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Three Great Role-Playing Games–That Aren’t RPGs



Wikipedia would have us believe that RPGs are defined by a player taking on the role of a character, usually in a detailed world, and we are to accept that the hallmarks of the genre include “developed story-telling [sic] and narrative elements, player character development, complexity, as well as replayability and immersion.” One glaring issue with this description: Wikipedia doesn’t even really provide a definition. Rather, it describes the kind of things one tends to find in RPGs, not necessarily what they are. Furthermore, some have argued that “RPG,” as a genre, might not even exist. With all of this in mind, this article is less concerned with what RPGs are than it is with what RPGs do. This article seeks to explain how Papers, Please, L.A. Noire, and Crusader Kings II manage to do the work of RPGs–immersing players in a compelling role–without exhibiting the traits we traditionally associate with the RPG genre.

Papers, Please is probably the most unusual entry on this list, and it truly relies on interactivity to sell its concept. The player takes on the role of a border security official, inspecting documents and deciding whether immigrants and refugees may pass into glorious Arstotzka. Two things that stand out to the observer: one, that this is giving off some serious Cold War vibes–down to an East-West Berlin analogue–and two, that the role of the player sounds dreadfully boring. But the creator, Lucas Pope, uses mechanics and choice to create compelling, thematic dilemmas.

One decision as an example: do you separate a married couple because the wife is missing her entry permit? The morality may seem obvious until you come to the end of the day, when citations could cause pay docks, taking heating, food, and medical attention away from you and your family. Can you trust every sob story you hear? Can you act compassionately without being thrown in prison? Papers, Please immerses players in a totalitarian world, not by casting them as some freedom fighter or some soldier, but by casting them as a regular person trying to navigate an oppressive, dangerous situation. Papers, Please is an acute emotional experience, capturing the vital essence of life under a totalitarian regime.

Another entry which tries to capture the mood and aesthetic of another time period is L.A. Noire. However, while Papers, Please is concerned with the propaganda of Soviet-esque nation states–Glory to Arstotzka!–L.A. Noire seeks to emulate particular filmic depictions of 1940s L.A. Chinatown comes across as a distinct influence, and themes explored in that movie make an appearance in Noire; both pieces of media deal with corruption, abuses of power, and even the complicity (and sometimes direct participation) of the police in those abuses of power.

Unlike Papers, Please, L.A. Noire opts to put players in the shoes of a particular character: Cole Phelps. Early on, Phelps bears an uncanny resemblance to Captain America, and the likeness doesn’t stop with the fact that Aaron Staton is basically a normal-person version of Chris Evans. Phelps also served in World War II, albeit in the Pacific Theater, and other characters have a tendency to comment on his strict adherence to the rules. The audience is meant to understand that Phelps is an upstanding police officer stuck in the mire of a corrupt, violent city. Mechanically, this is reflected in the scoring system. Infractions are punished, and efforts to go above and beyond the call of duty are rewarded. Initially, this seems to reflect a desire to do the job by the books and earn praise and commendation on the part of Phelps. A desire which is then imparted to the player.

With this kind of structured role-play, players are incentivized to discover every clue, to suss out every lie, and even to obey the rules of the road. Phelps’s woke ideology (compared to his peers, anyway) also keeps his reactions to various events roughly in line with the reaction of players. Then, as we peel back the layers of Cole’s backstory, we discover that he’s not the all-American hero we’ve come to imagine. Somewhat ironically, by becoming alienated from our own character, we can relate to him better. We feel the same disillusionment Phelps does when we confront the seedy underbelly of L.A. together. Additionally, we understand Phelps’s career as a detective; he’s not motivated by commendation, but by atonement. But like Chinatown, L.A. Noire realizes that the world doesn’t always reward people who try to do right. That things can be horrifically unfair, and there’s no meaning to any of it. We’re left with a familiar sentiment, playing this role: “forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

