For a really long time the notion of video games labeled as RPGs (Role Playing Games) has irked me. A role playing game is a game wherein the player plays a role and this notion applies to every fucking game ever created. In Tetris I play the "block manipulator" or builder or whatever name you may care to give to the role of the player's avatar that's spinning and shoving blocks. In Crash Bandicoot I'm an anthropomorphised bandicoot with a penchant for spinning and creatively wacky death animations. In Call of Duty 4 I'm a soldier and a man, twice! My avatar as a player is someone else's idea of whatever it is that I'm doing in their idea of whatever it is that's being done. I'm playing a role, their role, a specific role that I have no say in how it develops, changes or responds to its environment. No meaningful role. I am a functional unit designed to fulfill a limited range of functions that unlock new cutscenes or high scores. The subcategory of games that are actually called role playing games are in fact TWGs (tactical war games).
TWGs (formerly known as RPGs) are games where the player has the ability to fiddle with the underlying mechanics of the game in some fashion. These games provide a series of functional tasks, typically physical in nature, that require certain mechanical qualities to overcome. The "role" is represented by a form of niche protection or exclusion of function. The thief's "role" is to pick locks and stab people in the back. The fighter smashes stuff and is smashed. The priest role heals people. The wizard role zaps stuff and crumples. These established "roles" are functional tasks lists that have nothing to do with playing a character and everything to do with fulfilling a function. Typically the problems that these roles are required to overcome are presented in a tactical combat focussed manner, reminiscent of the miniatures source from which these sorts of games were originally inspired. MMOs (massive multiplayer online [games]) are TWGs where individuals play each individual character in a given unit (such as infantry unit or cavalry unit). Like other TWGs there is no mechanical support for emotional connections, for the notions of evil or good, of noble or unjust, of happiness or sadness. Well beyond simplistic scripts that provide a set of emoticons. Does Poe's law apply here or is it only for fundamentalist religious rants?
TWGs have grown stale. Mechanically they fail to explore their own nature repeating over and over and over the same mechanics. Their stories are clichéd derivative drivel. Even the roles they have defined as templates have passed beyond familiarity and become predictable functional tools. Many people like the idea of RPGs, every single one of the people that have commented on this blog, for instance, and I believe they fall into three groups.
Tactical wargamers are those who like, you guessed it, the mechanical side of the game, the minutae, the collecting of loot, the sorting of loot, the division of labour and the optimisation of statistics to reap maximum benefits. The best description of this sort of game is the "turn based strategy game" such as the Disgaea franchise or the Civilisation style of strategy game, light on story, heavy with mechanics. Though most current "RPGs" fit this play style as well.
Narrative viewers aren't really interested in "playing" the wargame elements beyond meeting the requirements necessary to reach the next story function. These players are single handedly responsible for "the grind" as all they need is time to acquire the necessary power to progress through the next functional task. Inefficient builds are fine with "the grind", poor tactics are overcome with "the grind", anyone who is given enough time can make it through to the next narrative moment. Any RPG with an "epic story" fits this category, but many non RPG games also fall here, such as the Metal Gear Solid series.
Role-players want to play character roles not functional roles. They aren't as interested in the healer as they are in playing the priest who firmly believes that his or her deity is the one true deity and seeks to convert those of not of their faith. They don't want the fighter so much as the gladiator who seeks someone who can see his or her inner softness and look beyond the scars, fall in love, marry and raise children. The wizard isn't as interested in zapping things as gaining the admiration and respect of his or her academic peers. The thief may well steal because they cannot reconcile their fundamental inability to agree with the dictatorship that rules them and the general populace with an iron fist. I cannot name a single game that provides gameplay of this type.
It is my belief that the reason TWGs are stale is because developers aren't really considering their audience and catering for their tastes. Development costs could be reduced significantly if developers were to focus on targeting a specific demographic and developing with that type of player in mind. Too much time is spent on story when a few goofy jokes will do. Disgaea 3 is a TWG for the PS3 that doesn't bother with fancy graphics or deep, original storylines and for its target demographic it delivers. Farenheit / Indigo Prophecy and its offspring Heavy Rain represent the Narrative Viewing game, gameplay is much more a function of the story rather than of skill. There's a scene in Farenheit, for example, where the avatar is being interviewed about his possible role in a crime while being harrassed by invisible alien fleas, if the player chooses not to respond to the avatar's paranoid delusions then the interview goes smoothly, but if the player plays the mechanical aspects skillfully their erratic behaviour is considered suspicious and has consequences. Playing the game skillfully is detrimental to the avatar in this instance, discouraging skilled play and encouraging a more thoughtful exploration of the mechanics.
Games that allow the player to adopt an avatar that is a character role doesn't really exist. I believe that there is a market for this kind of game and would welcome and reward any developer that chose to undertake this challenge.
I'm a character role player, but I like the story and tactical aspects of RPGs. Many of my friends are easier to define into little boxes. What kind of RPG gamer are you? What kind of RPG game would you play? How would it be built, dialogue heavy tracts of narrative, minutae laden lists of inventory, skills sets and kewl powerz or maybe character traits like, honest, generous, miserly or headstrong?