To RPG, Or Not to RPG?

November 22nd, 2005 at 10:42 pm by The Missing Link

Aside from the neverending shipping debates and the timeline debates, the biggest debate—what some would actually call… controversy… le gasp!—in the Zelda community is the whole concept of genre. It seems to be mankind’s incessant desire to classify things. From the whole taxonomy of life divided into kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species (or as I like to remember, Kings Play Cards On Fat Green Stools) all the way to the strict divisions of books in bookstores, people like to classify things into categories. Perhaps this is because we like to figure out what items are similar to another item, making comparative shopping all the more easier. (It certainly does guarantee that you won’t get a romance movie for Christmas when you asked for The Lord of the Rings on DVD.)

The video game world is not an exception. We’ve got a strict separation of games into various genres, and those division lines define what a game is. I mean, we all know that all of the Mario Kart games are racing games, all of the older Kirby titles are platformers, Final Fantasy games are RPGs, and Halo is an FPS. Thus, if you’re looking for a game where you get to shoot people, all you need to do is look at all the games in the FPS genre and figure out which one strikes your fancy.

But there are games that defy that mold, games which begin to eat away at the system. Take Metroid Prime. Before Prime, Metroid games have been action games, and that was that, but Metroid Prime was unlike those. It’s very easy to tell that it’s an FPS; however at the same time, it displays the characteristics of an adventure game where you go to point A to get this item, then go to point B to get this. It’s not like traditional FPSes where you complete the missions from one area then go to a completely new map. So how do you classify Metroid Prime? FPS? Adventure? Well? The answer many people came up with was to call it a “First-Person Adventure” game, but there’s no other game in the world that’s called an FPA. “You can’t come up with this new genre thing!” the people cried. “It’s illegal! It’s criminal! Make it one or the other!” Yet despite people’s attempts to change the system, and even though Nintendo officially calls the game a “First Person” game, it is still an adventure game in its own right.

This brings us to the main event of the evening: The Great Zelda Debate (Controversy). In this corner, weighing in at a scream factor of 65 decibels, The Adventure Kid! And in this corner, weighing in at 64 decibels, RPG-Man! Now, you know the rules, keep it a clean fight, no flaming one another, no insulting anyone else’s mother. And… go!

Needless to say, the bloodbath would be incredible. The rules would quickly be thrown out, Nazis would be mentioned at some point, and all of this would somehow be blamed on George W. Bush. Dear goddesses, what have we just done? Have mercy on us, Din, Nayru, and Farore.

But let’s get serious here for a brief moment. (You know some humorous quip will leak out of me sooner or later!) What genre is Zelda? Adventure? RPG? Sadly, the answer to this one isn’t as obvious as you think.

Everyone knows about adventure games. Adventure games primarily focus on exploration of a world as well as solving puzzles. There’s also a big emphasis on story and the unraveling of that plot. It’s no doubt that the Zelda games (and Metroid Prime!) fall into this category.

Much of the problem in this issue, however, is that the precise definition of an RPG is… well… ambiguous at best. The origins of the term stem from the traditional, non-video game forms of the RPG, which may seem to help, but even that doesn’t provide a clear direction. Most people, when they think of traditional RPGs, immediately latch onto Dungeons & Dragons, and thus, all RPGs must pull elements from there, but as 8-bit Theatre has talked about, there are many, many other forms such as live-action role-playing (LARP), multi-user dungeons (MUDs), as well as about a thousand other varieties of the genre. So much for definitions. (Definitions are dumb, anyways. Or something.)

Because of this lack of a good definition, people made up their own, and those that have “defined” what RPG means categorise into one of two schools of thought:

  1. The Strict RPG School (Yes, I’m making these names up.) believes in a vary narrow definition of RPG; in other words, for a game to be an RPG, it must adhere to a very strict set of properties. The specific requirements vary, but almost always there is talk about some levelling system—where characters start at “level 1″ and progress to some “max level”, as well as some numeric quantifier of how “good” your character(s) are in different areas. (Oh look at me! I have 65 Strength! I have no idea what that means, but it’s better than your 64 Strength, so RAR! I am awesome and stuff!)
  2. The Liberal RPG School believes in a very loose adaptation of what an RPG is. Usually they go in and look at what RPG literally stands for. Thus, say them, any game where the player plays the role of any other character is, by definition, an RPG. Simple. Hasta lasagna, don’t get any on ya.

