We’ve always loved delving our imaginations in worlds not of our own and creating adventures. Even when we were kids, we’d play imaginary games where we’d pretend to be princesses, knights, wizards and adventurers. Adults have role-played for millennia with improvisational theatre throughout medieval Europe and role-playing events in Han China; in a way humanity have always had role playing games. But we really started what we call ‘RPGs’ with table-top games like the first one Dungeons and Dragons originally published in 1974 followed by its virtual counterpart video games which is what we’ll be focusing on.
Role-playing video games work similar to tabletop RPGs where there’s a main playable character, or multiple and the player can win by completing a series of quests or reaching the conclusion of the main storyline. The player explores around the game’s world while engaging in combat, collecting items, solving puzzles, and interacting with NPC’s or side characters. One of the main and standout features of the genre are that the characters can level-up and get stronger which changes the gameplay.
In the mid-seventies the first video game RPGs were made on huge computers like PDP-10 and Unix -based computers.
dnd (1974) was developed by Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood at Southern Illinois University. Obviously by the name it is inspirationally based off the tabletop dungeons and dragons; it includes a simple dungeon maze quest to retrieve the orb and the grail. Throughout the journey players gain new spells and items to help them further into the game. It was the first video game to have a non-linear progression as players could return to different levels of the game and was one of the first video games to feature what we now call bosses.
Dungeon (1975) was another fantasy RPG developed by Don Daglow at Claremont Graduate University. In the game the player would control multiple characters in a ‘party’ who adventure through a monster filled dungeon. As they travelled, they earned experience points and were able to gain new skills. It included melee combat, ranged combat, AI NPCs, and lines of sight.
Other RPGs of the 70s include:
- Pedit5 (1975)
- Beneath apple Manor (1978)
- Akalabeth: World of Doom (1979)
- Dungeon of death (1979)
80s and 90s
In the 80s more RPG video games like Rogue 1980 and Moira 1983 became popular on university campuses, but they also became more commercially available for computers at home.
One of the earliest games that was playable on a home computer was a game written by Peter Trefonas in 1980. The game was based off, once again, dungeons and dragons (not licensed) and it was made for a specific computer (TRS-80 Model 1). It only includes character generation, combat, traps, a store to buy equipment and a dungeon to explore.
The game Phantasie (1985) introduced in-game hints and background information, which was new to the genre, before a player would’ve had to read a manual or call a centre. This has now become commonplace for pretty much all games even outside the RPG genre.
RPGs then finally moved onto consoles with one of the earliest ones being Dragonstomper (1982) on the Atari 2600.
In 1986 and 1987 the RPG genre really established itself (notably in the U.S and Japan) with games like:
- Legend of Zelda
- Phantasy Star
- Final Fantasy
- Dragon Warrior 3
In the 90s, RPGs on consoles became more complex and detailed in the story telling aspect. With the engaging portrayal of the characters, their relationships with one another, their personalities and especially their romances had console RPGs leading the genre.
Computer RPGs established many classics during this time as well of course with games like Diablo, Elder Scrolls: Arena and Fallout 1 and 2.
With the use of optical disks in the late 1990s console RPGs incorporated better quests, sound and even video cutscenes. The best example is Final Fantasy VII, that had a production budget of around $45 million. The game includes 3D characters, battles viewed from multiple different angles, and CGI video that blended into the gameplay which had never been seen before. The game shortly became playable on the PC as well, which is now common for modern RPGs.
Late 90s and 2000s
As RPGs became even more popular after the 90s, sub-genres became more and more prevalent within the RPG genre.
MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game), although first made in the 90s, had several prominent games made during the 2000s that defined it as a sub-genre like RuneScape (2001), Ragnarok Online (2002), Final Fantasy XI (2003), and World of Warcraft (2004). MMORPGs allow players to interact with other players online and either collaborate or fight for certain objects, places or quests in the game.
Tactical RPGs that include strategy inspired by classic tabletop RPGs were further developed during this time as well as Sandbox RPGs or open-world RPGs which gave the player free roam of the world and several side quests and locations along with the main quest that the player could explore.
Japanese RPGs (JRPG) and western RPGs were considered to be different genres during this time and still are due to their common differences. JRPGs tend to have a more linear storyline, more in-depth characters, unrealistic(anime-like) aesthetic and a focus on more tactical style combat whilst western RPGs tend to focus on character creation, action-oriented combat, realistic looking characters, and freedom to explore the world. Of course, not all games developed in the west or Japan always follow the same rules, but they are considered different subgenres.
Some other notable RPGs from the 2000s include:
- Mass Effect (2007)
- Deus Ex (2000)
- Eve Online (2003)
- Demons Souls (2009)
- Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (2006)
- Fallout 3 (2008)
- Final Fantasy X (2001)
2010s and beyond
RPGs continue to improve alongside gaming technology with greater graphics, more enhanced and complex gameplay, more quests etc. Over time, more and more RPGs blur the lines between the sub-genres established during the 90s and 2000s, and it’s harder now to put games into specific categories with so many features being available and possible in one game.
Here’s some of the most influential and anticipated RPG games of the 2010s and 2020s so far:
- Mass Effect 2 (2010)
- God of War 3 (2010)
- Skyrim (2011)
- Dark Souls (2011)
- Undertale (2015)
- The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)
- Stardew Valley (2016)
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
- Horizon Zero Dawn (2017)
- Fire Emblem: Three Houses (2019)
- Cyberpunk 2077 (2020)