In discussing abuses of power in video games, Crusader Kings II must eventually rear its head. This game is insidious. It’s probably one of the most immersive experiences of Realpolitik one can find in video games. In one of his videos, hbomberguy (now famous for championing trans rights on his Donkey Kong 64 stream with AOC herself appearing) describes the way Darkest Dungeon dehumanizes its characters by reducing their quirks and traits to statistics on a page–thereby rendering them disposable in order to prosecute a war against unspeakable evil. Crusader Kings II, on the other hand, dehumanizes its cast of (often historical) characters in order to establish a game board. A board on which thousands of people will die, but you won’t care, so long as your dynasty amasses the power it needs to survive and thrive in the callous cruelty of the middle ages.

This is great storytelling, and great role-playing, and it’s purely systems-driven. While CK II utilizes statistics and character development in ways comparable to RPGs, it opts out of complex, set-in-stone narratives. Rather, it forces players to create their own stories, to carve out a legacy in a fictionalized version of the historical medieval world. And unlike many RPGs, the choices you make are not contextualized personally. You don’t really have to confront the emotional fallout of your actions. People are represented by portraits, statistics, and sparse descriptions. And because your primary drive is to expand and consolidate power, these collections of portraits and statistics become a means to an end.

Marriages become pretenses for power grabs. Obstacles within the line of succession–even infants–may be removed, provided one has the power and influence to execute such plots. Unthinkable acts of cruelty are merely factors in a grim arithmetic, and one begins to see glimpses of characters like Tywin Lannister in their own machinations (one can also play as Tywin, with the right mod). Like Papers, Please, CK II conveys an emotional experience which, in all likelihood, bears resemblance to the experiences of real people. After all, if real kings didn’t necessarily need to see the consequences of their actions, if the results of their decisions were often conveyed to them via letters and missives, what were they capable of, provided it benefited them and their family? This game takes that question a step further; what are we capable of, placed in similar circumstances?

This is one of the fundamental strengths of good role-playing. While role-playing can be something the player does, it can also be something the developers build their game to facilitate. They can even push roles onto the player that they might not have chosen otherwise. It can cause us to reflect, to ask (sometimes uncomfortable) questions of ourselves. Furthermore, these games show that such role-playing need not be found in the RPG genre in particular. Papers, Please is a self-proclaimed dystopian document thriller, while L.A. Noire is an open-world action puzzler, and Crusader Kings II is a strategy game with simulation elements. It is worth interrogating genre conventions. Further than that, it is worth exploring whether compelling narrative experiences like role-playing can be accomplished in ways we have yet to imagine.



Brandon Curran was born in a damn desert before being spirited away to the arboreal paradise of Portland, Oregon. He likes grey skies, green trees, and a steady mist of rain. When he's not writing articles about game design, he's working on that book he's totally gonna finish. In his spare time, Brandon plays video games, paints miniatures, and mutters to himself

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‘Tecmo Bowl, the Godfather of NFL Games



Tecmo Bowl Retrospective

Tecmo Bowl was a big deal back in 1989!

With Madden growing more popular and even more complex every year, we sometimes forget about the game that started it all.

I cannot stress the importance of Tecmo Bowl twenty-nine years after its release. Originally an arcade game, Tecmo Bowl was ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System by the makers of such classics as Ninja Gaiden, Mighty Bomb Jack, and Solomon’s Key, and it took everyone by surprise by just how good it was. Nobody expected the Japanese developers of puzzle games and 2D platformers to succeed in creating a sports game, much less an American sports game, but they did. Named NES Sports Game of the Year, Tecmo Bowl provided players with the best football experience found on the NES console back in 1989 and it paved the way for what became the biggest trend in sports games to this day.

Although Tecmo didn’t have the official NFL license to use the actual team names and logos (the teams in the game are identified by their home city or state), the game features players from 12 NFL franchises due to being licensed by the NFLPA (National Football League Players Association). Nowadays this doesn’t seem like a big deal but back in 1989 it was huge! Tecmo Bowl features some of football’s greatest players including John Elway, Bo Jackson, Marcus Allen, Mike Singletary, Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Walter Payton, and Dan Marino, and when it shipped 29 years ago, it changed everything for sports video games.

