What constitutes an RPG?


My brother and I are having a debate about what exactly a game needs to be classified as an RPG. He argues that a game without any meaningful choices to make by the player via the player character in the story cannot be considered one, while I’ve been countering that this is too strict and essentialist to be useful in defining the genre.
This probably boils down to which types he and I play (I mostly play J, him C), but I’m fairly certain that even the developers of at least some of the games he likes wouldn’t agree with him. However, I’m also not that deep into the history and such of the genre, so I’d like to hear some other opinions on the matter.


I’ve usually saw RPGs as abstraction. RPGs deals with stats and numbers since they abstract the skills that are actually being used. More abstraction feels more like an RPG to me, while less abstraction feels less so.

I don’t know how many others feel this way though.


I think you hit the nail on the head. While it would be nice to be able to define RPG’s that succinctly, it excludes a lot of games typically considered RPG’s and simultaneously covers a lot of games not considered RPG’s. I wouldn’t consider the walking dead an RPG for instance. We need words like RPG or shooter or adventure to be able to identify a large amount of games and what their general structure or mechanics might be like. Naming and identifying genres scientifically is always a losing battle and in the end it’s up to gut feeling.

Language isn’t a great tool for categorizing items, but it’s the only tool we’ve got.


There is an argument to be made that when taken literally, RPG is perhaps too broad a term, since any game where you are playing a non-nebulous character could technically be defined as an RPG. But that isn’t really a useful metric.

As far as video games are concerned, I’m definitely of the same mind as Meophist. An RPG is a game that abstracts character ability behind some sort of number system, whether that is literal stats, an experience system, an amalgam of both, or something else of the like.

I don’t think meaningful character choices should really be used to qualify what is and isn’t an RPG. Not because RPGs can’t have meaningful choices, but because using that as a qualification makes it seem like RPGs are the only space where meaningful character choices can be explored. In which case, any game with meaningful character choice thereby becomes an RPG and ends up diluting the meaning of the term. Where as a more mechanical definition, while still possible to overuse, is at least easily identified and understood.


I remember seeing this question come into gaming magazines in the 90s and the writer would get sarcastically dunked-on by very cool 90s game journalists that I would then applaud. The ol, “Don’t you play a role in EVERY game?”

For me, I think all a game needs to be called an RPG or game with RPG elements is persistent character building that happens as you earn the ability to do it from playing the game. There are many games I’ve played that are the core-st of core RPGs that do not allow you to make any meaningful story choices.


To be clear, he isn’t saying, “choices are what make an RPG,” but rather, “a lack of choices restricts/prohibits role-playing, therefore RPG-style games that don’t have them aren’t actually RPGs.” Basically, he isn’t arguing that it’s the core of an RPG, but that it’s core enough that it not being a part of a game fundamentally changes what that game is. I don’t think the problem with his argument is that it’s too broad, but rather that he’s overly stuck on the exact name (he literally said, “If it’s legitimately impossible to role-play, it’s not an RPG”), hence my comment on his point being essentialist.
But yeah, I’m in agreement on overall structure and mechanics being more important than any one specific thing; Shin Megami Tensei totally falls under his definition, but I doubt having three or so different endings you can get based on choices you made throughout a game in the series is nearly as important as the general style in which they play out, or even just the stuff surrounding demons (such as negotiation and fusion). The points about abstraction, I think, are good too.


to me a game becomes more “rpg” the more my personal ability is filtered through the character’s ability. like for example no matter how good i am at fps games, shooting in deus ex 1 is miserable until i put enough points into jc’s gun skills. or, to compare 2 games in a single series, morrowind feels “more rpg” to me because for example i can’t pick a lock if my skill is too low, whereas in skyrim it just means the minigame is a little bit harder.

but then again i play very few japanese-style rpgs, so i’m not sure if this kind of thinking applies to those games as well. i guess in general any mechanic that makes me realize that i’m playing a character in a world and not a flying camera with a gun attached to it is enough to put a game into rpg territory


As far as I’m concerned neither numerical systems nor player-choice defines RPGs. After all, you can play a role without choosing what actions the character you play as performs. I classify acting in theater and film as a kind of role playing. The actor plays the role of a character even though the character’s actions are predetermined by the script and director.

I define an RPG as a game centered around narrative-driven character development. The player’s character must change over the course of the game, and the changes that occur in the character should appropriately correspond to the changes in the game’s story. Games like Metroid aren’t RPGs proper because the changes in those games, for the most part, alter only the game-play and do not follow changes in the game’s story. Further, in an RPG not only does my character’s equipment change, but my character him self must change. He must grow stronger, smarter, eviller or better, and the game play and the story both need to show that.

At the beginning of Baldur’s Gate, the player is a weak, sheltered commoner unaware of the world outside his/her gated community. The game-play reflects that: the player does menial tasks like kill rats in a cellar, all within the confines of his/her hometown. All the same, the player must react to sudden assassination attempts that foreshadow the darker tones of events later in the game. At the end of Baldur’s Gate 2, that same character from the gated community in the first game can now effortlessly take on dragons, trolls, beholders, and mind-flayers without fear. That progression makes sense because in Baldur’s Gate 2, every new plot-event ups the stakes, makes the game feel more epic, makes it seems like more depends on the player’s success. Nearly the same can be said for JRPGS that allow the player almost no choices that will change the narrative.

After the climax of Final Fantasy 6, the world lies in ruin. The bad guy has all but won. The heroes are disempowered and fragmented, and the game play reflects that. You begin with only one character in your party, and no airship, so that your movement is restricted in an alien environment. The world’s very geography has changed. Continents have seemingly been torn apart and reconfigured into new twisted shapes. You have little to no direction: you know you need to find the rest of your party, but you have little clue to where they are. You have no choice but to wander, but even that is risky, because the enemies are much more powerful and outnumber you, so getting lost could get you killed. Bit by bit however, as you gather more party members back together, you become more powerful, you gain access to better weapons and spells and you fight stronger enemies. I admit that there is a minimal player-choice here: to beat the game you must defeat Kefka, and once you get the airship you can fight Kefka whenever you want. But the number of party members you regain doesn’t change the story so much as extend it: each party member has their own portion of the ending that you can only see if they’re in your party. This is a far cry from the player-choice we see in Fallout or KotoR! And certainly, FFVI would be no less of an RPG if it gave players no choice, and forced them to regain all party members before fighting Kefka. My point is that the change in gameplay does reflect the game’s narrative: FFVI is a game about humanity falling apart, and from that wreckage slowly piecing itself back together to eventually grow strong enough to stop the evil that tore it asunder in the first place.


I guess the best you could do is ‘narrative based game with stats that increase over gameplay’ if you really want to unify them, but I don’t see why it matters. I don’t think it’s helpful to compare crpgs to jrpgs like they’re the same genre when they’re really not; they started from a common point (d&d inspired stuff like Wizardry, which inspired stuff like Dragon Quest) but have diverged so that they really don’t have much in common.