If "Rock Band" isn't the best role-playing game of the year, then I might have to nominate "Little Big Planet" for that award. Or "Guitar Hero." Or "Spore."
Many years ago, words started to fail fans of video games. Three words, in particular, that seem to be doing a poor job describing the games they are attached to are "Role Playing Game."
Or maybe the games are failing the words, because the games that everyone else calls RPGs -- the "Final Fantasy"s and "Oblivion"s and "The World Ends With You"s aren't making me feel like I'm playing a role nearly as well as the games I mentioned up top.
"Little Big Planet" is a role-playing game? Allow me to explain:
What did anyone ever mean by the term "Role Playing Game"? Such games were the ones that made you someone else, that told a story, that, possibly, sprang from "Dungeons and Dragons." They weren't action games. They weren't racing games. They weren't flight simulators. An RPG's lead character would usually have to exhibit some growth, calculated by and expressed with statistics. "Fallout" was an RPG. "Zelda 2" was. So would be "Fable" and "Final Fantasy."
In 2008, I have a different list of games to suggest should be characterized by the term "role playing game:"
"Rock Band" is a role-playing game.
"Guitar Hero" is a role-playing game.
"Little Big Planet" is a role-playing game.
"Spore" is a role-playing game.
Who is the "Rock Band" player when they play that game?
To role-play is to become someone else. To role-play effectively is to buy one's own act and have those around you buy it too. Who is the "Rock Band" player when they play that game? They are a rock star. As the player, you can feel it. As an observer, you can see it.
'Little Big Planet" and "Spore" offer their players a less obviously alluring role, but one that is being eagerly accepted: game designer. Yes, after all the opportunities to be sword-swinging heroes and saviors of humanity, the chance to design one's own game characters and levels is proving to be the defining thrill of 2008. More than 25 million characters, vehicles and buildings have been crafted by "Spore" players. "Little Big Planet," just launched as an invitation-only beta last week, is already densely populated with the handiwork of wanna-be Shigeru Miyamotos and Jonathan Blows, everyone trying to use Media Molecule's customizable PS3 game to create the sidescrollers formerly locked in their imaginations.
"Little Big Planet" ... is already densely populated with the handiwork of wanna-be Shigeru Miyamotos and Jonathan Blows
Nobody playing "Spore" and "Little Big Planet" are operating as true game designers. They are no more designing games from scratch any more than players of "Guitar Hero" are working off sheet music. But -- or because of that -- it sure seems like gamers are having a fun time pretending to. They're playing the role. They're living the fantasy. Compare that to the experience presented by the the games I used to call role-playing games, the "Fallout," "Fable" or "Final Fantasy" games. Those now seem merely like enjoyable scripts I can orchestrate at a puppetry playhouse. They don't turn me into someone else with the effectiveness of "Spore" or "Rock Band."
The old role-playing games were defined by what I could do and, in theory, who I could be. Many of them are among the greatest games ever made and they exist in a genre that will hopefully continues to flourish. But their genre name suits a different group of games better, I think. It is the "Guitar Hero"s and "Little Big Planet"s that are the games that, these days, make me feel like someone else. It's "Rock Band" and "Spore" that are the true role-playing games, the promise of a gaming medium that can truly let us imagine we are playing a fantasy life.
If you're with me, then, what should we call the old role-playing games? Story Games?