Role-playing games (RPGs) have been part of the video game industry since the 1980s. They have changed so much over time, and unfortunately this genre is one of the most degraded and watered down in this day and age (right next to PvP shooters) to the point where it is seriously endangered in the mainstream gaming industry.
One of the biggest problems that damages RPGs is the fact that most gamers don’t even know what RPGs are. These days, any game with a skill tree and dialogue boxes is called an RPG. So, to start off this article we will remind everyone what RPGs are, before showing how far video game RPGs have fallen compared to 10-15 years ago. Please continue reading on the next page.
Brief History of RPGs
Moving past video games for a moment, RPGs began as tabletop or pen and paper games. Like board games… but far more complex. Dungeons & Dragons is the most famous example.
What was the original purpose of role-playing games? Simulation of another life. Thus, it is intertwined with realism; realism in encounters with others, in cause and effect. Escape from reality and live another life through role-playing games. So much detail and actual role-playing is present in tabletop RPGs, normal video game don’t come close. To get a better understanding, read handbooks for D&D or other tabletop RPGs. Previous ones can be found for free online. Also check out YouTube videos of tabletop RPGs in action, or try digitalized pen and paper RPGs like Fantasy Grounds: Dungeons and Dragons.
But we can elaborate a little more for those hesitant to read handbooks. Pen and paper RPGs have so much more depth than video games; more stats (attributes and skills) to more accurately replicate physiology, mentality, and skillset of your player character. Video game RPGs have some of these things but are missing a lot. Furthermore, pen and paper RPGs have much stronger reactions to all of these things; to your appearance (governed by physical attributes), your race, your intelligence, charisma and wit, to every skill and lack of skill. Some video game RPGs (few today) try these things but never to the extent of pen and paper RPGs.
However, based on this, it’s clear that a video game RPG must, in some way, shape, or form, provide statistical control over core physical and personality aspects of the protagonist. Because that is role-playing. The protagonist is your character, not necessarily scratch made. Commander Shepard from Mass Effect for example is different for everyone, while Geralt of Rivia from The Witcher is the same for everyone.
Glimpse at class choices in Neverwinter Nights 2. It has 15 base classes and all players must choose one. It also has 24 prestige classes with very specific requirements for each, which players may take on later in the game if they meet the requirements.
The well designed stat system of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. Well designed undoubtedly because it hails from a tabletop RPG.
An argument I’ve seen against this (thus, an argument in favor of lesser RPGs over greater RPGs) goes along the lines of:
I don’t want to be a hero and change the world. I want to play as a mundane character.
But superior RPGs, pen and paper being the ultimate, allow for more mundane roles and again more realism. Heroism has nothing to do with it, the goal is realism. It’s not about shaping the world, it’s about realistic cause and effect which even mundane actions have.
Time for a specific example. You see, our own administrator Enad uses the above argument. All this demonstrates is a lack of knowledge about RPGs. The example he cited and argued in favor of was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim which probably has more mundane roles available to the player than any other video game. You can actually be a lumberjack for a living, or a miner, or various levels of scholar. You can be a family man. The game provides actions for this, gameplay for it. Yet no matter what you do in Skyrim, there is very little to absolutely zero impact regardless of the type of character you play as. Regardless of your race, size, and whatever role you take. Sometimes guards will have one new line of dialogue depending on your role or armor, but that’s it. No depth.
But if Skyrim was as good an RPG as Fallout 2 or Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, being a lumberjack in a town would get you recognition as a town local, and more than one line of dialogue would materialize from this (whereas Skyrim has zero impact or new dialogue from things like this). If you become a mage scholar, lots of Skyrim should fear and despise you and some quest givers shouldn’t give you quests, because magic is feared in Skyrim. If you’re a Khajiit, you should really be banned from cities and be looked down upon and encounter lots of racism, but get lots of unique dialogue with other Khajiit. If you’re a Dunmer (Dark Elf), the racism you encounter should be even worse. Many quests would not be given to you, many traders wouldn’t deal with you, and forget about joining the Stormcloak army. Most of the game would be drastically different, like playing as Nosferatu or Malkavian races in Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, a much deeper RPG.
As you can see, none of this has anything to do with being a hero or supervillain. It’s just realism, simulation. That’s what RPGs are all about, but most modern video game RPGs have forgotten. Most are shallow, lazy, static, and unresponsive. But we’ll talk more about this on the next page.
The Degradation of Video Game RPGs
Continuing from where we left off on the previous page, a well designed video game RPG is a very multifaceted game that can be vastly different for each playthrough; different in terms of gameplay, character encounters, plot, story, dialogue. We’re lucky if we get a video game RPG these days that provides the gameplay variety (via character builds) to be vastly different each playthrough. Anything beyond this is a rarity to say the least.
