You can’t get more old school than a role-playing game, yet RPGs still dominate the world of games. We look at why RPGs will always rule.
Only a madman would hail role-playing games (RPGs) as the future – they are very demonstrably games of the past. You could even argue that the RPG was the very first games genre: even in the 1970s, you could play proto-RPGs like Dungeon and dnd (as long as you happened to have access to a room-sized mainframe computer like the DEC PDP-1), and by the time 1980 came around – with the games industry still very much in its first throes of infancy – identifiable RPGs like Rogue, which lent its blueprint to the ‘roguelike’ sub-genre, could be played on personal computers.
So here we are, 40 or so years later, and RPGs somehow still dominate the games world. 2017 has been a conspicuously good year for RPGs, thanks to blockbusters like The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, NieR: Automata, Horizon Zero Dawn, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2. And 2018 looks likely to continue in a similar vein, it may even be the year in which Square Enix’s remake of arguably the most revered RPG of all, Final Fantasy VII, finally surfaces (although don’t hold your breath). So how come RPGs have managed to achieve such perennial popularity?
The many flavours of RPGs
Surely the main reason for the never-ending popularity of RPGs is that they come in so many flavours, and offer experiences which differ wildly. The original RPGs’ roots squarely lay in Dungeons & Dragons, which emerged as a tabletop-game craze in the 1970s and 1980s, but nowadays, you can find ones which occupy territory far removed from J. R. R. Tolkien’s oeuvre. Think of Mass Effect, with its sci-fi third-person-shooter vibe, or Fallout’s post-apocalyptic survival scenarios. Or Ni No Kuni, which comes across like a super-cute Studio Ghibli anime film.
Then there’s the fact that RPGs can target themselves at different strata of the global gaming audience. Sure, plenty of them are clearly gunning for the hardcore. But the likes of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Witcher, and Mass Effect prove they can also hit a very mass-market spot.
Another factor is their sheer length and meatiness. Games are pricey these days (although we should always remember that they were even pricier, especially in real terms, in the 8-bit and 16-bit days when console cartridges stuffed with expensive silicon held sway). So the longer the experience your £50 game can offer, the more it seems like a good-value purchase. Take the recently released Xenoblade Chronicles 2 on Nintendo’s Switch, for instance. The developer has suggested that, in order to finish and collect everything in the game, you might have to invest 100 hours of your time in it.
Of course, MMORPGs are also RPGs, except you play online with real people rather than computer-controlled characters, and those are designed to last forever (or at least, for as long as they can survive the vicissitudes of changing fashions). Last year, Jagex’s browser-based RuneScape celebrated its 15th anniversary, and World Of Warcraft has been going strong since 2004.
Another factor in the perennial popularity of RPGs is the way in which they allow you to spend time in fantasy worlds which are much more inviting than the real one (especially in this era of Trump, austerity, the insanity of Brexit, and so on). And MMORPGs let you take daily holidays from the real world, should you feel you need them.
The essence of an RPG
One of the joys of RPGs is that they are movable feasts – they are nowhere near as uniform or identikit as, say, first person shooters. You could argue that many of the open world action-adventure games, which currently enjoy a similar level of popularity to RPGs, cross over into RPG territory, particularly if they let you add abilities to the character you play.
The one element of an RPG which is set in stone is that you must be able to level up your character (or group of characters), thereby upgrading basic attributes like health, strength and so on – a process governed by experience point (XP) systems which reward for completing quests or random grinding.
No self-respecting RPG would dream of doing without some form of ability tree, allowing you to determine how your character develops, although the likes of The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild effectively hard-wire their ability trees into the gameplay, making you undergo particular quests to earn specific abilities.
The other element every RPG must have is some sort of battle system. Whether that involves swords, shields and magic, like Dark Souls, an antediluvian turn-based system like those still found in some Japanese RPGs, or cover-based third-person shooting like Mass Effect is pretty much immaterial.
There are countless gameplay elements associated with RPGs that are entirely optional, like quests (although they feature in the vast majority of RPGs), character classes, crafting, loot, and dungeon-crawling. Roguelikes and dungeon crawlers, for example, take place entirely in dungeons, but feature levelling up, battle systems, and loot.
So when you’re making an RPG, you can go minimal or throw in the kitchen sink like, say, Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War, with its Nemesis system which aims to give random orc commanders and their minions personalities and behaviours, thereby effectively creating an auto-generated storyline. And there, perhaps, lies the key to the enduring success of the RPG: it’s such an all-encompassing genre that has accumulated so many elements over the decades that, if you’re clever, you can design an RPG to suit pretty much any gaming taste.
One form of RPG which satisfies a very specialist taste is the Japanese RPG, or JRPG. Within the vocabulary of RPGs, JRPGs speak a dialect of their own: they invariably feature anime-influenced visuals, high-fantasy storylines, and hugely complex, layered battle systems in which magic features heavily. Despite pundits predicting the imminent demise of JRPGs for decades, they continue to go from strength to strength.
Indeed, 2017 was one of the best years ever for JRPGs, thanks to the likes of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, the remastered Final Fantasy XII, NieR: Automata, and Persona 5. You could probably throw Final Fantasy XV into that mix, as it came out in December 2016 and has benefited from a steady stream of DLC in 2017.
Next year will see one of the most hotly anticipated JRPGs of all in Ni No Kuni II, plus – if we’re lucky – the fabled remake of Final Fantasy VII, generally held to be the finest of all the Final Fantasies. Annoyingly, developer/publisher Square Enix has treated Final Fantasy VII’s development as if it were some sort of top-secret spy mission – it won’t say anything about the game beyond the fact that it is being made.
That could have something to do with the fact that JRPGs – and especially Final Fantasy VII – attract a fanbase which is beyond fanatical, so you can sympathise with Square Enix wanting to present the Final Fantasy VII remake as a fait accompli, rather than detailing elements of it which fans could pick to pieces.
Next year’s Kingdom Hearts III is a very different type of frantically-awaited JRPG, as it will be packed full of Disney characters, thereby combining two of the most feverishly committed fanbases in pop culture history. Bandai Namco’s Code Vein, with its vampire aesthetics, will be a very different type, and looks and feels pretty similar to FromSoftware’s Dark Souls franchise.
So Japanese RPGs are indisputably in the middle of a golden age – and yet the internal Japanese games market has been collapsing sales-wise recently, with throwaway mobile phone games achieving a zombie-grip stranglehold. Luckily, it seems the rest of the world has finally woken up to the joys of JRPGs – perhaps as the consequence of a form of bi-curiosity among the legions of western RPG fans – so that even if the Japanese themselves stop playing games altogether, JRPGs will live on.
Role-playing video games, it seems are indestructible – even if the apocalypse finally happened, there would be someone, somewhere making one the following day. If you have previously dismissed them as the province of freaks or geeks, you’re being unduly narrow-minded: we’re living through the golden age of RPGs. So you might want to re-evaluate.