Last week, Valve had a deal for Torchlight on its Steam platform, and I decided to give the game a try. At the low price of $5, I figured the game would at worst be good for a few hours of entertainment and at best provide a few weeks worth of fun. Of course, I underestimated my own tendencies toward video-game addiction. Anyone who knows me well can attest that there is no “in-between” when in comes to me and video games. Either, I (A) become a slavering mass of flesh with bug-like eyes heaped in front of the TV, or (B) bolt for the nearest Game Stop faster than you can say “ten-dollar trade-in.” (Actually, I prefer Amazon’s video game trade-in program, which I recently discovered).
Torchlight is an “action role-playing game,” according to Wikipedia, which includes such storied titles as Diablo and um…well, yeah. A Wikipedia entry describing action role-playing games has a section called “Diablo, the point-and-click genre.” The entry mentions a few “Diablo clones,” but most of the titles haven’t made a splash. So what is an action role-playing game? Well, it’s a game with “real-time strategy elements,” which I guess means if you don’t click on a bad-guy, you die.
But what does it really mean to be an action-roleplaying game, and is the distinction important from, say, turn-based role-playing games? Are there people out there who actually distinguish between these two types of games? Is there a person who, say, likes Diablo or Torchlight but does not, for example, like the classic Final Fantasy games. I’m sure there are, but is that person distinguishes between these two types of games based on the rate at which action occurs or based on the caliber of the story.
When it comes to “action,” a convergence is occurring among role-playing games. The traditional tactical and turn-based games are becoming faster paced, and the real-time games are adding elements that allow a player to temporarily pause the action. I submit Mass Effect and Dragon Age as examples. Of course, those are titles from the same company. Having watched my roommate play an ungodly amount of Borderlands, along with Splinter Cell and various other quasi-first person/third person shooter , I have to think that this trend extends well beyond traditional role-playing games.
What does it mean? There’s a common range of action and tactics that the average player likes. Although some people might prefer more action or more tactics, most of the audience is not going to be averse to a game if it has stronger elements of either side. I believe the more important distinction is in the amount of story in a game. Story, or lack thereof, is a much quicker method for turning a player on or off to a game. As I play through Torchlight, I’m struck by the lack of meaningful story. As much as I enjoy obliterating skeletons in Torchlight, it often leaves me feeling empty at the end. And it makes me wonder if the very concept of separating genres by “role-playing games” is becoming outdated. Torchlight is a roleplaying game in that it has class choices, leveling, attribute assignments, and so forth. Yet aside from being a member of the fantasy genre, I would not put it in the same category as Final Fantasy, Dragon Age, or even something like World of Warcraft.
I play Torchlight because even as a avid analog RPGer, sometimes you just want to blow up the bad guys. But that can’t sustain me for more than a few days. The games that really grip me for weeks or months on end—the ones that keep me thinking about them—they are a different genre. They’re not role-playing games in the same sense that Diablo or Torchlight are. I’d call them “SBGs,” or “story-based games.” As we move toward games in which the distinction between tactical, turn-based, or action games is less important, I have to believe that the more important distinction is ultimately whether, when you sit down to play a game, you expect to be emotionally engaged, or not.