Bethesda games provide the gameplay variety, a very solid amount of it, but lack everything else. Fallout 4 is the biggest offender since it lacks the character builds and roles offered by The Elder Scrolls. The Fallout franchise has always been all about deep role-playing but Bethesda fails to deliver. As far as role-playing goes, all Fallout 4 has going for it is a solid amount of character builds to result in diverse combat and other gameplay interactions. The plot has a major faction choice that completely changes most of it, but the story is awful. Dialogue? Mostly the same every time. Bethesda never made highly responsive dialogue to anything, the best they’ve ever done was with reputation in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind in which low reputation loads one set of dialogues, and higher loads a lot more (with some variation depending on how high).
Recent BioWare games provide a decent amount of gameplay variety although not as much as many others (including past BioWare games), they have a responsive enough plot, dialogues and character encounters do change substantially, although you are forced into a hero role in all recent BioWare games. Also, the dialogue and plot changes are the result of your actions, not so much your character build. Dragon Age: Inquisition has some unique dialogue based on your race and class, but nothing game changing. Mass Effect trilogy is actually designed to be a somewhat limited RPG but makes good use of what it does offer, like Paragon vs Renegade personality.
Divinity: Original Sin only has the gameplay diversity. Pillars of Eternity has a good amount of gameplay variety and has lots of race and religion based dialogue and other prompts, but not the most responsive plot or best designed player dialogue. Wasteland 2 makes decent but predictable use of three dialogue skills, and has some pleasantly realistic responses to drastic player actions.
The Witcher games offer none of this diversity. They are more action adventure games than RPGs. One playstyle only with some slight variation. Predefined protagonist down to all specifics; all physical aspects are predefined as is his personality. Stat system provides no fundamental control, only control over combat related talents. This protagonist is always the same for all players and playthroughs, due to its novel heritage. It has lightly RPG inspired elements (the first game more so than its sequels) but none are full fledged RPGs. Yet, this is what people think is an excellent RPG, simply because they don’t know what an RPG is.
We’re mostly left with games that aren’t really RPGs, or mediocre or worse RPGs. The last great RPG seems to have been Fallout: New Vegas. So many ways to play the game, so many ways to play the story and quests. We wrote all about it here. This game came out in 2010, so that doesn’t even represent the current generation of gaming (DirectX 11 was being shown for the first time in games, barely, PS4/XBOX One weren’t yet released, etc.)
Comparing Fallout: New Vegas to Fallout 4 will easily demonstrate the degradation of video game RPGs. The most blatant difference is in dialogue. Fallout: New Vegas has lots of dialogue unique to your character build, and it significantly alters character encounters. Fallout 4 has none of this, just a persuasion check based on Charisma score which hardly affects the encounter and this Charisma based dialogue option is always the same whether or not you meet the Charisma requirement. Compared to New Vegas which offers:
In New Vegas, there were many different dialogue checks; that is, an actual unique dialogue option for different attributes, skills, and even perks. This includes but is not limited to:
- Speech skill and Charisma score (Fallout 4 combines these into one which is fine, nothing is lost)
- Intelligence (also prominent in Fallout 3)
- Low Intelligence + High Speech
- Low Intelligence + Low Speech (it probably has High Intelligence + High Speech options too but I don’t remember off the top of my head)
- Perception (also prominent in Fallout 3)
- Barter (also prominent in Fallout 3)
- Sneering Imperialist
- Occasionally other skills like Explosives, Guns, Unarmed, and Survival
- Occasionally it has dialogue options for perks that the player has like Cannibal, Lady Killer/Black Widow/Confirmed Bachelor like I said before (although I left out the latter since it’s missing from Fallout 4), Terrifying Presence, and probably others.
In addition, the dialogue here was completely different depending on whether or not the player is above or below the conversation requirement. If a conversation has an option that required a Perception score of 8 for example, and the player only has a Perception score of 6, the player’s dialogue would be different than if he/she had a Perception of 8 or above. This applies to Speech, Charisma, Intelligence, Perception, Barter, Science, Medicine, and other dialogue checks, while others wouldn’t show up at all unless you met the requirement (all perk dialogue choices are like this, and most Strength ones).
Dialogue also leads to actions. More dialogue changes as shown above leads to more outcomes, more cause and effect, more role-playing. A lot more, and it’s not even close.
Both games have essentially the same stat system, but Fallout 4’s barely affects your player character’s personality and dialogue. While New Vegas effectively lets you play as so many different kinds of people, using those dialogue choices which are based on your character build.
Both games let you act however you want, but there are more consequences in New Vegas. Consequences and changes in general, based on your character build and actions. Fallout 4 is much too shallow to be a decent simulation, unlike much deeper RPGs. It’s an action game/shooter first and foremost.
But even New Vegas is less of an RPG than Fallout 2 in just about every way. Fallout 2 has a reputation system which can greatly affect dialogue and attitudes toward you, and if your reputation is extreme enough it will prohibit you from getting certain quests. NPCs may or may not be hostile toward you depending on reputation. But of course it isn’t global thus some NPCs won’t know about it. Again, realism is the goal of RPGs.
