If you’re looking to dive head-first into a beehive of angry, semantic nitpickery, any discussion about the definition of “role-playing game” is a good place to start. Even before the era of shameless, mixed-marriage genre-crossing and liberal mechanical pilfering, it was hard to pin down exactly what made an RPG; platformers have their jumping, puzzle games and first-person shooters have their traits built right into the genre title, but “playing a role” is an effective description for anything more complex than Tetris. Classic western RPGs followed the Dungeons & Dragons route of an adventurer — or adventurers — on a grand journey in a fictional world; Japanese upstarts asserted strongly that said worlds needed to be much more fictional and steadfastly turn-based, but still with a party system — except when they didn’t. Many RPGs place importance on gaining power by increasing character levels, and through the acquisition of loot.
Any specific definition is going to cause disagreement, but one bullet point should surely be what the dictionary defines, extremely broadly, as a role-playing game: “a game in which players take on the roles of imaginary characters who engage in adventures”. As I already said, simply playing a role is something many games ask you to do, but let’s examine precisely what that means in the context of an RPG. To play a role in a game is to actively engage with a fictional setting and enact change upon it. One can’t really be said to being “playing” any sort of role in Call of Duty, for example, as you are merely stepping behind the eyes of a predefined character who will follow predetermined paths to trigger events. Players experience the events, certainly, but short of quitting the game they have no control over any meaningful aspects.
Drawing this distinction, it becomes easier to put lines in the sand. Borderlands has many of the elements of an RPG — levels, quests, ridiculous amounts of swag to collect — but the single-mindedness the game exhibits in pushing you to shoot first, shoot last, shoot later then shoot your way to the next shooting gallery, along with characters that exist as nothing more than classes, mean it could never really sit at the role-playing table. On the other hand, Fallout simply reeks of the genre, with its decision-filled quests and a world that encourages exploration without attaching any explicit promises of experience or treasure. Borderlands asks you to inhabit an interesting character design for the purpose of utilising a certain set of skills; Fallout allows you to be a dynamic part of its universe.
For the purest expression of this particular view on the role-playing game, we look to Persona. This is a series where your interpersonal relationships have a direct impact on your combat ability, where fighting is a literal, physical manifestation of characters’ inner demons. More importantly, it dedicates so much of itself to creating an immersive experience that it’s often a detriment to the pursuit of higher levels and better equipment.
Persona games take the concept of the sidequest — something integral to the exploratory nature of any decent RPG — and peppers an entire game world with them. Each adventure revolves around some mysterious and deadly supernatural problem which must be solved, mingling and contrasting that with the mundane minutia of life as a high school student. Classes must be attended, sports clubs must be joined and peers must be invited over for awkward family dinners. You can get part-time jobs to earn extra cash, talk to old men who hang out by the local river and dispense fishing advice, read books on your couch and attempt to make croquettes.
The vast majority of these activities have gameplay benefits, however obtuse they seem at the time; study to increase your Knowledge — which in turn makes it easier to get jobs (for equipment money) and impresses your classmates (for social climbing) — or watch TV to buy fighting gear via home shopping. That sort of thing. But the real benefits of such tediousness are far more ephemeral, but no less vital to the game as a whole.
There’s a kind of unseen genius at work in any given Persona title, as the game slowly eases you into the plot by way of awkward introductions to high school students and family members while also thrusting something absolutely not okay and probably apocalyptic in your direction. Bit by bit you’re introduced to people and work your way through the more serious, combat-focused encounters. And for the most part things stay rigidly separated, like the towns and the field map in a traditional JRPG. Persona 3 puts you in charge of exploring a creepy tower that appears on school grounds during an invisible hour at the end of every day, freeing up your daytime hours for all sorts of social and learning-focused shenanigans. Persona 4 has a similar unknown, but puts it inside a magical TV world only accessible via the electronics section of a department store after school. Gradually, insidiously, the options outside combat and exploration multiply; where once you had three friends, now you have a dozen; normal classes lead into week-long exam periods, cultural festivals and school camps.
But it’s optional, right? For the most part you can ignore all the social nonsense and still potter through the various dungeons — it makes things more difficult, but it’s possible. But sooner or later the player gets a taste of the power that can be attained through careful social planning and digital empathy. Through a combination of compulsory events like joining sports teams and socialising with main characters, and simple time-wasting experimentation, players see how the system works: make friends, interact with the world, get stronger. And just like that, even the most reclusive, goal-oriented gamer becomes part of the cycle.
