Role-playing video game | history and classification

History and classification

The role-playing video game genre began in the mid-1970s on mainframe computers, inspired by pen-and-paper role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons.[20] Several other sources of inspiration for early role-playing video games also included tabletop wargames, sports simulation games, adventure games such as Colossal Cave Adventure, fantasy writings by authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien,[21] traditional strategy games such as chess,[22][23] and ancient epic literature dating back to Epic of Gilgamesh which followed the same basic structure of setting off in various quests in order to accomplish goals.[24]

After the success of role-playing video games such as Ultima and Wizardry, which in turn served as the blueprint for Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, the role-playing genre eventually diverged into two styles, Eastern role-playing games and Western role-playing games, due to cultural differences, though roughly mirroring the platform divide between consoles and computers, respectively.[25] Finally, while the first RPGs offered strictly a single player experience, the popularity of multiplayer modes rose sharply during the early to mid-1990s with action role-playing games such as Secret of Mana and Diablo. With the advent of the Internet, multiplayer games have grown to become massively multiplayer online role-playing games, including Lineage, Final Fantasy XI, and World of Warcraft.[26]

Mainframe computers

The role-playing video game genre began in the mid-1970s, as an offshoot of early university mainframe text-based RPGs on PDP-10 and Unix-based computers, such as Dungeon, pedit5 and dnd.[27] In 1980, a very popular dungeon crawler, Rogue, was released. Featuring ASCII graphics where the setting, monsters and items were represented by letters and a deep system of gameplay, it inspired a whole genre of similar clones on mainframe and home computers called "roguelikes".

Personal computers

One of the earliest role-playing video game on a microcomputer was Dungeon n Dragons, written by Peter Trefonas and published by CLOAD (1980). This early game, published for a TRS-80 Model 1, was just 16K long and included a limited word parser command line, character generation, a store to purchase equipment, combat, traps to solve, and a dungeon to explore.[28] Other contemporaneous CRPGs (Computer Role Playing Games) were Temple of Apshai, Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure and Akalabeth: World of Doom, the precursor to Ultima. Some early microcomputer RPGs (such as Telengard (1982) or Sword of Fargoal) were based on their mainframe counterparts, while others (such as Ultima or Wizardry, the most successful of the early CRPGs) were loose adaptations of D&D.[citation needed] They also included both first-person displays and overhead views, sometimes in the same game (Akalabeth, for example, used both perspectives). Most of the key features of RPGs were developed in this early period, prior to the release of Ultima III: Exodus, one of the prime influences on both computer and console RPG development. For example, Wizardry featured menu-driven combat, Tunnels of Doom featured tactical combat on a special "combat screen", and Dungeons of Daggorath featured real-time combat which took place on the main dungeon map.[29]

Starting in 1984 with Questron and 50 Mission Crush, SSI produced many series of CRPGs. Their 1985 game Phantasie is notable for introducing automapping and in-game scrolls providing hints and background information. They also released Pool of Radiance in 1988, the first of several "Gold Box" CRPGs based on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. These games featured a first-person display for movement, combined with an overhead tactical display for combat. One common feature of RPGs from this era, which Matt Barton calls the "Golden Age" of computer RPGs, is the use of numbered "paragraphs" printed in the manual or adjunct booklets, containing the game's lengthier texts; the player could be directed to read a certain paragraph, instead of being shown the text on screen. The ultimate exemplar of this approach was Sir-Tech's Star Saga trilogy (of which only two games were released); the first game contained 888 "textlets" (usually much longer than a single paragraph) spread across 13 booklets, while the second contained 50,000 paragraphs spread across 14 booklets. Most of the games from this era were turn-based, although Dungeon Master and its imitators had real-time combat. Other classic titles from this era include The Bard's Tale (1985), Wasteland (1988), the start of the Might and Magic (1986-2014) series and the continuing Ultima (1981-1999) series.[30]

Later, in the middle to late 1990s, isometric, sprite-based RPGs became commonplace, with video game publishers Interplay Entertainment and Blizzard North playing a lead role with such titles as the Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale and the action-RPG Diablo series, as well as the dialogue-heavy Planescape: Torment and cult classics Fallout and Fallout 2. This era also saw a move toward 3D game engines with such games as Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven and The Elder Scrolls: Arena. TSR, dissatisfied with SSI's later products, such as Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager and Menzoberranzan, transferred the AD&D license to several different developers, and eventually gave it to BioWare, who used it in Baldur's Gate (1998) and several later games. By the 2000s, 3D engines had become dominant.[31]

