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The Definition of an RPG
Written By: AJ Middleton

What is an RPG? The question plagues gamers of all shapes and sizes. "Role playing game" is never enough, and many have starting giving the name out only to games that have a battle system and HP. However, after extensive research (which means playing) of my favorite genre, I believe Iíve come to a final conclusion of what an RPG really is. Itís an extensive definition, but what can I say? The RPG is that involved of a genre. Take notes!

RPG (n)-
Role Playing Game; A game in which the player takes the role of a character in it by choosing their every action. More specifically, a game that MUST meet the following standards:

  • Dominating force is the story
  • The game is a playable story
  • Characters are vital to the story progression
  • A large world that appears to be fully accessible from the start, but is not
  • The world can only be navigated through correctly by events, including getting new items, meeting new characters, etc.
  • Has a linear/zigzag field topology

Along with the necessities, there are some standout features that USUALLY signify an RPG, which are:

  • A turn based battle system
  • A magic system used in battle
  • An HP and/or MP counter that controls the battle
  • Random battles

An in depth description of the main elements follow:

1. The Story

FPSs are all about the action. Puzzles rely on difficulty. Adventure games and RPGs, though RPGs more so, depend on a story. One goes into a Final Fantasy expecting a good storyline. Usually, if an RPG has a bad plot, the game is frowned upon and given a bad rating. An RPGs story starts the player out with little info. Throughout the game, more and more variables come into play, making the story develop and the plot become more involved. Plot twists are therefore expected. Also included in the story are the characters. RPG characters normally have some sort of background and history that make them seem realistic. Characters tend to be developed to some extent as the story progresses, making them either liked or hated by the player. An RPGs plot could easily be turned into a novel by just sticking to the gameís story.

EXAMPLE: Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Link starts his adventure by being called to save the Great Deku Tree. The simple beginning sprouts into Linkís quest go save all of the Spiritual Stones in order to prevent Ganondorf from getting them. THEN, the story progresses even further by Ganondorf breaking into the Sacred Realm, causing Link to wait seven years in order to defeat him. Now, Link must awaken the sages in order to defeat the King of Evil. The missing Zelda, the mysterious Shiek, the destroyed Hyrule, and other elements further complicate the plot.

NON-RPG EXAMPLE: Super Mario 64

The plot of the game is presented to you from the beginning- Mario must save Peach who has been kidnapped by Bowser. The plot does not gain more elements as the game progresses. Characters are not fully developed.

2. Game topology

A game topology is how a game is set up. There are two parts: the navigation and the presentation.

The Navigation is how a player gets through the game. The ways of navigating are:

  • Linear- there is only one right way to progress through.
  • Zigzag- similar to linear. There is only one right way overall, but there are slightly different ways to reach each major point in the game.
  • Open- the game has no end. There are no right or wrong ways to get through.

The Presentation is how the world is presented in order to navigate through. Presentations include:

  • Field- the world appears to be all yours to explore. More or less, it is presented in full from the beginning of the game.
  • Star- the game starts in a center area, which branches off to other areas, which do not have any connection with each other.
  • Tube- Only one area can be accessed at a time, which leads to the next, which leads to the next, and so on. No backtracking!
  • Path- a cross between a star and tube. One level must be beaten in order to get to the next, but you CAN go back. With all levels open, the world map serves as the center.
  • Free- the player can do whatever whenever

An RPG has a linear or zigzag field topology. There is only one main way to go, but you have to navigate yourself through what seems like a huge area. Events are your only guidance.


  • Zigzag field- Final Fantasy VII
  • Open free- The Sims
  • Linear tube- Sonic the Hedgehog
  • Zigzag star- Donkey Kong 64
  • Zigzag path- Super Mario World
  • Linear path- Donkey Kong Country

3. Events

Working closely with the story and the topology of an RPG are the vital events. How do you make a game run like a story? How do you carve a linear path out of a huge field? The answers are events. In an RPG, certain things must be done in order to get through the game. For example, in Chrono Trigger, Marleís pendant must be powered by the Mammon Machine in order to open the sealed door, which continues the game. You cannot progress without doing this. In general, the world cannot be fully accessed without setting off certain event chains, and failure to follow them will result in getting stuck. In a world that seems like itís all yours to explore, the events make the invisible barriers.

EXAMPLE: Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow

You cannot enter Viridian Gym until you gather all of the other badges.

NON-RPG EXAMPLE: Donkey Kong Country

Being a linear path game, events are not needed to progress.

Additional notes:

I. Is _____ an RPG?

- Metroid

Metroid has zigzag field topology, and events could be considered getting new weapons and items. However, it lacks the strong plot development and any character development. Even Metroid Prime is not up to par with true RPGs such as Golden Sun. Itís very close, but no.

- Sonic Adventure 2: Battle

It has the characters, and it has the story, but doesnít have the topology and playable events. SA2Bís story mode is a linear tube. The player does not bring upon the events, but the game gives them to you in nice little story sequences. Close again, but no cigar.

- Zelda series

Hereís one of the questions that people kill over. YES, Zelda IS an RPG, and in the truest sense. It clearly has a zigzag field topology. You are guided through the world by event chains, and you will get stuck if you steer away. The story progresses from the start and new characters are met along the way. And how do you know the story is a dominating force? Plot elements can be debated like crazy; something that rarely happens with normal adventure games. Also, again, the plot of a Zelda game (especially the newer installments) could be made into a book or movie without adding too many things.

II. Miscellaneous controversy surrounding the definition:

A turn-based battle system IS NOT required for a game to be an RPG. It just so happens that Squaresoft, the leader of the genre, tends to use the battle system, so that is what mainstream gamers associate RPGs with. Dispel the idea today. A turned based battle system means an RPG, but and RPG does not mean a turn based battle system.

An RPG is an adventure. Therefore, the whole concept of "Adventure/RPG" is redundant. Majoraís Mask is no less of an RPG than Chrono Cross, and Chrono Cross is no less of an adventure. However, donít get confused. All Adventure games ARE NOT RPGs. The pure Adventure genre contains those games that would have been called platformers back in the days of 2D. To summarize, the RPG is an enhanced subset of the Adventure.

"Role Playing Game" is indeed an awful simple definition, but the origin of the RPG dates back to before videogames. The first RPGs were pen and pencil games, such as Dungeons and Dragons. You actually were a character in this game. Even the first computer RPGs were text only and played in similar ways. When the genre hit the consoles, it still was a little easy to distinguish an RPG from a platformer. Think about it- you couldnít make too many choices as Mario. You went to the next level and that was that. As Link, however, you could control EVERYWHERE that he went, even if it was the wrong place. It was truly taking the role of the character. As games became more detailed and platformers evolved into adventures as well, the RPG definition had to become a little more specific. And itís that specificity that keeps the genre unique today.

Posted: 4-5-03
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