Waiter, waiter! There's an RPG in my FPS!

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.

Waiter, waiter! There's an RPG in my FPS!

It would be easy to say that many of today's first-person shooters are more RPG-like than ever before. Between the Borderlands franchise, Dead Island and the recent Far Cry 3, several high-profile FPS games have included quests, experience points, and skill trees. The mix seems like a great match – first-person shooters are built around perspective and interface, whereas role-playing games rely more on mechanics and statistics. Nothing says they can't go together.

Indeed, they traditionally have gone together. Many RPGs during the 1980s and into the 1990s used the first-person perspective for dungeons or the entire game, although it was usually tile-based (you moved forward, sideways, or backward one large step at a time). In the early 1990s, there was a race between the shooter Wolfenstein 3D and the RPG Ultima Underworld to become the first free-movement first-person game. As the FPS genre became increasingly popular, deviations from simple shooting became more common, like Strife, a game that used the Doom engine but added non-player characters and branching quest lines involving player choice, or Jedi Knight, which included Force skills to develop.

At the end of the 1990s, the superb Deus Ex managed to fuse both role-playing games and first-person shooters into a coherent whole. This wasn't an RPG with shooter bits, nor was it a shooter with RPG elements; it was both genres, in their totality, together at once. This was a neat trick, and one that hasn't really been duplicated, not even by Deus Ex's sequels.

Waiter, waiter! There's an RPG in my FPS!

The crucial issue is this: first-person shooters reward player skill. The faster you are at aiming, the better you are at moving, the more likely you will succeed in an FPS. Role-playing games can involve that (especially action-RPGs), but they always rely on character skill. Your character statistics, items, and skills will help you succeed, or cause you to fail, regardless of how speedy you are with a mouse or a controller. Deus Ex managed to find just the right balance where both player and character skill were important for success.

Generally, the balance leans toward the shooter side. For example, Far Cry 3 is at its best as a pure shooter, freed from the constraints of its plot or the necessity of its skill system. Spy, plan, aim, reload, run, hide, and do it again. Sure, the skills can help a bit, but it's easy to imagine Far Cry 3 without them, as previous games in that series were. This is a consistent issue in most FPS/RPG hybrids. Looking back back a decade to No One Lives Forever 2, there's another sequel to a cult hit first-person shooter with a skill system that, while not necessarily bad, didn't enhance the core setting and mechanics that made its prequel so astonishing.

Even in games with more robust role-playing systems, balance is still critical. 2011's Deus Ex: Human Revolution had a skill tree that was more critical than Far Cry 3's, but it wasn't entirely balanced with the rest of the game. By the time I was halfway through the game, I had every skill that I thought I wanted or needed, so I just spent the game's Praxis points on anything that might have seemed at all useful at some point, even if it didn't fit my play-style and I never used it. Even a classic like BioShock succeeded in large part by suppressing the importance of its skills and treating them more as another weapon to be managed, shooter-style, than as a full hybrid. You could shoot an enemy with a shotgun or you could shoot him with bees, in other words.

Waiter, waiter! There's an RPG in my FPS!

On the other hand, Borderlands and Dead Island both attempt to be robust role-playing games as well as shooters. In their looks alone, you can see how much damage you're doing to enemies when you shoot or stab them, a visualization almost exclusively reserved for RPGS. Their skill improvements are consistently useful over the course of their respective games as well. But they too struggle with the tension between player and character skill, particularly in terms of how difficult they are. A game balanced for increasing player skill will add more constraints, more enemies, or tougher enemies (say, with armor that forces you to attack only specific body parts) in order to maintain difficulty. A game balanced for character skill, however, can increase difficulty simply by increasing the statistics of enemies in order to align with the player character's statistics.

Borderlands does the latter, by making enemy levels static, steadily increasing in new zones that the player has access to. Skags and bandits in front of the initial town will always be very low-level, and as your characters' power increases, they put up less and less of a fight. This makes growing in power immensely satisfying in RPG terms, but it can render the shooter half of the game dull, especially if you find yourself over-leveled, something that severely damaged my enjoyment of Borderlands.

Waiter, waiter! There's an RPG in my FPS!

Dead Island takes the opposite tactic: it levels up enemies to match your character. The advantage to this is that no matter how far you progress in the game, its normal zombies – Walkers, Infected, and Thugs – will always pose roughly the same level of challenge, where you have to hit them a few times to take them down, and where more than three at once can pose a serious threat. The disadvantage to that model is that the normal enemies all present roughly the same level of challenge. According to my skill tree, I've made significant progress, but in terms of how I'm playing the game it's almost exactly the same at level 30 as it was at level 5.

Despite the near-total consonance of role-playing games and first-person shooters at a theoretical level, the tension between player and character skill makes creating a hybrid surprisingly difficult. The issues of balance and difficulty, possessed by both genres individually, are exponentially more difficult when combined. Deus Ex showed that it was possible to get that balance right, but it takes something special. That doesn't mean that FPS/RPG hybrids can't be great games. It just means that those hybrids being both satisfying RPGs and shooters at the same time is rare, and worth celebrating when it works.

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.