Video game consoles

The earliest RPG on a console was Dragonstomper on the Atari 2600 in 1982.[32] Another early RPG on a console was Bokosuka Wars, originally released for the Sharp X1 computer in 1983[33] and later ported to the MSX in 1984, the NES in 1985 and the Sharp X68000 as New Bokosuka Wars. The game laid the foundations for the tactical role-playing game genre, or "simulation RPG" genre as it is known in Japan.[citation needed] It was also an early example of a real-time,[34] action role-playing game.[35][36] In 1986, Chunsoft created the NES title Dragon Quest (called Dragon Warrior in North America until the eighth game), which drew inspiration from computer RPG's Ultima and Wizardry and is regarded as the template for future Japanese role-playing video games released since then.[37]

In 1987, the genre came into its own with the release of several highly influential console RPGs distinguishing themselves from computer RPGs, including the genre-defining Phantasy Star, released for the Master System. Shigeru Miyamoto's Zelda II: The Adventure of Link for the Famicom Disk System was one of the earliest action role-playing games, combining the action-adventure game framework of its predecessor The Legend of Zelda with the statistical elements of turn-based RPGs.[38] Most RPGs at this time were turn-based.[39] Faxanadu was another early action RPG for the NES, released as a side-story to the computer action RPG Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu.[40] Square's Final Fantasy for the NES introduced side-view battles, with the player characters on the right and the enemies on the left, which soon became the norm for numerous console RPGs.[41] In 1988, Dragon Warrior III introduced a character progression system allowing the player to change the party's character classes during the course of the game.[citation needed] Another "major innovation was the introduction of day/night cycles; certain items, characters, and quests are only accessible at certain times of day."[42] In 1989, Phantasy Star II for the Genesis established many conventions of the genre, including an epic, dramatic, character-driven storyline dealing with serious themes and subject matter, and a strategy-based battle system.[43]

Console RPGs distinguished themselves from computer RPGs to a greater degree in the early 1990s. As console RPGs became more heavily story-based than their computer counterparts, one of the major differences that emerged during this time was in the portrayal of the characters. Console RPGs often featured intricately related characters who had distinctive personalities and traits, with players assuming the roles of people who cared about each other, fell in love or even had families. Romance in particular was a theme that was common in most console RPGs at the time but absent from most computer RPGs.[44] During the 1990s, console RPGs had become increasingly dominant, exerting a greater influence on computer RPGs than the other way around.[45] Console RPGs had eclipsed computer RPGs for some time, though computer RPGs began making a comeback towards the end of the decade with interactive choice-filled adventures.[46]

The next major revolution came in the late 1990s, which saw the rise of optical disks in fifth generation consoles. The implications for RPGs were enormous—longer, more involved quests, better audio, and full-motion video. This was first clearly demonstrated in 1997 by the phenomenal success of Final Fantasy VII, which is considered one of the most influential games of all time.[47][48] With a record-breaking production budget of around $45 million,[47] the ambitious scope of Final Fantasy VII raised the possibilities for the genre, with its dozens of minigames and much higher production values. The latter includes innovations such as the use of 3D characters on pre-rendered backgrounds,[49] battles viewed from multiple different angles rather than a single angle, and for the first time full-motion CGI video seamlessly blended into the gameplay,[48] effectively integrated throughout the game.[47] The game was soon ported to the PC and gained much success there, as did several other originally console RPGs, blurring the line between the console and computer platforms.[45]

Cultural differences

Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII is often seen as the "quintessential bishounen" in Japanese RPGs.[50]

Computer-driven role-playing games had their start in Western markets, with games generally geared to be played on home computers. By 1985, series like Wizardry and Ultima represented the state of role-playing games. In Japan, home computers had yet to take as great a hold as they had in the West due to their cost; there was little market for Western-developed games and there were a few Japanese-developed games for personal computers during this time such as The Black Onyx (1984) which followed the Wizardy/Ultima format. With the release of the low-cost Famicom console (the Nintendo Entertainment System as named in Japan), a new opportunity arose to bring role-playing games to Japan. Dragon Quest (1986) was the first such attempt to recreate a role-playing game for a console, and requires several simplifications to fit within the more limited memory and capabilities of the Famicom compared to computers; players in Dragon Quest controlled only a single character, the amount of control over this character limited due to the simplicity of the Famicom controller, and a less-realistic art style was chosen to better visualize the characters within a tile-based graphics system. Dragon Quest was highly successful in Japan, leading to further entries in the series and other titles such as Final Fantasy that followed the same simplifications made in RPGs for Dragon Quest.[51]

