The Future of “Role-Playing Games”: Action vs. Story

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.


9 thoughts on “The Future of “Role-Playing Games”: Action vs. Story

    1. I have to confess, my addictive personality has kept me from playing WoW. I’m planning on trying it out with the release of Cataclysm. With that being said, I talk about it with my co-workers a lot, and I’ve read a lot about it. In the early days, I don’t think I would have called it an SBG, but now, from what I hear, they’ve done a lot to foster the story and quests in the game. I think I’d put it alongside the other SBGs, with the only difference being that it is also an MMO. I’ll know better once I’ve had a chance to play through it.

      Also, I suppose WoW kind of has two forms. Raiding to me seems much less story-based. It’s much more akin to a FPS at that late stage in the game, since you’ve already played through the story and checked out all the zones. At that point, you’re playing a different game from a lot of the people at the lower levels.

      1. I stopped playing WoW about a year and a half ago, but the last time I played seriously, we were advancing as a group through some fairly neat story elements as part of what’s called `raid progression’. `Progression raiding’ basically just means that you’re doing new stuff rather than just redoing old stuff. This is the `good stuff’, but the structure of WoW usually puts it atop a pyramid of old stuff that must be redone each time, so it’s easy to get the sense that everything is just always repeated.

        I do wonder how much the horse leads the cart, though — is the story doled out in large infrequent dollops because it gets people back into `SBG mode’, or do people prefer the feeling of mastery and completion alternating with exploration and learning?

      2. If you do take a stab at playing WoW, I recommend trying one of the RP servers like Wyrmrest Accord or Kirin Tor. One of the things that makes RP servers so much fun is that the community of players insert their own story elements into the game world without any need for Blizzard’s intervention. The Players hang out in taverns and role-play in character, and guilds hold parties, tournaments, and contests for their fellow gamers. It is definitely brings another dimension to the play-experience over just questing and progressive raiding.

  1. I wrote about this at The Escapist back in 2006, and while my opinion has changed a bit since then, my sense that RPG is becoming a divided term hasn’t. RPG elements mean something different in video games than the name “roleplaying game” might suggest. As you say, levels, class choices, character progression, these are the trappings of the CRPG, whether there’s a story there or not. For me, games like THIEF and SPLINTER CELL have a lot in common with tabletop RPGs insofar as they put you into a headspace, a play style, based on the character class the game casts you in. It’s easy to imagine a fighter in those games, too, but you’re cast as a rogue and so you think about the environment and engage the mechanics like a stealthier character.

    At the same time, you’re engaging with a story, to whatever degree. I’d say that THIEF and SPLINTER CELL, as character- and story-driven games, would have to fall into any SBG category, which sort of indicates that it’s a fuzzy category when it comes to telling us what kind of actual gameplay to expect. The difference between, say, THIEF and FINAL FANTASY (whichever) is considerable, so filing them both as SBGs doesn’t exactly help us identify the game as something we might enjoy. (I adore THIEF but I don’t much connect with the current FF games.)

    That is, I think “story-based game” or “story-driven game” is a useful descriptor but is not a genre. The games I like happen to be story-based, but many story-based games aren’t my cup of tea because they’re also too twitchy or too granular in their RPG elements or what have you. Filing them in the “story-based” section at the e-store wouldn’t help me find what I was looking for unless SBG also encompasses lots of other genres that are, themselves, too big to be subgenres.

    I think it does. It’s a valuable tag, a categorization, but it’s not a genre as we use the term in video gaming. Not yet. Not until story-based controls are part of play. Genre, in video games, is traditionally either a mirror of film genres or a description of how we interact with the game mechanically. While I’m eager as hell for proper SBGs—in which we give actor-like direction to characters participating in a scene—the story isn’t part of the control scheme yet.

    For now, I think it’s just a useful way of communicating whether or not a game might appeal. That’s certainly worth the terminology.

  2. I think the core concept is that a game has to have *depth*. This doesn’t always come from story telling, but that is the most prevalent.
    I enjoy Final Fantasy Tactics immensely despite a pretty weak plot. Because the actual gameplay is very mentally engaging. When you remove the difficulty/strategic elements from a game, they become much more like first person shooters. Say, Call of Duty. Which is another depth option other than story. Multiplayer. If a game offers a fun experience combined with smooth and plentiful human interaction, minimal story depth is needed because the constant human interaction will help keep the player interested. How interesting would CoD be without the multiplayer? FPS games have had a very high storytelling requirement for success (see Dead Space, Half-Life, and similar).

    Between all the other genres of games, storytelling becomes immensely important. They don’t offer the human interaction or deep brain engagement. So they need to offer intrinsic entertainment, and a reason to keep coming back.
    No matter how much monster variety exists in a RPG, when you have to fight 400+ battles to finish the game, it *will* get repetitive. And running between towns isn’t exactly a thriller either. Even on incredibly detailed games like Fallout 3, if the NPCs didn’t have character depth and tons of world info to uncover, the game would have failed hard

  3. Whether Warcraft or D&D, I think any multiplayer game can become just combat driven instead of story driven if that is what the players/PCs want… and the opposite is true, you can make D&D, Warcraft, or even a tabletop wargame like Warhammer, story driven if that is what your group wants. It may be hard to do this on some platforms because you almost have to have an “out of game chat” with people to decide to make it story driven and for people to stay in character. Single player games (or questing solo in MMORPG) certainly can have more story but it is much more up to the designer/creator than the person playing… course, then there was the great post/rant on about Fable 3 and all the problems that can arise when story driven crashes head first into design issues… but then again, that is probably why a lot of us like our tabletop RPGs; because we have control over where it goes. – Josh

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