Monday, July 15, 2019

Zelda is an RPG.


Why Game Genres are an outdated form of classifying games


I found this essay sitting in my Google Drive and realized I never did anything with it. In honor of #JRPG July, I decided I'd share it here, with you. This was written back in February on a whim. Hope you enjoy!


In my debate class in college, my professor, whose name I have long since forgotten, posited that the first thing you should do in a debate is to define your terms. The abortion debate is famous for being about its definitions, and not about the subject of the debate itself. Everyone knows that killing children is wrong. The problem, it seems, is on agreeing to the definition of Child.

And a lot of other things, but this is a video game essay, so let’s not get distracted by the nuance of that issue.

Let’s instead get distracted by the nuance of the other most heated debate in the online community: Is Zelda an RPG?




As my professor suggested, let’s first define our terms. Zelda is a series of games made by Nintendo, with the original work being designed by Shigeru Miyamoto. The series varies wildly in presentation, but most games stick to “The Zelda Formula”. You are Link. You are on a quest to stop Ganon from destroying the world, and you do so by exploring said world, and gathering items, abilities, health and magic upgrades, and rupees from the depths of this world, which typically includes dungeons filled with puzzles and combat, and almost invariably a boss that requires some sort of trick or puzzle or strategy to take down effectively.

Phew. That was a mouthful, but probably sufficient enough.



Now, an RPG. RPGs, or Role-Playing Games, are games that try and capture the feeling of tabletop games, such as Dungeons and Dragons, in software. You have a character (whose degree of customization varies widely between series and sub-genres and countries of origin) that gains meaningful upgrades, typically in the form of stat boosts and abilities (but not always) by gaining a secondary currency, often called Experience (but not always). These games tend to have Epic quests (but, you guessed it, not always), Multiple Party members (not always), and a focus on telling a story (as always, not always.)

Uh-oh. Not a very good definition there.

It’s in these “not always” caveats that this debate springs forth.

The Debate “Is Zelda an RPG” is actually a debate “What does RPG even mean?” using a game that ticks most of these boxes, but doesn’t feel like an RPG.

This is a completely gut and not fact checked statement, which I know is not defining my terms well, but it’s more to illustrate a point, more than be factually true, but:

There are 3 main Genres in video games, and none of them mean anything.

Every game is either an Action Game, a Strategy game, or an Adventure game.

I also posit that the direct descendants of these 3 genres also don’t mean anything.

Action Strategy (More often called Real Time strategy), Action-Adventure, Strategy Adventure (known as RPGs).

(As an aside, when viewed historically, you can reduce every game down to either a pong or zork clone, but that’ll be another essay)

These “mega genres” all are focused on mechanics, which was useful when “how do I even play a video game at all” was the main question you had to answer when stepping in front of an arcade machine or PC for the first time.

However, nowadays, they are not useful at all.

For Example: recently, a long awaited relaunch of one of the longest running franchises came out. It was the series first outing on the PS4, and boy howdy did it look great. It had you filling the role of the series protagonist, with support from two of the heroes closest friends. You explored a richly detailed world, completing quests which gave you new items to use in your adventure, as well as experience points that would level up your health, and award you with ability points that you could use to unlock new abilities, or buff up old ones. It had an emotionally deep story that touched on elements from all aspects of the franchise’s history, and is easily considered to be the best game in the franchise in over a decade.

I am of course referring to Marvel’s Spider-Man, by Insomniac Games.



Spider-Man is not an RPG. It’s not even RPG adjacent. However it definitely ticks most of the boxes that a formal definition of an RPG would.

My solution to this dilemma involves going one step further from our question, and not defining what it means to be an RPG, but rather what the word genre should mean.

Genre is typically defined by mechanics. Do you press buttons fast to test your dexterity? Action game. Do you focus on exploring a fictional world? Adventure.

Even to the more modern, Do you start the game with everything you need to win, the game has randomly generated content, permadeath, and is focused on runs, rather than completion? Rogue-like.

I posit, however, that genres are more amorphous than that. There is a genre of game called First Person Shooters. In this genre, the camera is used in such a way to see from your characters eyes, and your main interaction with the world is with your gun. Games like Call of Duty and Overwatch.

But games like Portal or Metroid Prime, whose cameras are in first-person, and you shoot things, are not First Person Shooters, because shooting isn’t the point of those games.

I’m pretty certain Maddy said this first (she’s @spiffl on twitter, and one of the best minds for game analysis I’ve seen, but she mostly does that over coffee or in discord messages than online anywhere that isn’t this podcast, or her other, more general podcast Have you Played Resident Evil?)

But your Genre is determined by the point of your game. The point of First person shooters is to go level by level, room by room, and shoot all of the things. The point of Spider-Man is to swing a web any size, and catch thieves, just like flies. The point of a Japanese-RPG is to tell an epic story, have badass music, and have flashy aesthetic fights with a degree of strategy to them.

So while these criteria still focus on the mechanics of the game, it isn’t about the inclusion of a certain mechanic, but the focus on them.

This, in conjunction with more specific genres, alleviates much of the issue.

Spider-man is not an RPG because those elements aren’t the point. Mass Effect 1 isn’t a shooter, because it isn’t the point. Mass Effect 2 isn’t an RPG, because that isn’t the point. Undertale isn’t a shmup. Halo isn’t a platformer.

But this still doesn’t answer our question:

Does Zelda feel like an RPG?



It kind of feels a lot like Dragon Quest. You start out with basically nothing. You get keys to unlock doors and explore dungeons. You fight skeletons. You fight bosses. You get new equipment. You save a princess from the evil king.

Dragon Quest is an RPG. If Zelda feels like that, then case closed.

But Zelda also kind of feels a lot like Zork. You explore the dark reaches of dungeons, solving puzzles to make progress. You collect items to help you solve these puzzles, often times with a single valuable use case in the game.

Zork is an adventure game. So Zelda is an adventure game.

But Zelda also kind of feels like Mega Man. You fight through a series of Levels, typically themed around their boss, and have combat in real time, requiring precise control and hand-eye-coordination.

Megaman is an Action game. So Zelda is an Action game.

The truth is that Zelda is not a sum of its parts, but is defined by the Glue that holds it together. It’s not about collecting items. It’s about collecting “Zelda” items, and using them in “Zelda” ways. It’s not about fighting monsters, but it’s about fighting “Zelda” monsters, using “Zelda” combat. It’s not about going on a quest, it’s about going on a “Zelda” quest, and overcoming “Zelda” obstacles.

This looks a lot like circular reasoning, and it kind of is. But certain games, Zelda included, have invented their own genre. I already mentioned rogue-likes earlier. Rogue was a turn-based RPG, but that wasn’t the focus. The focus of the game was on being Rogue.

The focus of Zelda is on being a Zelda game. I began the article by talking about the Zelda Formula. This Formula is the definition of Zelda’s own genre.

So if a First Person Shooter is a game in which you control a first-person camera that focuses on shooting your enemies as you progress through levels.

Then a Zelda game is a game that follows the Zelda formula.

(Also, for those of you who have that finger hovering over the well actually button, Breath of the Wild, while breaking a lot traditions surrounding the Zelda formula still has you going to dungeons to get hearts and collecting items and solving puzzles, so it’s still a part of the formula as I stated it earlier)

So Zelda is an RPG, an Action game, an Action-RPG, a Puzzle Game, and Adventure Game, and probably a lot of other genres mixed in, but above all else, it is a Zelda game.

Just like Darksiders.

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