Because of these differences, the role-playing genre eventually began to be classified into two fairly distinct styles: computer RPG and console RPG.[25][52][53][Note 1] In the early 2000s, however, as the platform differences began to blur, computer RPGs and console RPGs were eventually classified as Western role-playing games (or WRPGs) and Japanese role-playing games (or JRPGs), respectively.[54]

Though sharing fundamental premises, Western RPGs tend to feature darker graphics, older characters, and a greater focus on roaming freedom, realism, and the underlying game mechanics (e.g. "rules-based" or "system-based"[54]); whereas Eastern RPGs tend to feature brighter, anime-like or chibi graphics, younger characters, turn-based or faster-paced action gameplay, and a greater focus on tightly-orchestrated, linear storylines with intricate plots (e.g. "action-based" or "story-based"[54]).[25][55][56][57][58][59][60] Further, Western RPGs are more likely to allow players to create and customize characters from scratch,[61] and since the late 1990s have had a stronger focus on extensive dialog tree systems (e.g. Planescape: Torment).[62] On the other hand, Japanese RPGs tend to limit players to developing pre-defined player characters, and often do not allow the option to create or choose one's own playable characters or make decisions that alter the plot.[60][Note 2] In the early 1990s, Japanese RPGs were seen as being much closer to fantasy novels,[64] but by the late 1990s had become more cinematic in style (e.g. Final Fantasy series). At the same time, Western RPGs started becoming more novelistic in style (e.g. Planescape: Torment), but by the late 2000s had also adopted a more cinematic style (e.g. Mass Effect series).[65]

One reason given for these differences is that many early Japanese console RPGs can be seen as forms of interactive manga (Japanese comics) or anime wrapped around Western rule systems at the time,[66] in addition to the influence of visual novel adventure games.[67] As a result, Japanese console RPGs differentiated themselves with a stronger focus on scripted narratives and character drama,[55] alongside streamlined gameplay.[66] In recent years, these trends have in turn been adopted by Western RPGs, which have begun moving more towards tightly structured narratives, in addition to moving away from "numbers and rules" in favor of streamlined combat systems similar to action games.[66][68] In addition, a large number of Western independent games are modelled after Japanese RPGs,[69] especially those of the 16-bit era, partly due to the RPG Maker game development tools.[66]

Example of kawaii art. "Cute" art such as this is unpopular with some players.

Another oft-cited difference is the prominence or absence of kawaisa, or "cuteness", in Japanese culture, and different approaches with respect to character aesthetics.[25] Western RPGs tend to maintain a serious and gritty tone, whereas JRPG protagonsists tend to be designed with an emphasis on aesthetic beauty, and even male characters are often young, androgynous, shōnen or bishōnen in appearance. JRPGs often have cute (and even comic-relief type) characters or animals, juxtaposed (or clashing) with more mature themes and situations; and many modern JRPGs feature characters designed in the same style as those in manga and anime.[61] The stylistic differences are often due to differing target audiences: Western RPGs are usually geared primarily towards teenage to adult males, whereas Japanese RPGs are usually intended for a much larger demographic,[70] including female audiences,[57] who, for example, accounted for nearly a third of Final Fantasy XIIIs fanbase.[71]

Modern Japanese RPGs are more likely to feature turn-based battles; while modern Western RPGs are more likely to feature real-time combat.[57][60][72] In the past, the reverse was often true: real-time action role-playing games were far more common among Japanese console RPGs than Western computer RPGs up until the late 1990s, due to gamepads usually being better suited to real-time action than the keyboard and mouse.[73] There are of course exceptions, such as Final Fantasy XII (2006) and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner (1995 onwards), two modern Eastern RPGs that feature real-time combat; and The Temple of Elemental Evil (2003), a modern Western RPG that features turn-based combat.