Fallout 2 also has various titles, which are given to you based on achievements. These can also affect dialogue and encounters significantly. Anything you do, down to little things like sneaking out in the open which will get suspicion cast your way. Bothering someone who doesn’t want to be bothered will have consequences. Piss off the leader of a community enough and get expelled from said community. If you play as an extremely attractive female, many character encounters will start off and end totally differently and NPCs will take different courses of action with you. Play as a very low intelligence character and the entire game (all dialogues) are completely different. And much, much more.
Modern RPGs are almost always afraid to include what they perceive as too much role-playing. So it isn’t only laziness that’s causing RPGs to deteriorate. Using our previous examples of playing as Dunmer or Khajiit in Skyrim, Bethesda did not want to restrict any race/character build from any quest even though it’s against logic. Realistic consequences and cause and effect is too hardcore for casual gamers. Getting banned from a city or planet will frustrate most gamers.
Games like Fallout, Fallout 2, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, Planescape: Torment, and Neverwinter Nights 2 are much too hardcore, confusing, open ended, and overwhelming for your average gamer. They don’t tell you exactly what to do or how to do it, and there are many ways to approach and complete quests, all of which being logical. If one were to truly role-play and treat RPGs more like reality rather than think of them as video games, then excessive hand holding shouldn’t be required. RPGs are meant to be treated as real, that’s the point of role-playing. But the video game industry has forgotten.
Furthermore, higher levels of role-playing doesn’t sell games. Most people simply won’t notice it, evidenced by the praise for The Witcher games as RPGs when they’re barely RPGs, and the blindly nostalgic remarks about Baldur’s Gate being some kind of great RPG when it’s really quite the opposite. So again, the biggest problem here is people, the gamers themselves who are too easily manipulated and deceived.
Of course, people will have concerns about this more hardcore, realistic role-playing with unforgiving consequences. Is it fun? The best answer is to try it for yourself and see. Fallout, Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, Neverwinter Nights 2 and its expansions. Try them. Personally I’ve never had more fun in a video game. The better an RPG is, the more it caters to you. Isn’t that fun and appealing?
I have also seen people claim that action games cannot be RPGs. That argument went along the lines of:
Mass Effect is a cover shooter, not an RPG.
In truth, nothing prevents an RPG from taking any kind of gameplay form. Hence why there are so many different kinds of tabletop RPGs, whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons, Numenera, Cyberpunk, or Vampire: The Masquerade. Nothing in their rulebooks says that video game adaptations must have turn-based or pause-and-play tactical gameplay mechanics. Nope, action gameplay probably makes the most sense for Vampire: The Masquerade. Hence why Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, a video game adaptation, is an action game… and only Fallout 2 clearly has more role-playing than it with regard to video game RPGs.
With that out of the way, let’s summarize everything on the next and final page.
Realistic reactivity, cause and effect, many possible shoes to fill, many different gameplay styles which can take on any form depending on the RPG in question (shooter – Fallout: New Vegas and Mass Effect, action/stealth – Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, turn-based or pause-and-play like so many). Endless replayability. Such quality RPGs were not rare in the past (from around 1997 to 2010, one could probably be found every year), but now we’re on a six year draught. With the booming popularity of not-so-much RPGs like The Witcher 3, the constant downward spiral of Bethesda and BioWare (even if their games aren’t bad games overall), it’s a worrysome situation for RPG fans.
We recently created an RPG tier list. The lack of tier 1-3 RPGs these days, and the fact that tier 1 is occupied by only one game, are both scary. It would only be an improvement for most RPGs to be tier 3 or better. Some more specific, specialized RPGs like Mass Effect are an exception. Personally, these days I have zero excitement for RPGs with less role-playing than the tier 3 games on that list, and even those are a far cry from tiers 1 and 2.
So in this day and age we are left with action adventure video games with a few (often loosely) inspired RPG elements, or indie RPGs that are respectable but still a far cry from the masterpieces we have gotten in the past (ignoring subjectivity, these indie games still don’t have nearly as much role-playing as the games we’ve praised here). They’ve all gotten simpler, more straightforward, more limited. The mainstream AAA RPGs are of course the biggest offenders, as mainstream AAA games are almost always the most dumbed down.
The future does not look good. Obsidian and InXile are still around, they’re some of the only studios who still try. But they have yet to reach the heights they have in the past (indirectly speaking for inXile). Torment: Tides of Numenera has been delayed a thousand times, seeing a different release date each time, which is worrysome.
But remember, a great RPG has tremendous replay value. Some people have been playing them for over a decade, always finding new content. Mods are very helpful here as well, as most of the greatest RPGs are heavily moddable. So don’t be afraid to try the ones that rank higher on our tier list, as they all work fine with some tweaking/mods save for Planescape: Torment which has stability issues. Excellent design transcends age and release date, after all.