Long before football video games became just as complex as real-life football, Tecmo Bowl laid the groundwork for what would be the standard moving forward. There aren’t many plays to choose from but you’re given the choice of 4 plays while on offense and another 4 while on defense. In addition, the game features three different modes: Single Player, Two Player, and Coaching mode which allows you to call plays while letting the CPU control the players on the field. The simple and responsive controls work perfectly within the framework of the game, and it is this simplicity that makes the game fun to play to this day. And regardless if you know don’t know much about the sport, anyone can easily follow along thanks to the broadcast camera view and two-button controls.


Tecmo Bowl is a seemingly effortless game in which everything falls neatly into place. It stripped football down to its basic elements and created a fun arcade experience anyone can enjoy. Tecmo Bowl was Madden before Madden was a household name. It’s the game that started the football franchise craze in video games and laid the groundwork for the even better, Tecmo Super Bowl. American football games have come a long way over the years, but what hasn’t changed is the sheer enjoyment any football fan can have when playing Tecmo Bowl.

Tecmo Bowl is without a doubt the granddaddy of football games, and there’s something to be said for the back-to-basics formula that Tecmo Bowl employed. With technological enhancements in gameplay, graphics, power, and speed, the original Tecmo Bowl seems incredibly dated in 2016, but surprisingly the game holds up nearly three decades later.

Side Note: There were two NES versions of the game released in the U.S. The first release is easily identified by its black and gold seal of quality and the second version by its white and gold seal. It should also be noted that the names of players were removed on the virtual console release.

Tecmo Bowl
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Game Reviews

‘Coffee Talk’ Review: The Best Brew in Town

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.



It’s 9:00pm. The rain just started coming down softly a few minutes ago, and the street outside is reflecting the lights above it. Neon signs shine brightly in the distance, although it’s hard to make out the words. You unlock the doors to the coffee shop and wipe down the counters in order to get them clean for the customers. The rain makes a soft sound as it hits the glass and passerby speed up their walking pace to avoid it. The bells chime as a tall, green orc walks in and sits down at your table in silence. You wonder what their story is…

I wanted to set the tone for this review because of how important atmosphere and audio/visual design is in the world of Coffee Talk. While it’s easy to boil the game down as a visual novel-type experience, it’s honestly so much more than that. A unique cast of characters, incredible user interface, and a mysterious protagonist combine to form the most enjoyable experience I’ve had this year on Switch.

Coffee Talk
Some of the subject matter can be pretty serious in nature…

Coffee Talk is beautiful because of how simple it is. The entire game takes place within a single coffee shop. As the barista, you’re tasked with making drinks for the patrons of the shop as well as making conversations with them. The twist is that earth is populated with creatures like orcs, werewolves, and succubi. The relationship between the various races is handled very well throughout the story, and some interesting parallels are made to the real world.

Making drinks is as simple as putting together a combination of three ingredients and hitting the ‘Serve’ button. If a unique drink is made, it will be added to a recipe list that can be referenced on the barista’s cell phone. This is where the awesome user interface comes in, as the phone has a series of apps that can be accessed at any moment in the game. One app houses your recipe list, another acts as a facebook for the characters in the game, one allows you to switch between songs, and the other houses a series of short stories that one of the characters in the game writes as it progresses. It’s one of the coolest parts of the whole experience and helps it stand out from other games in the genre.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

Coffee Talk cycles between talking with customers and making drinks for them. In the beginning, they will ask for basic beverages that can be brewed on the fly. Later on however, they may ask for a specific type of drink that has a unique title. These drinks often have certain descriptive features that hint at other possibilities in terms of unique dialogue. If the wrong drink is made, you’ll have five chances to trash it and make a new one. If the wrong drink is made, don’t expect the customer to be pleased about it.