Some journalists and video game designers have questioned this cultural classification, arguing that the differences between Eastern and Western games have been exaggerated. In an interview held at the American Electronic Entertainment Expo, Japanese video game developer Tetsuya Nomura (who worked on Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts) emphasized that RPGs should not be classified by country-of-origin, but rather described simply for what they are: role-playing games.[74] Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of Final Fantasy and The Last Story, noted that, while "users like to categorise" Japanese RPGs as "turn-based, traditional styles" and Western RPGs as "born from first-person shooters," there "are titles that don't fit the category," pointing to Chrono Trigger (which he also worked on) and the Mana games. He further noted that there have been "other games similar to the style of Chrono Trigger," but that "it's probably because the games weren't localised and didn't reach the Western audience."[75] Xeno series director Tetsuya Takahashi, in reference to Xenoblade Chronicles, stated that "I don’t know when exactly people started using the term 'JRPG,' but if this game makes people rethink the meaning of this term, I’ll be satisfied." The writer Jeremy Parish of states that "Xenoblade throws into high relief the sheer artificiality of the gaming community's obsession over the differences between" Western and Japanese RPGs, pointing out that it "does things that don't really fit into either genre. Gamers do love their boundaries and barriers and neat little rules, I know, but just because you cram something into a little box doesn't mean it belongs there."[76] Nick Doerr of Joystiq criticizes the claim that Japanese RPGs are "too linear," pointing out that non-linear Japanese RPGs are not uncommon—for instance, the Romancing SaGa series.[77] Likewise, Rowan Kaiser of Joystiq points out that linear Western RPGs were common in the 1990s, and argues that many of the often mentioned differences between Eastern and Western games are stereotypes that are generally "not true" and "never was", pointing to classic examples like Lands of Lore and Betrayal at Krondor that were more narrative-focused than the typical Western-style RPGs of the time.[54] In 2015, IGN noted in an interview with Xenoblade Chronicles X's development team that the label "JRPG" is most commonly used to refer to RPGs "whose presentation mimics the design sensibilities" of anime and manga, that it's "typically the presentation and character archetypes" that signal "this is a JRPG."[78]


Due to the cultural differences between Western and Japanese variations of role-playing games, both have often been compared and critiqued by those within the video games industry and press.

In the late 1980s, when traditional American computer RPGs such as Ultima and Defender of the Crown were ported to consoles, they received mixed reviews from console gamers, as they were "not perceived, by many of the players, to be as exciting as the Japanese imports," and lacked the arcade and action-adventure elements commonly found in Japanese console RPGs at the time.[79] In the early 1990s, American computer RPGs also began facing criticism for their plots, where "the party sticks together through thick and thin" and always "act together as a group" rather than as individuals, and where non-player characters are "one-dimensional characters," in comparison to the more fantasy novel approach of Squaresoft console RPGs such as Final Fantasy IV.[64] However in 1994, game designer Sandy Petersen noted that, among computer gamers, there was criticism against cartridge-based console JRPGs being "not role-playing at all" due to popular examples such as Secret of Mana and especially The Legend of Zelda using "direct" arcade-style action combat systems instead of the more "abstract" turn-based battle systems associated with computer RPGs. In response, he pointed out that not all console RPGs are action-based, pointing to Final Fantasy and Lufia.[80] Another early criticism, dating back to the Phantasy Star games in the late 1980s, was the frequent use of defined player characters, in contrast to the Wizardry and Gold Box games where the player's avatars (such as knights, clerics, or thieves) were blank slates.[81]

As Japanese console RPGs became increasingly more dominant in the 1990s,[45] and became known for being more heavily story and character-based, American computer RPGs began to face criticism for having characters devoid of personality or background, due to representing avatars which the player uses to interact with the world, in contrast to Japanese console RPGs which depicted characters with distinctive personalities. American computer RPGs were thus criticized for lacking "more of the traditional role-playing" offered by Japanese console RPGs, which instead emphasized character interactions.[55] In response, North American computer RPGs began making a comeback towards the end of the 1990s with interactive choice-filled adventures.[82]

