GAMER CONFESSION: What Makes a Role-Playing Video Game?

It’s quite fair to say that the Role-Playing Games category of video games has been a key part of my game-playing life. Maybe not so much in my pre-teen 1980s days, but certainly from the time I got my mitts on an “IBM Compatible” home computer. I’d never really got hold of a role-playing game on our old Commodore 64 – the occasional text adventure and adventure games galore – but nothing that could be classed as a role-play game.

Defining a Genre

role-playing video gameI started this article with the idea to talk about some games that have been the centre of my gaming life over the years – not the best examples of the genre but the ones I got something out of. As I started though, I realised there’s a core issue that needs to be addressed first. What defines a role-playing video game?

I’ve been scouring the web for a clear-cut definition, as well as scanning through my digital copy of the excellent Dungeons and Desktops but there doesn’t seem to be a set definition that I can easily latch on to. This article will discuss various criteria before coming to a definition of a role-playing video game that rings true to me personally.

Character Creation

Having a choice of characters available to players or allowing the creation of a bespoke character is a core element of many games that can be called Role-Playing Video Games. However, it’s not a universal trait. Many excellent role-play games such as Planescape Torment, The Witcher series, Mass Effect and Dragon Age 2 focus the gamer’s experience on a specific individual. Admittedly, in the latter two cases, these characters appearance and first names can be customised.

Character customisation (in the sense of appearance) is also limited in the Chinese themed Jade Empire. Character creation is somewhat limited (especially compared to other Bioware games), allowing the player to select from six (or seven in the Special Edition) characters – three (or four) male and three female. Players can either stick to the fighting style and attributes of their chosen character model – these are fully developed starting characters – or they can customise and even rename the character if so desired. A selection of randomly generated names can be browsed to help choose a thematic name.

Personally, I like to be able to customise my character. Although this desire is somewhat waning in me. For example, I created a unique face for my Commander Shepard to play through the Mass Effect games. There is a part of me that wishes I’d used the default face for my own “official” play-through. The reason for this is that in Mass Effect I am playing a named character. Commander Shepard should (I now think) be Commander Shepard in the same way as Geralt of Rivia is always Geralt of Rivia in games in The Witcher franchise. That said, I am under no doubt that I shall spend upwards of thirty minutes in Mass Effect Andromeda creating my own version of the protagonists!

Character Development

Once a game starts though, for me to consider a game a true “role-playing” experience, the player must have control of the character’s development. This can take on the form of customising the equipment a character uses but really, I’m talking about the development of the character’s abilities which influence the way the game is played.

This kind of character development happens in several games that wouldn’t be considered role-playing games by most observers. The Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed and Watch_Dogs series are all examples of games which allow the player to pick and choose from a skill tree, for example when they have earned enough points to improve their character. Ultimately though, the player’s choice is less important in these games, since usually every ability in the game can be obtained during a single play through – evidenced by the presence of a “Complete the Skill Tree” achievement or trophy that exists in such games. The choice with them is more about priority on a journey to maxing out a character’s potential rather than choosing a path and honing the character’s development along that path.

In a role-playing game, the player should be free to progress in the way that they desire. Whether this is through a Class-based system where certain classes are prohibited from performing certain actions or through a skill-based system that allows a mix-and-match approach, there should be some level of choice available. Players should be free to develop their character and play their game as they see fit – the point of a Role-playing game is to be immersed in the experience and having control over their in-game development can really help that immersion.

An Engaging Story

One of the major draws to a Role-Playing game is the fact that I know I’m going to be working my way slowly but surely through a narrative towards a goal. This goal doesn’t have to be world-shattering, but the progression to that end-point should really engage the player. The narrative needs to be written in a way that affects the player and helps them towards their goal.  In Baldur’s Gate, I found myself intrigued by the mystery of an iron-shortage in the region. Intrigued by the mysterious figure who killed my foster-father. As the main plot progressed though, I found myself more and more engrossed in the main story of the game. While not essential – a role-playing game should allow freedom to ignore the story as well – I do feel a strong story is a positive point in this type of game.

In many games, the path from start to end is a branching tree of choices that worm their way towards a single or even multiple end-points. In Far Cry 3, for example, the player can choose one of two endings – but the main storyline progresses in a strictly linear course right up to that point. In The Witcher 3, every decision made affects the progress of the story as a whole. In a Role-Playing video game, the player has at least the appearance of progressing along multiple paths through the main narrative of the game. The more branching points in the story (with major or minor impact on the overall narrative) the better in my book. This adds a level of freedom to a game that helps the immersion and feeling of being able to play the role that I want to play.

Optional Stuff

I truly believe that one of the core elements of a role-playing video game is the inclusion of optional content. Whether these be treasure hunts, conversations with characters or mini-adventures in their own right – a player’s unique experience of a game is informed by optional content.

One of my favourite aspects of The Witcher 3 is that quests can be failed without ending the game. Geralt may take on a close-protection mission which ends badly … he will still gain some experience which allows the player to progress in the game’s skill-system but he won’t get paid. Also, that ex-primary will no longer appear in the game where otherwise they might. And certain factions might be annoyed (or pleased) with the failure. Failure by the character in a game can be a valid choice too.

While not a universal trait in role-playing video games, there is a general rule that the player can interact with non-player characters using a branching dialogue tree. The outcome of these conversations may or may not affect the story or the world but they always allow the player a sense of freedom in their interactions and this feeling of choice is definitely a positive attribute. A morality system or ramifications to the manner in which the game progresses can result from such interactions.

Having the choice to do an activity without being penalised for not doing the activity is key and it’s a fine balance for a developer to manage. A player should be able to complete the game by performing no optional quests if they so desire. Otherwise – they aren’t optional!

My Definition

There is one word that is key for me in defining a game as a Role-playing video game.


I can expand that into two words: meaningful choice.

For me to consider a game to be a true “role-playing video game”, the game must offer a high level of choice to the player. Choice within the character’s development, choice to freely roam an environment and perform side-activities which do not directly relate to the main plot of the game. Where possible, the player should be able to offend individuals or organisations – possibly by accident. A role-playing video game should reflect how the real-world works to some degree.

So there we are. That’s my definition of a role-playing video game and I hope from this you can see why The Legend of Zelda, Shadows of Mordor and other such game don’t fall into the genre for me. Next time, I’ll have a look at some role-playing games that are close to my gaming-heart.

I’d also like to point readers towards this article  which I have stumbled across which seems to come to similar conclusions to my own. Thanks for reading and as ever, let me know what you think in the comments or on twitter.

GS Blogger: WedgeDoc

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