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Opinion: How Mass Effect challenged my definition of 'RPG'

BioWare's three-part Mass Effect space epic seems to transcend most genres, but is it an RPG? And if so, just how do we define what an RPG is?

Rowan Kaiser, Blogger

March 1, 2012

11 Min Read

For Mass Effect 3, BioWare has built a game allowing for multiple different play-style choices: action, story, and RPG. An official statement explained the reasoning: "Whether it be someone who finds the combat difficult but wants to experience the amazing story, someone who wants to focus on the action and combat game play, or fans who want the rich, story-driven RPG Mass Effect experience they've come to love - Mass Effect 3 will support all of these options." While the positive phrasing is certainly effective at making this sound like an exciting new development, it reveals major tensions in how the game is perceived. Discussions with fans of Mass Effect and Bioware games almost inevitably turn into discussions of its genre, and Bioware's description of its three play modes implies that those debates are happening inside the company as well. This makes sense. No company is better-positioned to create these debates than one which has a reputation as the savior of the "Western" RPG. More importantly, no game inspires such discussions better than Mass Effect, which has genre tension built into the game at every level. But why are these discussions so important? The first thing I noticed when I started playing Mass Effect was its aesthetic. It's not the graphics, though, at least not in the traditional sense. It's the lens. It's all grainy and spotty. A quick trip to the options menu reveals something interesting: it's intentional. There is a checkbox called “Film Grain,” and it begins the game turned on. One of the last things I noticed when played the Mass Effect games was that it broke my definition of “role-playing game.” This is a definition that has worked for me for well over a decade. I can, using it, effectively separate controversial games from one another. Mass Effect was the first challenge my RPG definition (see below) has had to face. The biggest thing most people seem to have noticed when playing Mass Effect 1 or 2 is the moral decision-making process. This mechanic, so common to role-playing games since Fallout and early BioWare and Obsidian games, was suddenly injected into a much different style of game, a cover-based science fiction shooter. It helps that Mass Effect is arguably the best example of the form: the Renegade/Paragon division flows naturally from the game's setting, and the writers and voice actors are both in fine form throughout both games. Although different at the surface level, all three of these aspects of Mass Effect point toward that same genre tension BioWare's new options indicate. So just what kind of game is Mass Effect? I do not mean this in a philosophical, artsy-fartsy sense. I mean it in a straightforward, and traditional one: what genre is this game? And if you were really looking forward to the artsy-fartsy stuff, also this question: what does Mass Effect say about genre, and what does genre say about the game industry? The big question surrounding Mass Effect in genre terms is whether it is a role-playing game or not. Unlike most games, especially every other major BioWare release, the answer isn't obvious - it depends on how you look at genre. That's a big concept, but it can be examined in a few different ways. I tend to think there are three main ways that people try to define the role-playing genre, which parallel the three questions described at the start of this piece: "Do you play a role in the game?" "Does the game work like other role-playing games?" And, the most complicated one, revealed by the oddity of the film grain, is, "Where does this game fit in the history of role-playing games?" Deciding whether a role-playing game involves "playing a role" suggests that there is an inherent quality that RPGs share. It is also judgmental – a game that doesn't live up to the required qualities doesn't qualify for the genre. This idea that a role-playing game demands the player play a role, a puzzle game demands the player solve puzzles, etc., seems overly limited to me. After all, you solve puzzles in adventure games, you go on adventures in virtually every game with a story, and so on. But there is a better form of this kind of argument, which is that role-playing games specifically have a straightforward core concept: they encourage players to project themselves into the game more than others. From this perspective, the Mass Effect games aren't merely RPGs, they are perhaps the best example of RPGs in the world. At most every point in the game, Commander Shepard's actions and reactions can be influenced by the player, and those affect the game world. Shepard's actions affect things in the game, and beyond into the sequels. Her responses to dialogue, cleverly described indirectly by the game, help Shepard feel like an extension of the player's will. If you want to step into the role of the hero of a science fiction epic, there's no better game series than Mass Effect. This point of view is somewhat aspirational. It suggests that the goal of games within a genre is to achieve the very best of that genres. And while that is in some ways beneficial, especially with an eye towards making games in the future, also means that the term loses some descriptive power. If the goal of an RPG is to embody a character, what about games like Wizardry, where you create entire parties of personality-less characters? Or, what is the difference between a Betrayal at Krondor, where characters are given to you as existing entities, Final Fantasy, where character personality is given, but stats can be changed, and Fallout, where both personality and stats are malleable? What is the most important aspect of character development, and how is character development best achieved? On the side of the fence, what happens when any game can be an RPG? Halo is properly understood as a first-person shooter, but if you really identify with the Master Chief, is it an RPG? Civilization is the king of strategy games, but if you talk about your game with a French accent and a Joan of Arc leaderhead, aren't you role-playing? This confusion often leads people to question the use of genre. It's a crutch, they say, and to some extent they're right. But it's a necessary crutch. We need some mechanism for saying, of all the games in the world, these games fit in a style together. The genre titles we use tend to work. I think we can all understand that there are similarities between games labeled “role-playing game” just as we can “first-person shooter”. But can those similarities be nailed down and clearly identified? In the case of RPGs, I believe – or believed, before Mass Effect – that they could be. I developed this definition using a fairly simple process. First, I divided games into three groups: games that are commonly understood to be RPGs, games that are commonly understood to not be RPGs, and games that are debatable. Then I compared the games from each group for commonalities and differences. This, then, would create a working definition of the mechanics of a role-playing game. This is what I came up with:

A role-playing game involves a character or small group of characters presented with obstacles. Overcoming those obstacles improves the character(s) ability to overcome future obstacles, and published random numbers are used to determine success or failure of various actions.

