Retinking Categories: BioShock and the RPG-FPS divide
Critical Distance recently did a retrospective of BioShock criticism. It was a good post and made me want to go back and play the game. Which I did—for many, many hours when I should have been writing something else. Critical Distance’s (and 2K’s) fault—not mine.
Anyway… As I was remembering the good times and considering some of the fascinating criticism given about the game, I had a thought—I consider BioShock a member of the FPS category of games, but what really is the difference between BioShock and, for that matter, Goldeneye, Halo and Half Life and an RPG. The perspective is different, sure, but that being said, in these FPSs and you play a character who’s given objectives and missions and must accomplish an overarching goal. Read: these are basically first-person RPGs. Well, actually, there are some substantive differences.
Most RPGs have impetus the development of your character. Another difference is the focus on items and skill-building. In many FPS games, your character’s health and weapons kit remains pretty constant throughout the game. BioShock (which I’ll return to), Deus Ex and Oblivion are obvious exceptions to this.
As I said, you’re still playing a character who interacts with other characters and accomplishes quests to achieve end-game. This is the principal of every RPG and many FPS games. So why not, based on this, stuff these FPS games under that same umbrella as RPGs—FPS-RPG, perhaps?
Which brings me to BioShock. By taking substantive elements from both FPSs and RPGs, BioShock fuzzies the boundary between RPG and FPS. In BioShock we develop a character with a range of in-game skills, collect money to buy certain things and hunt Little Sisters to be able to enhance said skills. Yet you wield a weapon like most FPS games. Clearly, the developers refused to be constrained by their predecessors in the RPG and FPS genres; they refused to pick a camp. And this blurring of categorical boundaries is fascinating for the critic and forces us all to ponder what the difference is beyond perspective.
I put forward two explanations for the divide.
The first is quite simple: both genres emerged from difference places but are working to similar ends. The makers of FPS games come from the Wolfenstein and Doom tradition. Certain environmental, mechanical and gameplay features must be present. The same can be said for RPG developers emerging from the backdrop of twelve-sided dice and Dungeons and Dragons. In addition to this, in video gaming both groups aim to immerse the player in a realistic—but not realist—and interactive world where the players becomes a character with goals and aims. I must remind you that I mean FPS developers making narrative-based games. FPS, as I see it, accurately describes Counterstrike and Quake but not necessarily Goldeneye and Half Life.
Now to the second explanation—Central to this is that we may hinge this categorical difference on the idea of character development. In games traditionally classified as RPGs you develop the skill of the character that represents you in the game; in FPS games, it’s your skill in the real world—your first-person skill—that needs to be raised to accomplish harder missions. As your twitch skills and lateral thinking about environments improve in FPS games, you’re more successful. On the other hand, in traditional RPGs, to be more successful you must kill X monsters to gain Y experience to deal more damage and beat higher-level bosses.
I argue we can define these games not just on the grounds of the perspective from which you play the game, but where the skills emerge: in role-playing FPS games the skills develop in the actual player as opposed to the character, like in traditional RPGs. Both types of games reward longer gameplay, but where in RPGs its simple maths—more time grinding means better character—FPSs reward your physical ability used for actually playing the game. A nice case of this might be Counterstrike vs. WoW. My points above are applicable—better CS players have developed their skills where WoW players have developed their character’s skills and attributes.
As I mentioned BioShock takes substantive elements from both camps and can thus be described by both of the explanations given above. This results in a game that forces us to ask the question put forward in this article: what is the difference between many FPS games and RPGs? And, as is the want of this blog, BioShock advocates questions (I am Touche, Bitches! and I am here to ask you a question…) about video game categories and definitions. I recommend looking at the Critical Distance critical commentary for some great sources and discussions.