RPGs Versus Progression Games

Has it ever occurred to anyone that the video games we refer to as role-playing games, or RPGs, are spectacularly mislabeled?

Scott Ryder in Mass Effect: AndromedaLet’s look at what that term actually means. “Role-playing” refers to assuming an identity or personality other than your own. To pretend to be someone else, usually to act out a scenario or tell a story.

While most RPGs incorporate at least some element of this, it’s very rarely the focus. It isn’t what defines the genre. In video game terms, RPG elements are considered to be things like character levels, stat sheets, experience points, and unlockable abilities. All of these things have little or nothing to do with role-playing.

I understand that the ingrained terminology of the genre is not going to change just because a chubby blogger in Toronto says so, but I would like to outline why I believe that most if not all video games we call RPGs are mislabeled, and how this goes a long way to explaining my love-hate relationship with the genre.

Stop, drop, and role:

I know quoting Wikipedia is in the same realm of tackiness as bringing 7 Up as a wedding gift, but while looking for definitions of role-playing, I found this one pretty apt: “A role-playing game is a game in which the participants assume the roles of characters and collaboratively create stories.” [Source]

I would argue that video games eliminate the need for other players in the creation of your role-play story, as scripted NPCs can fulfill the same need. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t role-play with other people, of course; it just means they aren’t a necessity.

My party in Sword Coast LegendsEither way, role-play is about assuming a role and telling a story.

Now what does that have to do with level grinds and character stats? Nothing whatsoever.

In the early days of tabletop role-playing, things like character sheets and stat rolls and such were necessary to give the experience some degree of order and consistent logic. Video games, on the other hand, have the ability to keep all that under the hood and provide the player a seamless, immersive experience.

But because the genre’s origins were rooted in numbers and stats, gamers and developers have come to conflate the two. The character sheets and dice rolls continued into the digital space, and now they’ve taken over the genre entirely to the point where they’ve shoved out the actual role-playing.

Consider MMOs. Traditionally developers have had to designate special servers (usually a minority of the total server pool) for role-playing, and increasingly they’re not even bothering to do that.

Those who do role-play in MMOs are often viewed by other players as strange or even deviant, and openly mocked. They are a minority, and like all minorities in gaming, held in very low regard.

My rogue in RiftDoes this not seem incredibly bizarre to anyone else? If we’re to believe the name of the genre, role-players are the only ones who are actually playing the games correctly, and I say that as someone who is at best only on the barest periphery of role-play.

I think this proves the games we call RPGs aren’t about role-playing at all. Most of them incorporate RPG elements, but that doesn’t make them true RPGs.

To give you an idea, I think Life Is Strange is much more of an RPG than World of Warcraft. It’s all about playing a character and making choices as that character to shape the story. I’m not sure it’s a perfect example of what an RPG could or should be, but it’s certainly much closer than most of the games we call RPGs.

So what should we call them?

I name your true name:

I would argue that the genre we have come to call RPGs should instead be known as progression games.

The core concept that unifies the genre is that of progression, of growing more powerful and improving your character’s performance. You level up, unlock new abilities, get better gear, and so forth. This is true regardless of whether you’re playing Mass Effect, Pillars of Eternity, Diablo, Aion, Persona, or whatever other example you want to give.

A screenshot from the RPG Titan QuestProgression is the mechanic that purists of the genre cling to. I’ve often heard complaints that level-scaling such as was introduced to the Elder Scrolls Online with One Tamriel is bad because it makes games less of an RPG. That’s an absolutely ridiculous argument; level-scaling makes a game more of an RPG by eliminating ridiculous scenarios like slaying a dragon with a single punch.

But level-scaling does make it less of a progression game. We have conflated RPGs and progression mechanics to the point where people are unable to separate them, but in truth it’s little more than an accident of history that the two are related at all.

Pretty much the only area where the two concepts meet is when constructing a character build. Your choices of which stats to stack and which abilities to unlock help express the identity of your character, and that is an element of role-playing as well as a means of progression.

For example, in World of Warcraft, my warlock actually hates demons. As a result, I choose the talent Grimoire of Sacrifice whenever possible, allowing her to sacrifice her demon minion to increase her own power. This enhances the fantasy of the character. To her, demons are simply a resource to fuel her own quest for vengeance, and Grimoire of Sacrifice lets me express this concept through the gameplay.