The gameplay really is not the focus here though; it’s the characters and their stories that take center stage. An elf with relationship issues, a writer that can’t seem to pin down her next story, and an alien whose sole goal is to mate with an earthling are just a few of the examples of the characters you’ll meet during the story. There are tons of memorable moments throughout Coffee Talk, with every character bringing something unique to the table. The barista develops an interesting relationship with many of these characters as well.

Coffee Talk
Appearances can often be deceiving in this game.

Even though serving the wrong drinks can change some of the dialogue, don’t expect any sort of options or branching paths in terms of the story. It’s not that kind of experience; the story should simply be enjoyed for what it is. I found myself glued to the screen at the end of each of the in-game days, waiting to see what would happen in the morning. The first playthrough also doesn’t answer all of the game’s questions, as the second one is filled with all kinds of surprises that I won’t spoil here.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen. It’s an easy recommendation for anyone who loves video games, not just visual novel fans. There are characters in the game that I’ll certainly be thinking about for a long time, especially when the setting brings out the best in them. Don’t pass this one up.

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The Magic of Nintendo: How Mario and Zelda Connect us to Our Inner Child



Magic of Nintendo

Nintendo is special. Many excellent developers depend upon story or progression systems to entice engagement, but not Nintendo. Nintendo games captivate because of their immediate charm. There is no need for a payoff. The games, themselves, are enough: they elicit feelings, hard to find in adulthood. Through intrepid discovery, playful presentation, and unfiltered whimsy, the best of Nintendo connects gamers to their childlike selves.

The heart of any great Nintendo game is discovery and no encounter encapsulates this better than Breath of the Wild’s Eventide Island. First, finding the island requires genuine gumption. Found far from Hyrule’s shore, the island is only clearly visible from other islands, and even then, it’s only a speck in the distance. Reaching the island requires players to brave the open ocean and head towards something … that could be nothing. Then, upon arriving on the beach, a spirit takes all the player’s gear, including clothes and food. Link, literally, is left in his underwear. From there, players must make clever use of Link’s base skills in order to steal enemy weapons and make traps. The scenario creates a marvelous sense of self-sufficiency brought on by one’s own desire to discover. The player comes to the island purely of their own choosing, tackles the sea, and then overcomes obstacles without the aid of their strongest tools. The game turns players into plucky children who are discovering they can take care of themselves.

The intrepidity of Breath of the Wild and other Nintendo greats mirrors the feelings Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of many Nintendo franchises, experienced as a child. “I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish,” Miyamoto told the New Yorker. “That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation.” In sequences like Eventide Island, players don’t just understand what Miyamoto describes, they feel it: Apprehension gives way to exhilaration as the unknown becomes a place of play.

 Nintendo’s intrepid gameplay is often amplified by playful presentation with Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island being the quintessential example. The game’s visuals, defined by pastel colors and simple hand-drawings, appear crayoned by a child while the celestial chimes that punctuate the jubilant soundtrack evoke shooting stars. The overall effect cannot be understated. It takes the surreal and turns it real, allowing players to interact, tangibly, with imagination.

Super Mario Odyssey Wooden Kingdom

Even if one removes the presentation and gameplay from Nintendo’s masterpieces, an unabashed creativity remains that bucks norm and convention. The arbiter is fun; reason and logic have no say. For instance, Super Mario Odyssey’s Wooded Kingdom, takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting akin to Nier Automata. Players explore the metal remnants of a civilization that has become a lush home to robotic beings. However, unlike Nier, the dark undertones of the past have no bearing on the game or those who inhabit its universe. The post-apocalyptic setting is just a fun backdrop. It’s as though a bunch of children got together, began playing with toys, and one of the kids brought along his sibling’s adult action figures. There is no attention paid to the context, only unfiltered imagination.

When they’re at their best the creators at Nintendo invite gamers to come and play, like a parent arranging a play date. Pulled along by joyful gameplay that expands in unforeseen ways, players desire to play for the sake of play. It’s a halcyon state of being: No messy thoughts or contradiction, just joy.

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