The first line is necessary to separate strategy RPGs like Disgaea or Jagged Alliance from strategy/wargames with unit improvement like Panzer General or Shogun 2:Total War. The second part about improving characters by overcoming obstacles is the character progression that is the most obvious aspect of RPGs. Finally, the inclusion of published random numbers is necessary to separate action/RPGs like Secret of Mana, which show the random damage numbers, from games like The Legend of Zelda, where hits in combat yield constant damage amounts. This definition is, well, mechanical, which makes sense because it's based on mechanics. (It's not the only mechanical definition - some people prefer concepts of abstraction and skill.) It doesn't include typical discussions of “playing a role” or narrative or anything of the sort - because those things are inconsistent. Most RPGs take place in fantasy settings, but not Knights of the Old Republic. RPGs are famous for being story-based, but there are also dozens of hack'n'slash RPGs, like Rogue. But what this definition does do is sort through every game that should be considered an RPG and make that status clear. It also works for understanding some controversial games. Deus Ex? Character progression makes random targeting more efficient – it's an RPG. The Sims? While it may be initially surprising to learn that the supposed lifestyle simulation fits the definition, when you consider that The Sims consists of rolling a party of characters and sending them on quests to improve their lives, it makes sense. The Mass Effect games? Well...no. It doesn't publish its random numbers, so Mass Effect isn't an RPG by this mechanical definition. And that's where things get complicated. Mass Effect is a role-playing game by first definition - you clearly play a role. It is not, by the second definition - random numbers aren't published. I consider the second, mechanistic definition far more useful, but I don't like that it doesn't work for the Mass Effect games, because socially and historically, I feel like it should be a role-playing game. Its design studio, BioWare, is famous for being an RPG house. Its morality and conversation system are the type that only really occur in RPGs. Its epic story, party member recruitment and interaction, and semi-linear narrative are all hallmarks of this genre more than any other. So, why not call it an RPG? Shouldn't the definition be stretched, if it doesn't fit a game with the historical context of role-playing-ness? This argument leads me back to the film grain. If I examine role-playing games from a historical perspective, then I have to ask, why do role-playing games exist? My simple answer is that they were invented to play books, specifically Lord of the Rings. They created an interactive form of fantasy storytelling. As science fiction and especially fantasy literature became more popular through the '80s and '90s, so did role-playing games, both analog and digital, feeding off of one another. As video game technology advanced, especially in the transitional years of the 1990s, more and more time was spent on storytelling instead of mechanical dungeon crawlers. A game like Betrayal At Krondor (1993) was built to fit in within Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar series, and was, in many ways, the best possible combination of video gaming and fantasy literature. Planescape: Torment (1999) might be the pinnacle of the video game as interactive novel, with its reams of text, choice, character development, and narrative complexity. Torment was also one of the last games to fit that mold. Through the 1990s, more and more games started to utilize the conventions of film. This charge was led, ironically, by a series of role-playing games: Final Fantasy. Nothing demonstrates this better than the opening credit sequence of 1994's Final Fantasy VI, as the ominous music plays and evil appears to march on the innocent. And while BioWare is a western RPG developer, much of their success, from Knights of the Old Republic on, has come from successfully combining the the tropes of both Western and Japanese-style role-playing games, including the use of visual, film-like storytelling instead of novelistic storytelling. The Mass Effect games are the culmination of this trend. Their voice acting sounds like a movie, the camera angles look like a movie, the storyline is divided into movie scenes, and thanks to the film effect, it even has the visual feel of a movie. And this, I think, is what makes many RPG fans react so emotionally to its occasional placement in the role-playing genre. Mass Effect's surprising popularity seems to say that RPGs aren't novels, they're movies now. If that's something a player is fine with, they'll probably like Mass Effect just fine. But if not – then it's not just a game to be liked or disliked, but it's a symbol of everything that's wrong with video games today – bigger, flashier, and dumber. Thus BioWare's revelation that they're working on multiple different modes of gameplay for Mass Effect 3 makes perfect sense. They're trying to appeal to as many sides of the genre discussion as they can. So the apparently straightforward examination of whether a game series like Mass Effect fits into a conventional genre category is therefore revealed to be question of the nature of gaming itself, past, present, and future, and it's one with big implications for BioWare.

About the Author(s)

Rowan Kaiser


Rowan Kaiser is a fashionably underemployed freelance writer living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer for The A.V Club (avclub.com) and has also been published in The Escapist. He blogs too little at renaissancegamer.com, and tweet too much @rowankaiser. He is also writing a book about the history of video games in the 1990s.

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