But even then performance concerns in progression games can often cause you to make compromises in your character concept in order to ensure your character is strong enough to overcome the challenges before you. This is especially a problem in MMOs, where there’s an element of social pressure to conform.

My warlock cosplaying as a demon hunter in World of WarcraftStalled by progression:

Understanding the difference between role-playing and progression games goes a long way to explaining the love/hate relationship that I have with the genre we tend to call RPGs. You see, I’m a big fan of role-playing games, but much less fond of progression games.

Certainly progression provides a very strong psychological hook, which is why nearly every game of every genre now has at least some small element of it. We are as a species keyed to appreciate reward structures like this.

But that doesn’t necessarily make it interesting gameplay, and the more time you spend with it, the more transparent it becomes. After so many years of playing progression games — especially MMOs, where the treadmill is at its most naked and cynical — I have almost entirely stopped caring. I’ve gotten so much phat lewt and heard so many level dings that it’s stopped meaning anything to me at all.

I still like making builds, and earning new abilities is the one part of progression that still consistently excites me, hence my two Panoptic Cores in TSW (RIP). But for the most part I’m reaching the point where I just want to establish a good build as quickly as possible and then focus on actually playing the game.

Progression inhibits role-play at least as much as it enhances it. It’s a distraction at best, a roadblock at worst. Hence my eternal frustration with a genre I otherwise love. What I want is to inhabit a character, to immerse myself in a world. Most of what we call RPGs offer this, but not always to the extent I crave. Too much focus is put on the numbers, not enough on the texture and character of the world and its story.

Jeyne Kassynder in Dungeon Siege III. Ah, Jeyne, we hardly knew yeI think this is what keeps me coming back to Bioware, despite their inconsistencies. They’re progression games, but they haven’t forgotten their RPG roots. They’re still, at their heart, about people, places, and stories.

And that’s what attracts me: Exploring new lands, getting to know characters, and living out stories. Those are the experiences I crave. That’s what role-playing games are truly about.

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Gaming: The Love/Hate Developers

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll note that there are some game developers towards which I have, shall we say, very intense feelings. You’ll often see me going on epic rants about their blunders or casually putting them down. Yet paradoxically I’ll play virtually anything these companies produce, and I remain rabidly passionate about their games. It could be pretty confusing to a reader.

A vision of the Xel'naga keystone in StarCraft 2: Legacy of the VoidFor all their flaws, though, each of these developers brings something special to the world of gaming, something exquisite that keeps me coming back for more. I thought it would be interesting to look at these companies and explain why I am so loyal to them, despite everything.

Up until relatively recently, only one developer would have fit his category, but these days the number has grown. No prizes for guessing that the original is…

Blizzard Entertainment:

I have been playing Blizzard games since before I knew how to spell my own name, and they remain a company to whom I am so loyal that I often joke they “own my soul.”

But that doesn’t mean I think they’re perfect. Far from it. In fact, they faceplant with alarming regularity, and their games are almost never without some significant flaw.

I think Blizzard’s brilliance and their blunders both stem from the same source: passion.

The Heart of Fear in World of WarcraftHave you ever seen Chris Metzen talk about the games he’s worked on? He’s the living embodiment of childlike joy and enthusiasm. He has so much passion for Blizzard’s games it’s like he could spontaneously combust at any moment.

And I think that’s true of all of Blizzard to some extent. They love games. They love making games. They have fantastic passion for everything they do.

And therein lies their folly. I think much of Blizzard’s mistakes come from them being so caught up in their passion and excitement that they don’t take the time to pause and think if what they’re doing is really a good idea.

I think that’s how we got the trainwreck that is Warlords of Draenor. They thought, “Hey, I bet it’d be cool to bring back all the old Horde characters,” and never considered much beyond that. If they had, they would have realized what a powerfully dumb idea that is.

I don’t know if this preference for passion over common sense can explain every one of Blizzard’s mistakes, but I think it’s one of their most core flaws and the reason why their plots are often a bit shallow, their continuity nonexistent, and their games rough around the edges.

