As a rising industry, Video Games can come in all shapes in sizes, with as much variety as any other medium can offer. There are large franchises churning out pulp, and smaller creators that pour their heart and soul into their games and the experiences they want to offer. In fact, it’s possible to break down video games into genres like with books.
Many video games are defined by the gameplay mechanics- the things a player has to do to play and win the game. Today, I’d like to break down a specific genre of video games, and common mechanics that are associated with it: the RPG.
RPG is an acronym that stands for: Role Playing Game. The idea is that the player controls and creates a character that he can customize and grow with throughout the course of the game.
For our purposes, I’m gonna break down RPGs into three basic requirements. One, the game character has to be customizable. Two, the game character has to get stronger throughout the game. Three, the game must feature a narrative that the player must take his character through.
These requirements eliminate games like Pac-Man or Pong, where the player just plays a premade character without any kind of advancement, or arcade games like Donkey-Kong that may feature a “narrative” but doesn’t have character progression (Mario never gets “stronger” in Donkey Kong).
Character Customization is pretty broad, but I basically define it as the game allowing the player to make physical changes to the character he plays as. This can be as simple as the equipment he wears to changing how the player physically looks. The customization can be pretty basic, such as just choosing the characters Gender, like in the game Assassins Creed: Odyssey or as complex as the game Dark Souls, which gives the player access to dozens of sliders to perfectly adjust everything from nose height to chin width.
Character Progression means that the player can improve his character throughout the course of the game. In essence, the player can make his character stronger. There are a few different types of systems that games use to allow this. The main two are Equipment and Levels. Equipment is easier to understand.
Your character runs around the game world finding junk scattered around until he finds a sword that’s better than the sword he already has. In Dark Souls, you may start the game with a simple dagger, but by the end of the game be wielding a +10 Divine Halberd that shoots lightning. That kind of thing.
The other main system is Levels. By playing the game, the player earns points (usually called Experience Points) to unlock Levels. These Levels are ranks of power, and by obtaining Levels the player unlocks new abilities and increases his characters physical attributes. It’s like a jackpot casino– the more you play the more you can win. A game like World of Warcraft can have the player earning levels for YEARS in order to unlock the coolest and most powerful items.
Last, but not least, is Narrative. Video Games are not really known for their storytelling prowess, but just like in any other medium, it’s hit and miss. Some games have breathtaking and beautiful narratives, while others are just cheap zombie-shlock. John D. Carmack states the attitude towards video game narratives excellently, “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”
I don’t agree with this attitude. Some games can have excellent narratives and stories. It just took this relatively new medium a while to find it’s feet, because a video doesn’t just allow you to witness the story; you can participate and immerse yourself in it.
One of my favorite video game stories is from the game SOMA. The character, Jared, goes in for an experimental medical scan only to find himself suddenly trapped in a sci-fi labyrinth of rogue machines and monsters at the bottom of the ocean. I won’t spoil it, but if you’re into existential ponderings about the nature of man, the post-apocalypse, and science-fiction, I highly recommend that you play SOMA.