Genre Identity CrisisAnd how it affects RPGFan.02.02.10 - 7:56 PM
Note: This month's editorial is a lengthy and informal rant that serves as a follow-up to the question posed in Mark P. Tjan's editorial from September '09
Media categorization is a horrendous task. As subgenres, and sub-subgenres (all the way down to sub-to the nth degree-genre) are determined, the umbrella genre loses meaning. We see it in music: "rock," "country," and "hip-hop" have well-defined examples, but what of music that blends all three styles? The same can be said of films and books: "horror," "romance," and "comedy" may be seemingly well-defined genres, but there are enough genre-benders out there to make these constructs of categorization appear to be utterly devoid of meaning or purpose.
Which brings us to the state of the RPG. And the RPG fan. And, um, RPGFan. Dot com.
Before that, a bit of personal history. As a child, it took me a long time to figure out what was or wasn't an RPG. And those were the simpler times. At first, my older brother taught me about two kinds of RPGs, which would today be categorized as Western RPGs (WRPG) vs. Japanese RPGs (JRPG). I knew that Final Fantasy was an RPG, and I knew that Dungeons & Dragons PC games were RPGs. That was about it. If you had shown me Shining Force when I was eight years old (1992), I wouldn't have put together that it was an RPG. By the time I was ten or eleven, I understood in basic terms what Strategy RPGs (Shining Force) and Action RPGs (Secret of Mana) were.
But if you had told me in 1997 that Fallout was an RPG, I would have laughed at you. Why? Because all this time, I had been trained to think that RPGs required a medieval fantasy/"swords and sorcery" kind of setting. If you're in a heavy sci-fi post-apocalyptic world, you can't be an RPG no matter what. That's honestly what I thought as a young teenager.
So, while the industry definition may have held firm enough to encompass all of those titles, my personal experience led me to learn that what I thought may or may not fall into the window of RPG-dom could be quite wrong. This is one important piece of the puzzle.
The other important piece of the puzzle, of course, is the continual melding and blending of genres. Last year, Andy McNamara wrote a great opening editorial for GameInformer, the thesis of which was "everyone likes RPGs whether they know it or not, because RPG elements are in all games these days." And it's true, isn't it?
Well I'll have you know that this trend to RPG-ify every other gaming genre has left RPG-specific review publications like ours and many others, doing a collective head-scratch and shoulder-shrug.
So what, exactly, makes an RPG an RPG? Most people would pinpoint character growth as the key. Not in terms of plot, but in terms of gameplay. Experience points. Leveling up. Abilities. Skill trees. Oh, and a combat system with numbers helps a good bit too. RPG geeks love math.
So when everything from a War-Time FPS to a Hockey Game includes those exact things, what the heck are we to do? Guess we'll just start covering everything on RPGFan.
Or, no, maybe we won't.
Sometimes on our forums, users will complain that we didn't cover a game they'd like to see coverage for. Our response? "It wasn't RPG enough." There are a few glaring inconsistencies, and I'd like to use this space to air some of our dirty laundry.
Yes, RPGFan covers the Legend of Zelda series. It's not really RPG material (outside Zelda II for NES, which actually had experience points). Yet, we've chosen not to cover many other action / adventure games. There was debate over Okami which, for all intents and purposes, was a Zelda clone in another skin. And our own staff also went back and forth on Shadow of the Colossus, Monster Hunter, and others, eventually deciding to nix coverage on all of these games.
To set the record straight once and for all, here are some games you might think we ought to cover, but we don't:
Castlevania series (exception goes to any "Metroidvania" titles that mimic the Castlevania: Symphony of the Night setup)
God of War series
Devil May Cry series (though we did let Vincent May Cr-- I mean, Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII past the gate)
Advance Wars series
BioShock (though we do allow System Shock)
Animal Crossing series
Dissidia: Final Fantasy / Tales of Vs
Puzzle Quest series
The list continues to grow. The RPGFan staff, a rag-tag bunch of gaming misfits, actually hold secret meetings where we punch and kick each other into submission as we try to figure out what games we should or shouldn't cover. It gets messy. One guy says "look at all these RPG elements!" And then another guy says "RPG elements don't an RPG make!" And then editor-in-chief Eric Farand uppercuts everyone on staff simultaneously. In retrospect, I guess that's pretty awesome. But it doesn't help matters that we can't figure out hard and fast rules how to handle our conceptual borders.
Oh, but here's the really cute part that I didn't get to yet. Even though we're a site dedicated to RPGs, we decided at some point to also grandfather in the "graphic adventure" genre. That includes point-and-click puzzlers like Myst as well as a whole host of dating sim / love adventure titles, such as Memories Off. Not to mention a whole host of DS games, including the excellent Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series.
I would be neglectful if I didn't also mention the burgeoning world of MMOs. Not all MMOs are MMORPGs, mind you. There are generic MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) that have no real RPG elements, yet somehow bring people back time and time again for more. If the key aspect of the MMO is social interaction, not stat growth, but there are some "RPG elements" there, what are we to do? Chances are, we'll just ignore it, since it's hard enough keeping up with even the biggest of big-name MMORPGs.
All of this probably leaves everyone with a bigger, broader question - a question that makes us take a few steps back and look at the big picture: are genre-specific coverage sites like RPGFan becoming outmoded? If the lines that define a genre eventually fade away, all we will have is historical coverage of games past to work with. New games may become "totally RPGs," or we may just say "nothing's an RPG anymore, because the term is irrelevant." It's a scary thought for die-hard RPG fans like us.
Do I have an answer to any of this? No. But here's what I will tell you. RPGFan.com will continue to provide coverage to all the games that fall under our quirky, self-defined boundaries. If you like the way we roll, keep on comin' back for more. We hope you will.