This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.NBA 2K13 game. But it also feels like an RPG.
That nebulous feeling of similarity to RPGs isn't one I've had with basketball games before, going back 25 years to Omni-Play Basketball. But I get that feeling here, with NBA 2K13, because, in an odd way, it aims for a realistic presentation. It wants to look and feel like real basketball. But there's a lot of difference between the intensely physical real-world sport of basketball, and the abstract form of a video game. Compromises have to be made.
Sometimes something amazing happens, like the situation I described in the first paragraph, a critical hit where everything goes right. In Dragon Age, I press the attack button on an Ogre, but instead of just seeing my rogue swing his dagger, he'll instead jump on its back and drive his weapon into the back of the Ogre's skull, like Legolas in Lord Of The Rings. In NBA 2K13, I see my point guard step around his defender, jump toward the basket, and shoot his layup at the proper angle such that the defender can't block the shot, but does foul my guy. Even though that badass animation involves my in-game avatar taking actions I don't control, I still feel accomplished, because I understood the game, took intelligent risks, and was rewarded.
This is not to say that NBA 2K13 is a role-playing game, simply that it often appeals to me in the same way that an RPG does. However, there are a few paths that go directly from NBA 2K13 to traditional RPGs. One of those runs straight through Blood Bowl.
What's most important is that each player has a set of statistics and skills, which interact with one another in transparent fashion. Blood Bowl is quite clear about how simple its rules are, and it publishes every single dice roll, up to and including a "dice roll" sound each time the game processes an event. Have your ball carrier run past an enemy, you see that she rolls a four and can keep going. On the next try, she rolls a two, gets tackled, loses the ball, and ends your turn.
There are other components of Blood Bowl that tie it directly to the RPG genre. You recruit your characters, watch them gain levels, develop their skills and stats over a career, for example. Yet it's also just as obviously a sports game. By making its mechanics transparent, Blood Bowl perhaps inadvertently sheds light on the entire sports game genre. What it accomplishes in one or two published dice rolls in a turn-based fantasy tactics game are the same things that a game like NBA 2K13 accomplishes in a high-profile, apparently realistic sports sim, using exponentially more complicated statistics and variables. The same concepts apply.
Alternately (or simultaneously), you can play as a team, managing player improvement, contracts, etc. The latter – "Franchise mode" – has become increasingly prevalent in all sports games, although it's long been part of the genre, like in the aforementioned Omni-Play Basketball from 1989. This is closer to a strategy game than a role-playing game, but the core ideas of having a balanced party/team and ensuring proper distribution of resources are very RPG-like.
So forget old-fashioned jocks versus nerds stereotypes in the realm of video games. There are intersections and connections between even the most disparate genres. Demonstrating that opens the door for RPGs to more commonly move outside the realm of fantastical combat and into different settings.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.