When people talk about where role-playing games come from, I'm pretty sure that pen and paper systems like Dungeons & Dragons come to mind. In truth, people have been role-playing for centuries, spanning from improvisational theater to murder mystery types of parlor games to even a child's game of pretend, even though we don't think of them as role-playing games.
So that begs the question: What exactly is a role-playing game? The term "role-playing" in modern times has been thrown around so much that is has seemingly lost its meaning. The traditional definition of a role-playing game encompasses a fairly wide range of games in which a player assumes a role in a fictitious setting. Success and failures within the game are determined by a set of rules and guidelines. The goal of any good role-playing game is to tell a collaborative story, crafted out of the choices and consequences of its players.
This is how it usually works: Each player chooses or is assigned a role or a character. Each player is in turn in charge of using that character to interact with the setting for the sake of progressing the narrative. The point is that, the players are responsible for choosing paths from their character's point of view. It's all about viewing something from another person's perspective and deciding what they would do, not you.
The game world, at least in a traditional pen and paper role-playing campaign is represented by a dungeon master, who is generally in charge of managing the setting and creating any details or encounters that the players would come across on their adventure. The dungeon masters also serves as a referee, enforcing the game's rules and providing player guidance. In a computer based RPG (CRPG), the dungeon master is represented by the AI.
So what makes a computer game apart of the role-playing game genre? First and foremost: Computer role-playing game is a misnomer: CRPGs lack the distinct ability to allow players to choose. Many of the newer RPGs such as Mass Effect, do allow for some degree of choice but ultimately lack the ability to create emergent stories based solely upon a player's actions. At heart, a role-playing game is a story created by its players. The setting is just a construct.
A more accurate description would be interactive fiction. The player assumes the role of a character and plays through a predefined story. The game still tells a story, but a linear one. All video game narratives are linear, some just hide it better than others. But if having a story and playing an entity is the definition of a CRPG, then all computers games would be of that genre. In Mario you assume the role of Mario on a quest to save the princess. In Half-Life, a game that is ironically closer to a role-playing game than many actual CRPGs, you are for all intents and purposes Gordon Freeman. Valve has been very careful about not breaking your point of view within the game.
However, neither of these games, to say the last, are considered even close to CRPG by modern standards. Traditional CRPGs were defined by gameplay, being largely stat based and heavily influenced by D&D. Nowadays, the RPG genre spans such a wide variety of titles that gameplay itself is almost irrelevant to its definition. So again, what exactly defined a computer based role-playing game? What exact criteria separates an RPG from a non-RPG? Two things:
- Character progression: All CRPGs have either a leveling or an advanced skill/stat based character progression system in effect. Above all game mechanics and combat systems, character progression is the one technical element that all CRPGs have in common.
- A narrative: A narrative must contain (my loose definition) a setting, characters, conflict, story and dialogue. In regards to computer games, role-playing games usually have more developed story interaction than most other games of other genres. By definition, all RPGs feature a character or role that the player fills.
Both Deus Ex and Half-Life are first person shooters yet only one is considered to be a part of the role-playing genre. Even though Half-Life, as mentioned before, could arguably be truer to a role-playing game than most actual CRPGs, it is not because it has no character progression system in place. The same is true of many other RPG sub-genres: For example: Final Fantasy Tactics vs StarCraft, Puzzle Quest vs Bejeweled. Though many games have a narrative, in order to be considered a CRPG they must also have character progression.
Interesting exception: Sleep is Death. It's a two-player collaborative story telling game. One person creates and controls the world the other persons plays an entity or a character in that world. The player and creator alternate turns: The player interacts, moves or speaks and the creator in turn alters the world. Each turn is automatically screenshotted and compiled into a story. That's the closest thing to role-playing that I've ever seen in a computer game. Specifically because of the role player choice has within the game and the focus on actual story telling.
So will we ever see a "true" single-player or massively multiplayer role-playing game? One day, but not now. At the moment I don't think that gaming technology has progressed to the point of being able to create a fully emergent story. But that said, the CRPG genre is constantly changing so the next great game could be just around the corner. I don't think I covered everything that I wanted to cover in this post. So at some point I would like to type out at least two more articles: 1. The Appeal of Role-Playing, why we like it and what we learn. 2. Eastern vs Western Style CRPGs.