Given the wide character and situation net cast by the games, it’s only a matter of time before something catches your interest beyond the mechanical. Maybe you want to know exactly who it is you’re talking to online after school, or why the star athlete keeps hiding his medical records. Maybe you just want to get comfortably uncomfortable and romantic with one of the many possible love interests in the game, so you’re increasing your courage by taking a job at the spooky hospital. Now you keep going back to the hospital because that nurse creeps you out in the best way.
The effect this has on time and time management is profound. Time is more or less stopped dead in the real world while you explore the games’ dungeons; you can grind them to your heart’s content and bumble through countless floors provided you don’t trigger a major plot point. But this infinity is only a clever illusion. Endless potential time for making progress lulls the player into a false sense of security about how much leeway they have to balance the social and combative sides of their digital life. Days or nights locked in mortal combat with grabby demon scum are dropped in favour of spending more time with people or reading books quietly on your couch. While the overall deadline is always in mind, it’s hard to convince yourself that one less day of training will make any difference. This is particularly true in Persona 4, where socialising means you are actually unable to visit the dungeon on that day, and the decisions are made more difficult when friends run up and tell you how they would very, very much like to spend time with you.
While most of us don’t have to traverse doom-laden towers, or deal with an entire town of people who think we are just, like, totally the best guy ever, it’s through this sort of interaction, sacrifice and decision-making that Persona elevates itself. Everyone makes at least a dozen tiny choices every day that change how things play out. We prioritise going to the shop over spending time with our significant other, we watch an extra hour of TV instead of working on our unfinished balsa wood scale model of Notre Dame. In this modern world, where perils like dangerous animals and starvation have been — for most — replaced by cell phones and an abundance of free time, Persona resonates.
And, as a result, we can truly play the role in our role-playing game. The heroes of the Persona games aren’t just heroic somebodies who we happened to add our name to in the opening, they are the ever-changing culmination of every decision we’ve made up to this point. My character is as smart as he is because he studied for three weeks straight instead of going out to spend time with hot girls in the shopping district; he can breeze through the lower levels of the new dungeon because he’s been really keen to befriend the strange man who hangs around the playground and can now fuse powerful Death personas; he is able to buy everyone ridiculous battle costumes because he works part-time at the daycare on the hill.
With regards to immersion and that now-familiar concept of playing a role, traditional turn-based RPGs fall shorter than fans would like to admit. I am a great admirer of Final Fantasy VIII, but I am not Squall. Many hours of my life have been sunk into the Dragon Age series, but, despite their impressive dedication to providing players with choices and options when it comes to dialogue and relationships, I will never feel as if I truly became the Warden or the hero Hawke. There is no frame of reference for the average person when dealing with the concept of an all-consuming quest; regular people simply can’t identify with a character who cancels out their entire life in pursuit of a goal. Interestingly, with regards to Bioware games, the Persona series offers little to no dialogue choices in comparison. But it was my decision to have the vast majority of these conversations in the first place.
Along the same lines, while there are a huge number of RPG characters I can comfortably say I enjoy interacting with, there aren’t many I genuinely care about. Lost Odyssey‘s Jansen, Final Fantasy X‘s Auron, Mass Effect‘s Jack and Shadow Hearts‘ Malkovich are excellent characters and entertaining to the last, but I have no personal investment in their lives. Any emotion is a result of the writing and my human tendency to connect with the imaginary. In Persona 4, I find myself becoming physically tense when my little almost-sister is upset; this isn’t because she’s particularly fascinating, it’s because I’ve taken her shopping, introduced her to my friends and helped her to cook dinner in our tiny Japanese kitchen. I am immersed and invested because I live here in this kooky Asian town, not because the game told me I should be.
Persona succeeds in capturing what it means to play an RPG because it isn’t simply the record of an event we happened to participate in. These games are not only about getting a job or task done, they are a chance to truly inhabit and interact with a unique and detailed universe. Many of us have played games where we’ve become so entranced we couldn’t look away, but Persona marks the only time I’ve ever felt distressed about the idea of the game coming to an end. It feels a little like I’m letting all those new friends die. And that’s more powerful than any concept of level mechanics or dialogue trees I can imagine.