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How Mass Effect challenged my definition of 'RPG'
Editorial - posted by VentilatorOfDoom on Fri 2 March 2012, 09:40:17Tags: BioWare; Mass Effect; Mass Effect 2; Mass Effect 3
Gamasutra has put up an opinion piece on how Mass Effect challenges the definition of what an RPG is.
As video game technology advanced, especially in the transitional years of the 1990s, more and more time was spent on storytelling instead of mechanical dungeon crawlers. A game like Betrayal At Krondor (1993) was built to fit in within Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar series, and was, in many ways, the best possible combination of video gaming and fantasy literature. Planescape: Torment (1999) might be the pinnacle of the video game as interactive novel, with its reams of text, choice, character development, and narrative complexity.RPGs are movies now.
Torment was also one of the last games to fit that mold. Through the 1990s, more and more games started to utilize the conventions of film. This charge was led, ironically, by a series of role-playing games: Final Fantasy. Nothing demonstrates this better than the opening credit sequence of 1994's Final Fantasy VI, as the ominous music plays and evil appears to march on the innocent. And while BioWare is a western RPG developer, much of their success, from Knights of the Old Republic on, has come from successfully combining the the tropes of both Western and Japanese-style role-playing games, including the use of visual, film-like storytelling instead of novelistic storytelling.
The Mass Effect games are the culmination of this trend. Their voice acting sounds like a movie, the camera angles look like a movie, the storyline is divided into movie scenes, and thanks to the film effect, it even has the visual feel of a movie. And this, I think, is what makes many RPG fans react so emotionally to its occasional placement in the role-playing genre. Mass Effect's surprising popularity seems to say that RPGs aren't novels, they're movies now. If that's something a player is fine with, they'll probably like Mass Effect just fine. But if not – then it's not just a game to be liked or disliked, but it's a symbol of everything that's wrong with video games today – bigger, flashier, and dumber.
Thus BioWare's revelation that they're working on multiple different modes of gameplay for Mass Effect 3 makes perfect sense. They're trying to appeal to as many sides of the genre discussion as they can. So the apparently straightforward examination of whether a game series like Mass Effect fits into a conventional genre category is therefore revealed to be question of the nature of gaming itself, past, present, and future, and it's one with big implications for BioWare.