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Who are we? Why are we here? What can change the nature of a man? What is an RPG? All these questions have stumped scholars for millenia and yet they still don't have definitive answers. At this point if someone asks you for a precise definition of an RPG, you can safely assume that the question is not in good faith. As such, when I see an article pondering this question, I tend to give it a quick laugh and proceed to ignore its existence.
During its opening paragraphs, this Kotaku UK article looks exactly like one of those. However, it later takes a surprising turn and becomes more of an interview with Chris Avellone and George Ziets, two of the video game industry's finest writers. The two of them try to define role-playing games in the context of modern day markets and AAA productions. Here's a snippet or two:
Chris Avellone is one of the most respected writer/designers in the western RPG space, best-known for his work on the heterodox Infinity Engine classic Planescape: Torment, as well as Obsidian’s beloved take on the long-running Fallout series, New Vegas. Avellone says that his definition of a role-playing game hasn’t changed at all over his two decades in game development, the integral element being a focus on what industry figures often term “choice and consequence.”
“An RPG allows you to take on a role,” says Avellone. “It allows you to make decisions about your character and your place in the world that are meaningful, and it allows you to grow in some fashion — either XP or otherwise — and present challenges to overcome that allow for that growth: combat, narrative, or otherwise.”
Avellone draws a line between these core tenets of RPG design and other elements that he views as equally important but not essential to it being an RPG. For example, most of the best RPGs out there are loved for their evocative worlds, like Fallout’s vision of an America soaked to the bone with nostalgia and radiation, or the mountains of rusted-out machines that make up Monte Cook’s Numenera, the setting for the spiritual successor to Planescape. More controversially, Avellone says that he regards customisation elements like base-management or even building your own character from scratch as a modern addition to the formula that he finds personally appealing, but ultimately not “key to [every] RPG.”
Avellone says that he appreciates the wealth of choices modern games allow him to make about gear, fighting style, and general combat capabilities. But to return to his favourite example of The Witcher 3, the game’s wealth of branching questlines is what makes it “a great RPG. In games, the willingness to integrate choice comes down to the budget of the game and the expenses involved with the choice... The more expensive the game, the more resistance there can be in the development process to showing choice in player agency, because branching assets can be very, very expensive.”
“For example, look at Selling Sunlight, a game with a unique and wildly creative premise, and a core game mechanic that’s based in trade rather than combat,” says Avellone. “Some innovation is on the system-side, like the fresh take on skill and ‘narrative combat’ in Disco Elysium. These games are trying things that bigger studios with bigger budgets would never attempt because they’re too risky... the danger in not innovating is real, though. To stand out in today’s RPG market, you need at least one strong hook to distinguish yourself from other games. Without that, even if your game is good overall, you may not attract enough player attention. Having too many hooks is also bad, as it can dilute their benefit — one or two seems about right, allowing players to recognise and remember your game.”
Ziets agrees with this perspective on the limits that big budget titles, perhaps unexpectedly, force onto their developers. Players can expect unparalleled bombast and spectacle from smash-hits like God of War but, in all but a very few cases, need to look 'downmarket' for games that truly embody the RPG ideals of player agency. Branching paths and meaningful choice might crank up the cost and man-hours that developers have to sink into their games, but for developers like Avellone and Ziets the concept is not a bullet point or a sales pitch — it’s the whirring gears that make an RPG truly work.