In more recent years, several writers have criticized JRPGs as not being "true" RPGs, for heavy usage of scripted cutscenes and dialogue, and a frequent lack of branching outcomes.[83][Turner] Japanese RPGs are also sometimes criticized for having relatively simple battle systems in which players are able to win by repetitively mashing buttons,[83][Turner][83][84][Note 3] As a result, Japanese-style role-playing games are held in disdain by some Western gamers, leading to the term "JRPG" being held in the pejorative.[72] Some observers have also speculated that Japanese RPGs are stagnating or declining in both quality and popularity, including remarks by BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk and writing director Daniel Erickson that JRPGs are stagnating—and that Final Fantasy XIII is not even really an RPG;[86][87][88] criticisms regarding seemingly nebulous justifications by some Japanese designers for newly changed (or, alternately, newly un-changed) features of recent titles;[89] calls among some gaming journalists to "fix" JRPGs' problems;[90][91][92][93] as well as claims that some recent titles such as Front Mission Evolved are beginning to attempt—and failing to—imitate Western titles.[94] In an article for PSM3, Brittany Vincent of felt that "developers have mired the modern JRPG in unoriginality", citing Square Enix CEO Yoichi Wada who stated that "they’re strictly catering to a particular audience", the article noting the difference in game sales between Japan and North America before going on to suggest JRPGs may need to "move forward".[95] This criticism has also occurred in the wider media with an advertisement for Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment) in Japan openly mocked Japanese RPGs' traditional characteristics in favor of their own title.[96] Nick Doerr of Joystiq noted that Bethesda felt that Japanese RPGs "are all the same" and "too linear," to which he responded that "[f]or the most part, it's true" but noted there are also non-linear Japanese RPGs such as the Romancing SaGa series.[77] Such criticisms have produced responses such as ones by Japanese video game developers, Shinji Mikami and Yuji Horii, to the effect that JRPGs were never as popular in the West to begin with, and that Western reviewers are biased against turn-based systems.[97][98][99][100] Jeff Fleming of Gamasutra also states that Japanese RPGs on home consoles are generally showing signs of staleness, but notes that handheld consoles such as the Nintendo DS have had more original and experimental Japanese RPGs released in recent years.[101]

Western RPGs have also received criticism in recent years. They remain less popular in Japan, where, until recently, Western games in general had a negative reputation.[58] In Japan, where the vast majority of early console role-playing video games originate,[102] Western RPGs remain largely unknown.[103] The developer Motomu Toriyama criticized Western RPGs, stating that they "dump you in a big open world, and let you do whatever you like [which makes it] difficult to tell a compelling story."[104] Hironobu Sakaguchi noted that "users like to categorise" Western RPGs as "a sort of different style, born from first person shooters."[75] In recent years, some have also criticized Western RPGs for becoming less RPG-like, instead with further emphasis on action[66] Christian Nutt of GameSpy states that, in contrast to Japanese RPGs, Western RPGs' greater control over the development and customization of playable characters has come at the expense of plot and gameplay, resulting in what he felt was generic dialogue, lack of character development within the narrative and weaker battle systems.[83][Nutt] He also states that Western RPGs tend to focus more on the underlying rules governing the battle system rather than on the experience itself.[83][Nutt] Tom Battey of Edge Magazine noted that the problems often cited against Japanese RPGs (mentioned above) also often apply to many Western RPGs as well as games outside of the RPG genre.[92] BioWare games have been criticized for "lack of innovation, repetitive structure and lack of real choice."[105] Western RPGs, such as Bethesda games, have also been criticized for lacking in "narrative strength" or "mechanical intricacy" due to the open-ended, sandbox structure of their games.[106]

Despite the criticisms leveled at both variations, Rowan Kaiser of Joystiq argued that many of the often mentioned differences between Eastern and Western games are stereotypes that are generally not true, noting various similarities between several Western titles (such as Lands of Lore, Betrayal at Krondor, and Dragon Age) and several classic Eastern titles (such as Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star), noting that both these Western and Japanese titles share a similar emphasis on linear storytelling, pre-defined characters and "bright-colored" graphics.[54] The developer Hironobu Sakaguchi also noted there are many games from both that don't fit such categorizations, such as his own Chrono Trigger as well as the Mana games, noting there have been many other such Japanese role-playing games that never released in Western markets.[75]


In what is viewed as the largely secular nature of Japanese culture has resulted in heavy usage of themes, symbols, and characters taken from a variety of religions, including Christianity and Japanese Shinto. This tends to be problematic when JRPGs are exported to Western countries where the topics of religion and blasphemy remain sensitive, such as the United States. It is not unusual for a JRPG to exhibit elements that would be controversial in the West, such as Xenogears or Final Fantasy Tactics featuring antagonists that bear similarities to the Abrahamic God and the Catholic Church, respectively;[107] and Nintendo has made efforts in the past to remove references such as these prior to introducing their games into the North American market.[25]

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