The bridge of the Spear of Adun in StarCraft II: Legacy of the VoidBut that same passion is what makes their games irresistible. Blizzard are so colourful, so larger than life, so bombastic and beautiful and unabashedly fun that nothing else can compete. I often say that Blizzard games may be popcorn movies, but they are the absolute best popcorn movies around.

Their passion means that when Blizzard gets something right, they get it so right. Legacy of the Void was a breathtakingly epic experience and an absolute joy from beginning to end. Ditto for Reign of Chaos, Reaper of Souls, and to a lesser extent Wrath of the Lich King and Mists if Pandaria.

At their best, Blizzard games are the perfect embodiment of the entire concept of “superior realities” that this blog is based on, an utterly engrossing vacation from anything resembling the real world.

Bioware:

I’ve often said that Bioware makes great choose your own adventure novels, but no one told them they’re a video game company. This is my way of saying that they’re good at story-telling, but that they seem to put no real effort into compelling gameplay.

Of all the Bioware games I’ve played, Inquisition is the only one where I’d list the combat and general game mechanics as a mark in the game’s favour. And even then, Inquisition’s combat isn’t great. It’s just decent. And I’m not sure I’d feel so good about if knight-enchanters hadn’t been so crazy overpowered.

My agent at work in her stronghold in Star Wars: The Old RepublicThat leaves story-telling as Bioware’s strength, but even that isn’t entirely true. The main storylines in Bioware games are, at best, hit and miss. The only ones that really impressed me on that front are Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 (yeah, I’m a freak). Origins’ story was just weak, Inquisition and ME2 had potential but became entirely too bogged down with irrelevant side missions, and ME1’s story was okay but not exactly mind-blowing.

Bioware is also, ironically, one of the worst developers out there for marrying story and gameplay. As in they don’t even try. The story is told through scripted cutscenes that are entirely divorced from the actual gameplay. Game mechanics are almost never used to heighten or enhance the story being told. Part of the reason I was so impressed with Inquisition’s Trespasser DLC was because they finally did start using game mechanics to enhance the story (IE the mark going crazy).

However, there are two things about Bioware games that are truly special.

One is the choices they offer. Even if Bioware’s stories aren’t always stellar, they’re engaging because it’s your story. There’s a tremendous satisfaction to being able to react as you choose to the situations the game throws at you, and it allows you to become so much more deeply invested than you otherwise might be.

I was reflecting recently that I almost never make the “evil” choices in games, but I’m glad they exist, because it makes the “good” choices feel far more meaningful. Sometimes being the hero isn’t about saving the world so much as it is about simply not clicking the button that says, “[Torture him]”.

My Shepard in Mass Effect 3It appeals to me as a writer, too. All the hard work of building a world and characters is done for me, and I can go nuts telling the story I want to.

Even then the choice system is often very imperfect. If I had a nickel for every time in a Bioware game I made the wrong choice because of a misunderstanding…

But very few games offer this kind of experience on this scale, so Bioware kind of has a monopoly.

The other thing Bioware does better than anyone else is creating amazing characters.

I’ve often tried to explain to non-gamers in my life what the characters in Bioware games are like, but words can’t do it justice. They feel real enough to reach out and touch. Going back and replaying a game feels like a family reunion. I genuinely miss talking to characters like Sera, or Tali, or Thane, or Merrill.

That’s not to say I always like the characters in Bioware games. In fact, every game has had at least one cast member I’d happily shove down a flight of stairs: Alistair, Isabela, Vivienne, Zaeed, Jack, Kaliyo…

NOT ONE WORD, DWARF.But even there, the depth of hatred I have for these characters speaks to their quality and realness.

Dontnod:

It might be a bit early to add Dontnod to the list, since they’ve only put out two games so far, but already they have all the makings of another company I love and hate in equal measure.

Life Is Strange and Remember Me were both brilliant games with serious flaws. On the whole, I found Remember Me was good enough to forgive the flaws, but Life Is Strange not so much. I know the general consensus is the other way around.

But what I respect is that both were games with big ideas, big ambitions. They tried to not only be good video games, but works of art, as well, and largely succeeded, despite their stumbles. I’d rather games that shoot for the stars and fall a little short.

The Saint-Michal District of Neo-Paris in Remember MeI’m already kind of excited about Vampyr, and I don’t even like vampire fiction.