• The Pseudo RPG Versus a Real RPG


    The term "RPG" or Role-Playing Game is thrown around too loosely in the gaming industry, to the point where the term has become highly misused and misleading. This article will serve as clarification. There are a number of games that share gameplay mechanics with many video game RPGs, yet they are not RPGs because these gameplay mechanics alone have nothing to do with role-playing.

    To avoid confusion, one must actually understand what "role-playing" means and where it comes from (despite the term being self-explanatory). It comes from pen and paper RPGs back in the 1970s, pioneered by Dungeons & Dragons. Role-playing exists in the same form in all pen and paper RPGs, and all of the earlier video game RPGs up until the start of the 21st century when the first well known "Pseudo RPG" was released. That game, the one that really pioneered the "Pseudo RPG" type game, was Deus Ex, created by Ion Storm and published by Eidos in 2000. That's right, Deus Ex is not a true, full fledged RPG since it falls short of meeting the definition created and maintained by pen and paper RPGs (which video game RPGs come from directly). It has gameplay mechanics that many RPGs also happen to have, but none of that contributes to role-playing on its own.

    Note that Pseudo RPG is not a derogatory term. What Eidos did with Deus Ex in 2000 and Anachronox in 2001 is an incredible artistic feat; they borrowed mechanics popularized by video game RPGs, tailored them to their own visions, and created two masterpieces back to back as a result. Masterpieces that are not lesser games, not lesser works of art, than any video game RPG. Yet neither Deus Ex nor Anachronox are RPGs because they do not have role-playing. This is not a downside or a flaw. RPG is just one genre, a small part of the art form that is gaming. It is not the art form. Which brings us to the mostly self-explanatory definition of role-playing, as defined by pen and paper RPGs and the first few waves of video game RPGs.


    Anachronox, like Deus Ex and every other game we call a "Pseudo RPG" in this article, force you to play as a set character. The protagonist's personality is predefined and you cannot change it. This is the exact opposite of how RPGs are designed. See any pen and paper RPG such as Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, Vampire: The Masquerade, and Cyberpunk 2020, as well as any true video game RPG such as those listed here, especially tier 3 and above. On the other hand, this is not a flaw or even a downside; these games simply go for something else. Anachronox in particular, pictured above, features one of the funniest protagonists of any game and he makes the game a better experience.

    Role-playing is the ability to create or assume, and tailor a role within a world or story. To do so, in some way, shape, or form the player must be able to control and define his/her character's innate physical and mental/personality attributes, as well as alignment. This does not necessitate creating a player character from scratch, nor does it mandate a clearly defined alignment system mechanic, but it does mandate the ability to change who the player character is. Through dialogue and actions, the player will further define these things about the player character while advancing through the world or story, gaining experience along the way. The goal is to allow the player to define who their player character is, and journey through a world that reacts to your unique player character and your actions in various ways.

    The simplest, most important concept in that definition is the ability to change who the player character is, which is done by defining their innate physical, mental, and personality attributes. If a game does not have this, as Deus Ex and Anachronox do not (you can modify JC Denton's physical attributes via augmentations and choose his skills, but you cannot change his personality), then they do not meet the requirements for role-playing as defined by pen and paper RPGs (the original RPGs), thus they are not RPGs. And when discussing gameplay mechanics, if the mechanic in question has no relation to role-playing as per that definition (which is the common denominator for all pen and paper RPGs) then that mechanic has no inherent relation to the concept of role-playing, e.g. dialogue windows, combat ability trees, and class based gameplay. Don't just take our word for it, ask yourself how gameplay mechanics like these are inherently tied into the concept of role-playing.

    But Deus Ex and Anachronox are not the only Pseudo RPGs, and we have yet to explain the mechanics they feature that resemble mechanics in actual RPGs. On the next page, we will explain all of this.