What does ‘RPG’ even mean?
In today’s gaming there is a word that brings a level of uncertainty to what type of game you’re seeing. That word is RPG. In its base form it stands for ‘Role Playing Game’; a game in which each participant assumes the role of a character, generally in a fantasy or science fiction setting, that can interact within the game’s imaginary world. To be perfectly honest this is every game ever made since the late 50s. For those of you who aren’t aware, the first game ever made was an earlier version of the 70s classic Pong called ‘Tennis For Two’, made by a Physicist William Higinbotham. He was also part of the team that created the first nuclear bomb (but that’s less of an achievement really.) Even still, a game as simple as Pong is an RPG. You are a participant assuming the role of a paddle board to interact with the ball in a sci-fi imaginary game world. That’s the definition of RPG but that is not what is meant in today’s industry or gaming community. And quite frankly that can be confusing.
A role-playing game (RPG) is a genre of video game where the gamer controls a fictional character (or characters) that undertakes a quest in an imaginary world. Defining RPGs is very challenging due to the range of hybrid genres that have RPG elements. Traditional role-playing video games shared three basic elements:
Levels or character statistics that could be improved over the course of the game
Crafting, looting for improved gear
A menu-based combat system
A central quest that runs throughout the game as a storyline 
You see back when all we had was paper, pens and dice we were limited in what we could do. But RPG elements such as turn base combat, stats, numbers, armour values and progression allowed us to bypass these limitations to create engaging and fulfilling narratives. Video game RPGs themselves have their origins in the paper and pen role-playing games pioneered by Dungeons & Dragons. In spite of the dawn of modern gaming where we are no longer limited to these primitive methods we cling to RPG mechanics like a moth dancing around a deathly flame.
But why do I bring this up? Well this week I have decided to narrow my scope of analysis to this one problem; one that I’ve coined the ‘The RPG-Industrial Complex’. To tackle this problem I am going to take a recent release that I believe is a prime example of a game which has fallen victim to it. That game is SIE Santa Monica Studio’s God of War 4 published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. “Blasphemy” you call out expecting that I will retract my accusation. Winner of 21 awards to date and widely regarded as the best single player game of 2018, I do not disagree that God of War is a triumph and testament to the developers who put their love, labour, blood, sweat and tears into it. However, I stand by my previous statement and cannot simply ignore the erroneous error that is the RPG mechanics that dominate, and are so poorly inserted into, its beautiful telling of an alternate universe of Norse Mythology.
THE RPG-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
In order to present my argument relating to God of War, let me first explain what I mean by “the RPG-Industrial complex”. For those of you who have studied an ounce of American History you will have recognised by now the play on words from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address where he makes popular the phrase ‘Military-Industrial Complex’. The coined phrase meant simply this:
“The military–industrial complex (MIC) is an informal alliance between a nation’s military and the defense industry that supplies it, seen together as a vested interest which influences public policy. A driving factor behind this relationship between the government and defense-minded corporations is that both sides benefit—one side from obtaining war weapons, and the other from being paid to supply them.” 
Let’s for a second take this meaning for MIC and apply it to my phrase and once you do you get something that is a little more digestible:
“The RPG–industrial complex (RPG-IC) is an informal understanding between publishers and the developers that supply them, seen together as a vested interest which influences a games content. A driving factor behind this relationship between the publishers and developers is that both sides benefit—one side from claims of an “artificially” extended game, and the other from the accrued profits of said extended game.”
In short, publishers stand to gain more profits from a game that can boast an exhaustive campaign than those without as they are far more marketable. Developers stand to also gain if they alter the game’s content to facilitate elongating the campaign. To achieve such lengths can be difficult and sometimes certain elements must be added (whether they lend themselves to the game and genre or not). It is something we as an international gaming community have found new life in: demanding that developers create longer campaigns in video games and those who don’t deliver are hung, drawn and quartered. Of course, that’s not enough in itself, we also need to know before we purchase the game exactly how many hours are in it.
Prior to God of War 4’s release, Gamespot published a small piece on this very topic,
“Creative Director Cory Barlog announced on stage that the game will take about 25-35 hours to complete.”
For a linear singleplayer game this would indeed be quite a feat of storytelling to spend 25-35hrs getting emotionally attached to the murderous dad Kratos and his ‘boy’, Atreus (whose voice actor has somehow found a way to say ‘Boy’ in a different manner in every single uttered sentence 120+ times). But like most modern day games this cannot be achieved by the story elements alone. All of God of War’s Cutscenes played back to back (including cinematic fights) falls just shy of 6hrs. The fastest speed-run is currently 4h 24m 59s, a ‘Glitchless – Standard’ by Dutchpotato. Taking all this into account, the final 15-25hrs of Cory Barlog’s game remain unaccounted for. Well here comes our good old friend, RPG to fill that space.
