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What defines a Roleplaying Game? This is actually a rather common, and quite interesting question that serves as an easy starting point to the discussion of what exactly defines a genre. Yet, it's a question that has been discussed many times, and one that I find is rather all too easy. Instead the question that's been bopping around in my head for a while has been about what defines the Strategy Roleplaying Game. In a genre that seems adverse to any sort of roleplaying and immersion, the genre that gave us turn based games such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, and Fire Emblem, what exactly gives us the right to consider these games RPGs? What can we do in order to enhance SRPGs, and perhaps make them live up a bit more to their name? Well, let's take a look.
First, let's look at what makesthe SRPG different from other strategy genres. SRPGs normally differ from RTSs from the fact that besides they are turn-based, they are normally also more squad oriented than "basecamp" oriented. If there are eny economic systems in SRPGs such as the building of units or enhancing of abilities, they are normally done before battles begin, unlike having to build and enhance units during a battle as with RTSs. This brings us to the more pressing comparison, what exactly is so special about SRPGs that classifies them separately from standard Turn-Based Strategies? While if we're to look at the actual mechanic differences, we see the same differences that exist between SRPGs and RTSs, except on a turn based format. However, if we turn not to mechanics, but areas of origin, we find that most RTSs such as Starcraft and standard TBSs such as Civilization are Western and that almost all SRPGs happen to be Eastern.
(Starcraft's still no stranger to Eastern audiences)
I believe that this is the most important thing we can take out of this comparison, as if SRPGs are mostly Eastern, then that means Eastern RPGs are what we should look at as a basis of how RPG elements are handled in SRPGs. This explains why Western roleplaying is normally absent from these games, as Eastern RPGs normally focus on story and progression mechanics. Fire Emblem is a brilliant example of this, as it applies all of the basics of a JRPG, but in a more tactical and strategic battle system. While this makes sense knowing how the Japanese view RPGs, a few questions still remain. What would happen if we applied Western Roleplaying elements and decision making in SRPGS?
While many JRPGs already don't contain much roleplaying, Strategy RPGs hold even less roleplaying potential. Look at Disgaea, sure it may have a great story, sure there may be many different options and strategies, but how do you possibly roleplay as a group of ten plus unique and generic characters? The avatar based escapism and immersion that comes from roleplaying is absent among the hordes of characters and units you can control in Strategy RPGs.
However, in Strategy RPGs such as Disgaea, or Fire Emblem, or Final Fantasy Tactics, some or all of the units you control are unique, fully fledged characters with their own motivations and stories. Roleplaying can technically come from roleplaying as each character individually, and selecting each strategy according to a character's personality. This character is wild and crazy, so he's going to attack head on! This character is silent and sneaky, she'll slip in undetected. Perfect right? Yet, while some players may indeed take that behaviour, unless there is any incentive to this, strategy will always be king. The strategy in a strategy RPG will always outweigh the roleplaying elements, and when fighting against a tough enemy, what will you choose, the strategy that stays true to each character's personality, or the strategy that will win?
("Snake, do you think... love can bloom on the battlefield?")
In order to solve this delimma, such roleplaying elements must be weaved into the strategy of the game itself. Small things such as making each character's personality reflective of it's class will lead players to automatically choose methods of fighting best suited to each character. While that may seem obvious, and is already employed by numerous games, systems such as Fire Emblem's "support conversations" can add an extra dimension of roleplaying into strategy, but making social interaction and relationships factor into turning the tide of battle.
Still, no matter how much we attempt to tack on gimicky roleplaying elements, trying to force the same framework of choice and social interaction normally found in Western RPGs, they will continue to be overshadowed by cold, logical, strategy. In order to make a truly satisfying SRPG we must take the basics and re-form them in a way that works given our format. The rawest elements of the RPG I would argue, are choice and immersion. Applying choice is simultaniously easy and hard. It's easy to figure out that having an endless permutation of personal choices and strategies makes for an awesome SRPG, but it's hard to actually design it. Should it be done right, then no strategy will ever be the "best", and strategies become a personal and unique thing to each player. Should it be done wrong, you have everyone following one strategy that works the best in every situation imaginable.
(Disgaea relies on crazy damage and crazy moves)
With our ideal system of choice and strategy, which should already be implemented in any strategy game, we now turn to immersion. While immersion should be a given in any Videogame, in Strategy Games immersion is normally replaced by obssession. Instead of staying up til' 2 o clock in the morning caught up in your character's actions, you're up til' 2 o clock in the morning grinding for maximum levels and perfecting your personal strategy. Disgaea in general tends to take this route, touting a levelling system that goes all the way up to level 9999, and stats that go even higher. While this methodology of making Strategy games also manages to be quite engaging and gripping, it still loses what it means to be a SRPG.
How exactly do we apply immersion then, how can we pull the player further into the game? If immersion is impossible to achieve through roleplaying as individual units, what about roleplaying a commander? Advanced Wars: Dual Strike for the most part, could be considered a standard TBS, with unit creation and resource collection being core parts of the game, yet I'd consider it to be one of the best examples of a true SRPG currently available. Why is this? You roleplay as your commander. Commanding officers in Advanced Wars: Dual Strike all have their own ways of issuing orders and formulating strategies and as such, get different stat bonuses and penalties apllied to different units. New commanding officers are unlocked as you play through the campaign mode, and depending on how well you play, normally by masterfully utilizing your CO's specialties, you gain varying amounts of experience points to go into levelling your CO. The sheer genius of this system is that it not only caters to various different playstyles, but it also rewards the player for thinking about decisions in a certain mindset, or in other words, roleplaying. Levelling and progression systems normally used in JRPGs are tweaked and utilized in just the right way in order to make Advanced Wars not only an obssessive game, but an immersive and fun game as well.
(Each of Dual Strike's COs have their own distinct visual design and abilities)
In the end, have we actually learned anything new about how to make a good videogame? I believe we have. Instead of simply taking the basics of two genres and melding them together in a contrived way, Advanced Wars: Dual Strike has taught us that the best way to mesh genres is to take elements from both that compliment eachother as much as possible. But I believe the more important lesson in this comes from the fact that by looking at the basic types of engagement offered by different genres, we can design our mechanics around them and be innovative while catering to specific niches. This very same principle is what saved the dying genre of the SRPG, and remain at the core of game design. The SRPG genre is definitely full of innovation just as much as stagnation, but there's always room for improvement if you just, take a closer look.
Addendum: Observation is never definite, nor is game design. Have different examples or arguments? Go ahead, comment and share it! This week's post has also been edited by one of Destructoid's very own writers, Liam Fisher! Thanks for the help Liam!