There’s virtually no middle ground on this one. You’re either one or the other. The problem is that both schools of thought have good arguments for their side… and they also both have good arguments against the other.

The argument against a strict view is based upon the meaning of the levelling system. The liberals believe that the concept of a “levelling system” is inherently abstract. In Zelda, you “level” from having only 3 hearts (a measure of health, mind) to having some maximum level of hearts when you’ve found all the pieces of heart and heart containers. What’s more is that items are inherently more powerful than one another, and while there are no visible numbers to define this, people generally figured out that the Fighter’s Sword of Link to the Past is precisely half as powerful as the Master Sword, a third as powerful as the Tempered Sword, and a quarter as powerful as the Golden Sword. Thus, every such game has a “levelling system”, even if there’s no “level 1″ ever found in the game text. Thus, there really is no strict viewpoint at all.

The argument about the liberal POV is that their version of what an RPG is is way too inclusive. By their argument, FPS games are RPGs because you actually take on the role of some character in the game. Imagine… Halo… an RPG! Surely those guys must be sipping a bit too much of the Chateau Romani!

So which side is “right”? Well, there is no answer to that. (Stop booing, guys. I’m not done yet!) Personally, I veer to a more liberal perspective on what an RPG is, but I can easily see the argument for a strict definition. They are both good definitions and reasonable points of view. So, let me pose a few probing questions:

  1. If Metroid Prime can be both an FPS and an adventure game, what prevents Zelda from being both an RPG and an adventure game?
  2. Does Zelda have to be one or the other? If Metroid Prime can be an “FPA” game, can’t Zelda be a unique category all to itself?
  3. If a tree falls on a mime in the forest, and nobody is around, does anyone care whether the mime believed Zelda was an RPG or not?

The answer to the debate inevitably lies within those three questions, and I personally think the last question is, quite honestly, the most telling of all three.

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23 Messages from the Gossip Stones about “To RPG, Or Not to RPG?”


    • 1. Kai says:

    Wow, TML, you sure spend alot of time thinking about this, but nonetheless it’s a good article, I’m impressed. Very good viewpoint on this big RPG debate, I think this will clear it up for alot of people as well. It was very fun and interesting to read :)

    Yes, very good.Although I did some thinking of my own and you said that you play as the roll of Samus/Halo dude, so that makes possibly all the games rpg, which branch off to subgenres, and so on so forth.Meaning that an adventure game and a fps game are rpg, and its possible for them to mix (MP, and MP2E) ok my brains hurting now, good night folks.

    Hm, this is something that I have actively debated in the past, and have always been on the side that the Zelda series, save TAoL, is in no way an RPG. The problem with this controversy is that RPGs and adventure games share too many common elements, such as puzzle solving, exploring, and a large story.

    To answer the level-up argument, adventure games often have an upgrade system similar to an RPG’s level-up system, but still distinctly different. The difference is that a level-up system is usually large-scale and often involves numerics of some sort, whereas an upgrade system is usually on a smaller-scale, rarely involving visible numbers. RPGs use level-up systems (as Final Fantasy TAoL does), whereas adventure games use upgrade systems (as the other Zeldas do).

    Very interesting article, addressing an issue that has been the subject of countless forum debates.

    Personally, I believe that the Zelda series has earned the right to be classified as a category of its own. The name Zelda is held in high respect throughout the gaming world. The series has a name for introducing new concepts into gaming in general, and setting benchmarks. Personally, I believe that Zelda fits into the Action/Adventure category more than the RPG category, but there are other elements there too.

    Come to think of it, I have read reviews of other games (such as one of the Star Fox titles) that have been described as “Zelda-esque”, so it seems like you could already say that Zelda-as-its-own-category already exists.

