Over the last several years I have put a lot of thought into what exactly makes an RPG an RPG. A big reason this has been happening is the inclusion of games that are clearly NOT RPGs into the genre due to the inclusion of Levels and Items in that particular game. Borderlands is probably the biggest example, but I have seen Bioshock Infinite mentioned as an RPG as well, and heck if that is what it takes… SSX is probably an RPG in many people’s eyes as well. So with that, I have talked about what it takes to be an RPG with many friends in Real Life and we have kind of come up with this list of qualifications:
1) Story – An RPG must have a story. There is a caveat here in that early RPG stories are excusable to be near non-existent. Though, early RPGs are almost a proof rather than a counter to this point. Akalabeth for instance has nearly no story, but there is in fact a story. Just having a story in 1979 or 1980 is not a small thing so we do count it every bit as much as modern games even though it wasn’t any better than the story of Super Mario Bros. Presence of a meaningful story (to the times) is a must though, I am hard pressed to think of any RPG without a meaningful story outside of early games in the genre.
2) Non-Questing Items – This implies items whose sole purpose is made for a quest or solving a puzzle, such as a key. In addition to just having items, there should be a choice in the usage of these items. For instance, there not only is a sword, but maybe different types of sword and it is player choice as to which sword to use (even if there is a clear “best” sword to use).
3) Stats – Whether directly viewable by the player or not, there should be stats for the character as well as items, and generally there is a way to manipulate these stats. (Equipping an item to raise your strength for instance.) In fact, i generally consider the manipulation of stats to be one of the ultimate objectives of an RPG besides the story. An easy example is that you can play Pokemon, but there is a second level to the game where you are trying to breed and train pokemon to have the best stats possible. This is the manipulation that RPG fans enjoy that a non-RPG with stats often lacks.
4) Indirect Combat – Combat in an RPG has with it the player directing combat rather than the player with direct control of a character within combat. What I mean by this is, with Combat in an RPG, you tell a character to fight a monster with a sword and that character fights said monster using the character’s stats and random chance to win or lose. In combat that has direct control, you as the player directly aim a weapon and click a button where every button click is a usage of the weapon or spell. It is for this reason primarily that games like Zelda, Borderlands, and Gauntlet are not RPGs, but are a different beast. There is a similarity to God-Games here… you are a God influencing your character very strongly, but you are not the character himself.
5) Distinct Protagonists – This is seems like kind of a no duh type of requirement, but there are games out there lacking a distinct protagonist. For instance, Black & White contains no protagonist at all. Protagonists can come in the form of a solo adventurer but in an RPG you rarely will have more than say 6. Usually it is 1 to 4 protagonists.
That is in essence an RPG as I see it. I will note, though I am sure there is room for breaking these rules, I cannot think of a game that breaks any of them outside of the caveat for story. Really, it comes down to feel. Most RPG fans can sit down and play a game and tell if it is an RPG. This is my best attempt at explaining why it is that I can sit down and play Dark Souls and recognize it to not be an RPG even though on the surface it can seem like it. Other games can have aspects of an RPG, and in fact I would say level and items in this day and age should be in pretty much every game. Heck, you can consider Super Mario Bros, to have a second level if you consider being big the second level.
I also feel the need to note that not classifying a game as an RPG is by no means a slam on the game. I talk about certain games not being RPGs with people and for some reason they get very angry about the idea that the game they enjoy is not an RPG. As if their game is somehow worse because of it. Neither of these is true. Borderlands, for instance, is not an RPG, I enjoy playing it from time to time. Zelda is not, and I love that game. Dark Souls is not, and is a great game. Games can be good without being an RPG. And RPGs can be bad games despite being an RPG. There are a lot of genres out there and all of them have really great games that are totally worth playing. The entire logic behind why we categorize into genres is because people have preferences in games. I for instance have a general dislike for sports games, FPS games, and RTS games. And so when someone classifies an FPS as an RPG, I may be more inclined to get into a game than if it were just a great FPS game. I might try to put up with some of the negatives about the genre just to get the experience. Hell I always have thought there is no way you could have a game that is an FPS and an RPG so the idea kind of intrigues me. When a game fails to live up to the RPG side of things I am let down. I would rather a game be a great FPS than a crappy RPG and I’m not sure why others would rather it be a crappy RPG just because it is a great FPS.