One of the best ways to understand a category is to look at some of those things that are said to belong within it. So, following on from the brief beginners’ guide to video game genres, this series will look at five exemplars for each category. Today, here are five role-playing games, i.e. games that focus on building up a character or team of characters, i.e. by the levelling-up of their skills, often in a fantasy setting.
Wasteland – published by Electronic Arts for the Apple II and ported to the Commodore 64 and PC DOS – is an early example of the way role-playing video games were influenced by their pen and paper and board game predecessors. Like in many pen and paper games, the characters in the player’s party have a variety of statistics (e.g. intelligence and strength) that affect how they can approach the game. A character faced with a locked door can use lock-picking skill, or use their strength to break it open. Wasteland was one of the first games to feature a persistent world, i.e. one where changes like the deaths of key characters are stored. Its post-apocalyptic setting inspired the popular Fallout series, and after a successful Kickstarter bid a sequel – Wasteland 2 – is being produced, proving that there is still life in this nearly 25-year-old franchise.
The Pokémon series constitutes the best-selling RPG of all time, with more than 200 million copies sold as of last year. These games began with Pokémon Red and Green in Japan, reprogrammed as Pokémon Red and Blue for international release. Since then, the main series has seen five generations of games, each with a new range of Pokémon and a new world to explore. While the player’s character doesn’t level up, their Pokémon do, to an upper limit of 100. Each Pokémon has several statistics, from attack to speed to HP (hit/health points), which improve as it increases in level. Pokémon can also evolve into more advanced forms. The core premise of these games is to catch all the Pokémon and then – in the RPG tradition – to train them up for battle.
Final Fantasy VII (1997)
The Final Fantasy series started in 1987, but Final Fantasy VII represents a shift in the genre. It was the first in this hugely popular series to be released in Europe, so for a lot of people in the UK it would have been their first experience with this Japanese style of RPG. The protagonist of the game is Cloud Strife, but players are also able to control other characters; the various skills of these characters are improved with the use of magical orbs called ‘materia’. Despite being fifteen years old, Final Fantasy VII – praised for its complex story, its music, and its general playability – is the best-selling title in a series in which games are still being released today.
Mass Effect (2007)
Sometimes a genre can be hard to pin down, because of the wide variety of games that can be said to belong to it. Mass Effect, for instance, also includes an element of action quite unlike the turn-based combat in the previous examples. But, true to role-playing tradition, Mass Effect features a heroic protagonist and accompanying characters whose skill sets may be improved manually as they level up. Set in a future in which the human race has mastered interstellar travel, the Mass Effect games are particularly known for their epic and choice-determined plot.
Dragon’s Dogma (2012)
Nowadays, the role-playing genre is often said to be split roughly into Japanese and Western role-playing games. While Mass Effect is a modern instance of the latter, Dragon’s Dogma is a recent example of the former. Developed by Capcom – the company behind Street Fighter and Resident Evil – Dragon’s Dogma features a fairly traditional open world fantasy setting populated with dragons and other mythical beasts. Rather than a pre-determined protagonist – as in Final Fantasy and Pokémon – Dragon’s Dogma gives players a wide array of customisation options, from gender to size to race. As in all RPGs, there is a strong focus on building up this main character so that she is strong enough to face her foes. One of the game’s unique features is the inclusion of ‘pawns’, a sub-human race whose members can be enlisted for support throughout the game. Players can make their own pawns and even share them with friends online.
While Dragon’s Dogma was developed by a Japanese company, some of its features – like an open world, and customisable main character – are more traditionally Western. And while it’s useful to have the distinction when explaining a particular game to somebody who has never played it, games taking inspiration from outside of their own strict genre can only be a good thing. With the recent tendency to add action elements – like in Mass Effect and Dragon’s Dogma – it looks like the lines are set to become even more blurred.