    Maybe Zelda is just its own genre. :>

    For me, Zelda has never been an RPG. I can’t really explain it, but an RPG for me (I’ll be surprised if anyone agrees with my definition) is when you, the player, really get to decide the path of your character and how they do things. Will your hero be kind and merciful, or arrogant and evil? Bioware & Origin really give you a lot of choice in their RPGs about how your character is, from their look, to their behaviour to how they do things.

    Zelda, by design, cannot really offer this. Link is Link, he’s a good guy. And he’s a mute, so you can never define his personality through dialogue choices (only through imagination, which I don’t have much of). He fights evil, maybe does a little fishing ;) and that’s that.

    Of course, there’s also the levelling issue. I don’t really care about statistics and such, but I do enjoy levelling up in some cases because it gives you, as a player, the decision about how strong you will or will not make your hero. AoL had this, and also the spell system - which again gave you the choice on which spells you wanted to level up an when.

    In Zelda, yes you have the choice not to collect hearts and such, but you have to collect all the items, and get some of the upgrades if you wish to complete the game.

    However, is Zelda purely an adventure game? I’m not sure - it certainly contains the elements, but it’s different to games like Banjo-Kazooie, though I’m not sure how. It just is. I think Zelda is the near ideal marriage between the two genres, adventure being the dominant partner - I’d love to play an Origin or Bioware RPG with the Zelda engine(and Zelda characters!), but Zelda has not yet developed the depth in the RPG side of things to make it quite perfect. Either way, it fits into neither genre completely.

    As David points out though, what does it really matter? It doesn’t, not to the converts, but what about the people who are yet to play Zelda? Some RPG nuts might avoid it because of the adventure label, Action aficionados might because of the RPG label. True, it’s their loss, but it’s a shame people might be missing out simply because they’ve been misled by the labels. ;)

    *Whistles* Man that was long but personally I think Zelda is a ARPG (Adventure Role Playing Game) besides who cares about the label/s all I know is that I enjoy playing Zelda games that I NEED to play Zelda games and every time a new game is announced I still feel that childish sense of excitement and you know what I dont care because I LOVE that feeling, lol.

    That was deep, but Zelda for me has always been an Action/Adventure/RPG (based on your “levelling” ideas, by the way :) Very good article!

    The difference between Prime being first-person adventure and Zelda being RPG adventure is that first-person isn’t really a genre. The genre is more just shooter, and it’s just that shooters are rarely third-person (but see PN03), and first-person games are rarely anything other than shooters since text-based games went out of fashion.

    One argument for the numbers thing is that PnP RPGs are all about numbers, so computer RPGs are all about numbers - not just data, numbers. But personally, I just use RPG, action RPG or action/adventure depending how much control you have in battle - can you move yourself? Can you control the sword swing beyond a basic attack? Is (some level of) defense automatic or do you have to do it yourself?

    Genericist said:

    One argument for the numbers thing is that PnP RPGs are all about numbers, so computer RPGs are all about numbers - not just data, numbers.

    See the argument about the definition of a traditional RPG. The only original RPGs weren’t just number-based systems like Dungeons & Dragons. There are many traditional forms of the RPG, and not all of them are number-based.

    thebawp does have a good point, and I was just thinking, IF you do play as Zel in TP, does that mean you can chose between the two, or something else?Kingdom Hearts is kinda like an rpg, since you decide somethings which affect your game play later in the game, while Zelda, you can chose 100% or not.

    Good article. I got dragged in to this debate when I said that my friend and I were RPG girls. (I’m a huge Zelda fan, and she’s obsessed with Pokemon) She objected that Zelda was strictly adventure. I kept telling her that Zelda has some RPG elements to its games, but she kept insisting that it was strictly adventure. I think my friend and I are in different perspectives of RPG. I’m more liberal, and she’s strict.

