the inclusion of narrative, it still originally, and in my opinion, more accurately, reflected the fact that players had to cooperate within a predefined ruleset to solve problems, effectively serving functional roles within a setting whose narrative concepts only existed as a vehicle to structure the experience.

The analysis here is a little shaky. All games operate based on sets of rules, even the action games that Mr. Schwarz derides. That is the nature of programming: it is impossible to tell a computer what to do without explicitly setting forth the rules by which it does that thing.

Mr. Schwarz’s ultimate point seems to be that for a game to be an RPG, storytelling should arise through the player’s actions as he or she interacts with the world through the use of consistent in-game mechanics. This isn’t really adequate as a definition, however: that just makes “RPG” synonymous with “non-narrative game where you navigate the world,” effectively making the early entries in the Grand Theft Auto series RPGs, along with borderline cases like the first and third Legend of Zelda games. We would have to award the title “RPG” to nonlinear physics platformers before we could award it to games like Planescape Torment. Something about that strikes me as a little perverse.

No offense to Mr. Schwarz, but I think I’m going to stick with my own definition.

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  • Agrias says:

    I don’t believe this at all. I’ve been playing an rpg game for the last 8 years or so (I’m terrible at math, I started in 2002) and it is all about story. It was the depth and scope of the story that drew me in the first place, and made me keep staying. It’s a living, breathing world, and not many rpg games can make that boast.

    There’s an article on it here: http://www.ironrealms.com/what-character-are-you-2011-08-25

  • Louis Pitterman says:

    I’ve been playing RPGs since when the ZX-80 came out in the ’70’s. They make up about 90% of my playing diet. They led me to becoming a programmer and eventually a systems analyst. Anyway, my biggest complaint about ‘bad’ RPGs is that some eventually pit me against the mechanics of the programming instead of the storyline. When a game’s satisfactory conclusion is based on how well I manipulate the input devices, then that game has failed miserably. I don’t buy my games to see if I can outwit the coding. I think maybe that’s what Mr. Schwarz may have been poor at alluding to (although from his writing style, I think Mr. Schwarz likes the sound of his keyboard clicks a little too much).


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