Enter stage left
God Of War’s beautifully rendered and engaging story, fluid gameplay and superb direction is unfortunately tarnished by the ugly facet of RPG elements. These essentially entail level progression, powers/abilities, items, runes, armour and crafting etc. The list goes on and on. When you start to count just how many RPG elements have been shoehorned into this game you start to question why? What am I really gaining from all this added mechanics that improves my enjoyment of the game? If you said nothing then you are only half correct. What you gain is nothing other than the illusion of choice and control (not to mention the skinner box-esque fulfilment of irrelevant and mindless stat increases that mostly go unnoticed in the grand scheme of this narrative driven game.)
It becomes more problematic as the game opens up finally to reveal triple AAA game’s ‘mandatory’ open world setting (but that’s a critic for another day). What seems like a full and endlessly deep and rich world quickly devolves into a treasure hunt for crafting materials, silver and collectibles (or as I call them: busywork for the completionists). I did often find some interesting routes that provided me with new story and lore of the world around me but these were far and few in between. As the game progresses it saddened me to notice I could garner more lore and story from going in circles on the lake listening to Mimir than taking on any one of the multitude of side routes.
RPG elements begin to rear their heads left and right as you are shown a series of screens with equipment, slots and armour. The crafting and armour mechanics see to it that what is a beautiful story gets suddenly weighed down by the burden of stats and numbers. These serve no purpose in telling the narrative other than to gate the player from progressing too fast or too far in the wrong direction. It’s antagonistic to the Open world ethos that they’ve decided to go with and quite frankly baffles me.
The RPG-Industrial complex marches On
The RPG complex runs deeper as the issues do not end there. Another aspect of the game I found particularly egregious is the combat ability unlocking which appears to allow you to pick and choose the upgrades you wish to unlock and the order in which you unlock them. But by the end of the game despite your careful selection you find you will garner enough Xp to unlock it all (and use barely half of it). How anti-climactic, all that trepidation of what skill you should pick, and which one is better when in fact you get them all anyway.
Let’s compare this to a game I feel gets it right and one that had God of War copied would have seen it truly shine. 2017’s Hollow Knight developed by Team Cherry is a beautiful masterclass in RPG-lite mechanics done right. For those of you who are out of the know, Hollow knight is a 2-D action adventure metroidvania game that sees you traverse beautifully unique and strange areas beneath the faded town of Dirtmouth. If you haven’t played it I strongly recommend you do. But before digressing to deeply I must discuss what it is that brings such a starkly different game into this conversation.
You see, Hollow Knight also has RPG mechanics within is narrative but unlike God of War 4 it does not needlessly distract the player with redundant choices. Instead it gives the player the next power-up or ability as they progress through the story. It’s a simple and effective way to give the player new and interesting RPG mechanics whilst not slowing down or inhibiting the pace of the narrative. Had God of War taken this route instead it may have benefitted greatly; however in its current iteration the method of progression simply makes a mockery of the carefully crafted story you are supposed to engage with.
What the Point?
And for what? What is truly gained in the grand scheme of this narrative giant belittling itself to the RPG-Industrial complex? The story is stalled repeatedly to venture on pointless errands for “loot” to increment stats. These stats allow you to be a certain number equal to or above your enemy so you can now be allowed to progress. Then the game demands that you somehow ignore all of these stats and numbers for the sake of your own immersion because you’ve finally unlocked the next stage of the plot. I remember falling so far down one of the side quests thinking it was the main one that I’d forgotten what Kratos and the boy were even looking for and that I had a severed head attached to my belt because unless you’re on the lake or advancing the plot he barely speaks at all.
God of War almost stood amongst the giants of my all time favourite video games in history but it took a punt, it played the game that every other publisher and developer is playing and bought into the RPG-Industrial complex. This was done with any malice or ill thought and nor does this fact scathe its reputation. I still believe that this game is one of the best single player games of 2018 and possibly this decade. I simple took this as an example that even something as pure can fall victim to the relentless march of the RPG-Industrial Complex. It is beginning to set a dangerous precedent in modern gaming that every game must contain some RPG based element in order to prolong its life span and engage as many players as possible.
Do not get me wrong, not all RPG elements are bad and to remove all traces of such would be the wrong move too. I am simply saying more thought and caution must be exercised before brashly introducing such elements into your games as they can become a barrier to the elements that make your game truly shine.