    Awesome article, TML! :D

    When I was younger, the difference between an RPG and adventure game was the battle system. I used to classify “RPGs” as “games with battle menus,” such as Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, Super Mario RPG, etc. Another facet inherent to such RPGs were numerical level-up systems. “Adventure” games were classified as titles that possessed lengthy stories and expansive worlds but let characters run around and “hack and slash” instead of select attacks via some abstract menu (examples including Zelda, Secret of Mana, Illusion of Gaia, etc.). Rather than level up with numbers, one’s strength would improve with items (like the Metroid games).

    The Metroid games were not classified as adventure games in my mind, though. I always thought of them as “platformers,” (along with the Castlevania games–especially Symphony of the Night) while anything that scrolled (the original Mario games, etc.) were simply “side-scrollers.” (I guess the main distinction between the two is the vertical movement: if you are stuck along a horizontal map, I would call it a side-scroller, while games like Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure and Earthworm Jim would be considered “platformers.” Granted, items play a larger role in the Metroid games which make them more of a “platform-adventure” mix.) Metroid Prime created an interesting mix of FPS and adventure elements, but I still classify it as a first-person shooter.

    I doubt that my classification system is accurate, but I think how one categorizes a game is based on their perception of parts of the game and impressions associated with particular labels. Some people hone in on the leveling system, some look at the gameplay, while others look at how the game appears (top-down, third-person, first-person, from the side, etc.).

    Okay, this whole genre discussion is making my brain hurt. I give up now. Games are games and games are good. XD

    Jeez you guys think about this stuff too much.

    Well, I don’t think it is an RPG really. I think people say it is sometimes just to compete with Final Fantasy and other RPG’s more.

    I do like this idea of an RPA (Role Playing Adventure) or whatever. I think thats what I’ll start calling Zelda and Metroid now :) .

    ShawnaDuck said:

    I think how one categorizes a game is based on their perception of parts of the game and impressions associated with particular labels. Some people hone in on the leveling system, some look at the gameplay, while others look at how the game appears (top-down, third-person, first-person, from the side, etc.).

    I agree completely. Because I’ve never been a big player of traditional ‘console’ RPG’s, battle menus are not something I associate with my idea of an RPG. However, if I see a game with battle menus in it, I usually assume it’s gonna be an RPG. If that makes any sense. :D

    However, I much prefer the Zelda combat system, or even the system used in ToS. Much more fun in my opinion, and much more immersive (Chrono Trigger’s & Golden Sun’s turn based system are exceptions to that rule though). ^^

    I think that an RPG is a game were youre character changes throughout the game , whether emotionnally or stat wise.Since link never talks,it wouldnt be an RPG,except maybe in our own minds if we imagine he changes throughout the game.

    [TML: Robert-UK, please stay on topic.]

    It’s not an RPG. It’s a poor pretender. The closest it got was AoL with the leveling elements aspect. It’s an adventure game, pure and simple.

    Who here can define “Adventure Game”?

    I can but I dont want to

    queenhank said:

    Who here can define “Adventure Game”?

    By my definition, a straight-up adventure game has a large overworld to explore, a semi-linear main quest, open-ended side quests, puzzles to solve, and a combat system that is not independent from the game’s exploration system (ie you don’t go into a seperate mode to fight). I could go into more detail, describing particular elements that adventure games may or may not have, such as an upgrade system, too.

    RPG’s were not real time, games like Fire Emblem. To downside to an Adventure game is if you turn away from the screen, you die a lot. Adventure games aren’t that linear, some are, but most arn’t. Classic example, Pieces of Heart. Honestly, in an RPG, do you ever see pieces of heart or other little sidequests? Not much, eh? I agree with Lady_Juliet, it’s an Adventure game, pure and simple.

    Ever heard of Strife? Both traditional Shooter, and RPG. Let’s not forget the Ultima: Underworld games, as well as Hexen. Genre is just an abstract obsession of man. The worst is the notion that, for instance, every game Squaresoft & Enix make are RPG’s… Yet Square unquestionably developed Rad Racer for the NES, improving the racing genre - pushing oldschoolers like Pole Position (no, not the GTA strip bar) into the past. If you want to wax technical, the concept of an RPG carries more weight than the definitions of the words inherent in “Role Playing Game”. It’s not so obvious as some immediate answer.