Is the essence of RPGs lost nowadays? To me, it almost feels like the RP has been taken out of the G, so to speak. I look back on my history as a gamer and find myself wondering where things went wrong. I spent six years playing World of Warcraft, a game that markets itself as an MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), but where’s the RP? Sure, you’re naming your own character and choosing how their hair and face looks. And, ok, so you can choose your race and class as well. But what sets you apart from every other Paladin? You can never be as powerful and well known as Tirion, the new Ashbringer. After all, he’s the one who really brought down Arthas, not you. And let’s be honest, no one really cares how great of a Shaman you are because Thrall is the one the history books will write about because he held back the storm of the Maelstrom. You were just another peon that helped. You’re just thrown in the background of your faction’s army and history is written with you as being a part of the masses with everyone else. Your character never has any personal development outside of gear and spec. Truth be told, WoW just feels like another fantasy adventure action game, no different from other actions games that allow you to take control of a premade character. And it’s not alone in this aspect. RPGs are supposed to make you feel like you’ve made a difference in the world you’re playing in. I know that in every game you “make a difference”, but I want it to be made and appear the way it does because of my own decisions, not solely because a game’s pre-determined storyline led me to that point.
The key part of all this is that it has to feel like YOU yourself are the hero. If you’re playing as another character, then this effect seems lost. Think of a game like Metal Gear Solid. When you beat the game, it’s Snake that saved the day, not you, which is why MGS isn’t an RPG. This aspect is where RPGs are supposed to shine above other game genres. Ultimately the most important part of an RPG, at least for me, is that my actions have consequences and that the things I do have an impact on the world. Once again though, I have to feel like I’m the one who made the difference, not just another character that I’m controlling. I know some people might not agree with my point of view but, in my opinion, an RPG is a game where you make your character inside of a pre-existing world and live the life of that person in whatever manner you deem suitable while being faced with the consequences of your actions. Dungeons and Dragons is the perfect example of this, but even D&D is starting to lose its effect (see Boose's "Rule Lawyering" post for details). And I know it’s difficult to translate the feeling of customization and freedom that D&D has to offer and make it into a video game, but it’s been done. Take Fable III for example. While I know it wasn’t the most popular game in the series, it managed to display all the essentials of a true RPG: you could customize your appearance, develop skills the way you wanted, act either evil or good without restriction, people responded to you differently depending on what you’ve done, and the world around you changed based on your actions and decisions. For a game to qualify as an RPG, it has to make you feel like you are the character being played, in every possible facet. When I play any game that offers me even the least little bit of customization, I try to add an RP aspect to it, just to make it feel more personal and motivate me to take an active interest in the character.
The very first RPG I ever played was Dragon Warrior for the NES (better known to many as the Dragon Quest series). My brother, Elron, and I used to sit down in front of the TV for hours going around, killing monsters and searching for artifacts while we leveled up in preparation for the final battle with the evil Dragonlord. We named our character, people called us “hero”, and when all was said and done: we were the ones who saved the princess, traveled the world in search of items of power and defeated the Dragonlord to bring about an era of peace. However, the game really didn’t have much of a story. In fact, the whole story could probably be written out in nothing more than a small paragraph, but it still felt like us playing because, at the very least, the hero didn’t speak for us. In fact, he didn’t speak at all. Final Fantasy had much more of a story than Dragon Warrior. It had the similar theme of playing the hero(es) and even allowed you to change the names of the characters to whatever you wanted. Despite the name changing though, the character never felt like you because their responses were predetermined and you never had any freedom outside of the occasional yes/no decision (maybe that’s why SquareEnix decided to do away with the rename system with FFXIII). Again, each game lacked a certain aspect. Even though videogames like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy helped define what an RPG was, D&D did the best job at encompassing every characteristic of an RPG. Obviously a lot of this had to do with restrictions based on the technology of the time. It’s much easier to sit at a table with pens and paper and use your imaginations to play a game that offers practically unlimited creative freedom than it is to write, code and develop an 8-bit game with restricted memory capacity. Despite that, in this day and age we should be beyond that point. And thankfully, now we are.
One of the best examples I can come up with of a true RPG is Dragon Age, which has been a huge success. You make your character in the style you wish, and you’re given chat options to talk and behave in the manner you desire to truly shape your character’s personality. That’s what makes it an RPG in my opinion. We’re going to be seeing this same system play out in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Knowing this gives me hope that all RPGs, especially MMOs have the capability to be more than just a quest/dungeon grinding fantasy adventure game. An RPG needs to pull me into the world of my character and make me feel like I’m the one there making the decisions. As far as saving the world and becoming a living legend among my people, I’m not sure even SWTOR can handle that one, but knowing that my character is going to have a personal story that is unique to my decisions and play-style, and that it will effect the world around me and how people react to me is very exciting! I, as well as several of my friends, have been working on and planning our characters, not just as far as game mechanics is concerned, but also their personal development. Things like their attitude, their opinions of the world, what their goals are have all been worked on. We each have something different, and it will make our experience much more enjoyable and addicting.
So while RPGs of the past have been a little lacking in the spiritual essence of true RP, it seems that the bar has been raised, and that games will be held to a new standard…at least, that would be nice.