The Very Definition of an RPG

There’s something very funny about pledging to do more blogging right before finals start at your new job as an assistant professor. Something had to take a back seat, though—and you didn’t think it would be video games, did you? Of course not. Fortunately, video games are what bring me back to blogging: I’ve just completed Mass Effect 2, and I must emerge from my cave to ramble on about it.

Regular readers of Geek Studies might recall that I use Mass Effect in a number of examples here because it represents a number of interesting developments in narrative gaming—and, of course, I really like it. Mass Effect 2 is quite similar to the original in that involves nearly as much player-chosen dialog as combat, though the latter system has been revised to play more like a Gears of War-style shooter. The game now has a greater focus on aiming over tactical use of super-powers, taking cover over dodging, aiming for enemies’ heads over shooting wildly, and—as turns out to be crucial in the minds of many—amassing “upgrades” over sorting through collected items.

Some players appreciate these changes. Others, however, point to them as a move to “dumb down” the experience for “mainstream” gamers. To many vocally upset fans on the Bioware forums, this is all evidence that “Mass Effect 2 is not an RPG.”

What defines a roleplaying game, or RPG? Years ago, I was chatting with a friend of mine named Kai, who was at that time a student at DigiPen, a major college for game design. We got to talking about how the Zelda games have been referred to as “action RPGs”: They tend to have a “real-time” combat system (in which pressing a button corresponds to an immediate response, like swinging a sword), rather than the “turn-based” system that characterizes most Japanese RPGs, like the Final Fantasy series (in which characters take turns to act, and actions are pre-selected from menus). I was interested to hear that turn-based combat was not a formally defining concept for RPGs in the minds of video game designers, so I asked Kai what did define a game as an RPG. His answer—”inventory management”—surprised me.

Inventory management refers to the process of sorting through items in a game to decide which are best to use and which deserve to be sold or destroyed. Mass Effect had a much-maligned inventory management system, in which the only real difference between most items was that some were better than others, and the ones that weren’t as good had to be manually disposed of, one by one. Some other games have attempted to reduce the abstraction of inventory management, though it still remains a generally narrative-breaking mechanic in most RPGs. In Resident Evil 4, for instance, your character has a “briefcase” that limits how much you can carry based on the number of things you have and their orientation; a decent amount of time is spent rotating things and dumping what won’t fit. The character model/avatar, however, doesn’t actually seem to have a briefcase on his person. Alone in the Dark had the least narratively disruptive inventory management of any game I know, as it involved simply looking inside your character’s jacket and seeing what was in each pocket. (And peeking in the jacket did not pause the game; enemies would continue to attack!)

How did inventory management come to be assumed to be synonymous with roleplaying games? The roots likely lie in the emphasis on the effectiveness of different kinds of equipment in Dungeons & Dragons, which is easier to translate into video games than the other defining characteristic of D&D: affording the opportunity to play a role, such as by providing the illusion of player choice in character actions. In this regard, Mass Effect is the quintessential roleplaying game series, providing options between what lines are spoken in dialog, whether to persuade others through reason or through violence, even how to manage a team in ways that determine who may survive a mission and who may not.

Personally, I enjoy Mass Effect 2‘s new system—in which you “scan” new items for schematics, and then assemble new materials when you get back to your ship—for a few reasons. Mostly, I don’t appreciate spending tons of time in a game on “housekeeping” like deciding what to sell, but I appreciate that there are still options for upgrading items in the game that don’t challenge narrative consistency so much. In addition, while there are fewer named weapons and items in Mass Effect 2 than in its predecessor, there’s actually much more variety between weapons; rather than just being a question of one being better than another, now, you choose between rate of fire, strength, and accuracy, and the differences are very apparent in gameplay. And, as I’ll explore in a post following this one, not “looting” every enemy’s corpse means that you are not swimming in money, breaking the in-game economy.

I can understand how micromanagement of resources is an appealing feature of a game to many players, but in a game like Mass Effect, with its focus on cinematic storytelling, sometimes the details can get in the way of the narrative immersion. In my next post, then, I’ll be exploring this issue a bit further, examining how inventory management and in-game economics might be better handled to avoid narrative disruption.

5 thoughts on “The Very Definition of an RPG

  1. Interesting. I think that the inventory management is one of the few (easy) methods of defining your character in single player digital terms. You are what you wear.

    Mass Effect apparently improves upon this some (from what I’ve heard. Yet to play it.)

    OT: “adobes on” as a captcha? False advertising…

  2. What’s interesting about “what you wear” in Mass Effect 2 is that even though you don’t have “inventory management” per se, you have a lot more control over the visual style of your character than you did in Mass Effect 1. There was some variety between armors in ME1, but the most objectively effective armor all looked pretty much the same. In ME2, you pretty much have one standard suit of armor, with some optional head gear and some variants on shoulder pads and chest plates and the like, any of which can be changed in color at any time. Many of the folks on the Bioware forums seem really put out by not being able to loot corpses and sell stuff to vendors, though; character customization doesn’t really come up as a complaint.

    If you’re talking visual customization of character, though, you kind of can’t beat Fallout 3. There’s just so many weird options for clothing, as long as you value style above damage protection. My character in that game started out looking like a science-fiction cowboy, turned into a boy-genius with a gatling laser and mechanic’s jumpsuit, and ended up in kid’s clothing and baseball cap with an alien raygun as he wandered the wasteland with his puppy and hulking mutant pal. Delightfully weird.

  3. It’s interesting that you delve into the physical characteristics of an “RPG.”

    My thought was that the choice of weapon/armor was somewhat equivalent to INT/STR/CON etc.


  4. Oh, there is an element of “you are what you wear” in terms of items affecting stats in addition to having cosmetic differences (e.g., shoulder pads that boost melee damage, or leg armor that increases sprinting speed). In fact, ME2 items like these have more direct impact on physical characteristics than the armors in ME1, which pretty much only affected the amount of damage you could sustain. It LOOKS like there’s fewer kinds of items in ME2 because there are fewer named objects, but there’s actually a great deal more variety between them.

    I’m not sure how to explain people’s reaction to the new item system, given these things. Is it that players prefer the illusion of variety over actual variety, or is it simply that the deemphasizing of trading and inventory management themselves are resented?

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