State of the Western RPG

Greetings, readers, and welcome to Joystiq's new weekly column on western role-playing games! RPGs are usually my favorite games, and they have been for years. Beyond that, they're among the most popular and interesting games of any era. It's true for every generation of gaming, from Wizardry through Dungeon Master, Ultima, Fallout, Morrowind, and Dragon Age. No other genre has been so consistently important through every era of home video gaming.

But unlike adventure games or flight simulators, which have been driven into tiny niches, RPGs are still prominent. Skyrim, World Of Warcraft, and Mass Effect are among the most important games of this generation, which is not to mention cult hits like The Witcher or Torchlight.

Though the consistent historical importance of the RPG seems to be clear enough, there are some major trends that I expect I'll spend a great deal of time discussing. There was indeed a dramatic shift in the mid-1990s, but it was not the collapse of the PC RPG as often heralded – games like Fallout, Diablo, Daggerfall, and Baldur's Gate are rightly considered all-time classics. It was instead a shift from party-based systems to single character-based systems. In each of those games, which include early entries from BioWare, Bethesda, and Blizzard, you create a single character to be your avatar in the world.

This has had wide-reaching consequences in the world of RPGs. In narrative terms, a party of player characters cannot have a single ethical system, but ever since Fallout, those lone characters do have their ethics – and party members who agree or disagree with those ethical choices. Romance existed in at least one of those old party-based RPGs – Treasures Of The Savage Frontier (1992) – but it's been refined consistently since then.

But it's not just storyline. RPGs have become more action-oriented than the turn-based games of the past, and that wouldn't be possible without the focus on a single character instead of a whole party. Instead, games from Baldur's Gate to Fallout III offer indirect control over party members in various forms, but generally complete control over the player, with Mass Effect 2 perhaps the pinnacle of the form.

Those three 'B's, BioWare, Bethesda, and Blizzard, who got started in the mid-1990s, are still the dominant forces in the world of western RPGs, and each has come to represent a different style of gaming. Blizzard hasn't released a new RPG in a while, making it rather different from the other two companies (although Diablo III should change that soon). They're best known for multiplayer experiences on both the large scale (World Of Warcraft) and the small (Diablo).

It's the BioWare-Bethesda styles of RPGs that fans and critics love to discuss. Both are incredibly popular, with their games receiving as much acclaim as any in this generation. And there seems to be a clear dichotomy: BioWare games are story-based, Bethesda games are system-based. BioWare games are built around embedded narratives, where your party members all have their histories, ethical choices are clearly delineated, and there are cut-scenes galore. In Bethesda games, you're going to explore, choose to go where you want when you want, and largely not care about the story. This is an old division, going back to the days of Ultima's innovation in world-building and storytelling compared to Wizardry's tweaks in character creation and class switching.

It's also a false dichotomy, like so many. While it's easy shorthand to have BioWare and Bethesda dueling for the hearts and minds of single-player western RPG fans with incompatible game styles, a third player, related to both, has consistently demonstrated that it's possible to do both. Obsidian Entertainment, and its members before they joined that company, has worked with both BioWare and Bethesda, refining the design of each.

Baldur's Gate was a great technical achievement, but it was about as generic as fantasy worlds get. Chris Avellone's Planescape: Torment took that core engine and applied it to one of the most dazzling, fascinating fantasy worlds in video game history. It goes on with BioWare games: Knights Of The Old Republic's reliance on simplistic Star Wars ethics was muddied by its more nuanced, Obsidian-developed sequel. And recently, Obsidian moved on from adapting BioWare technology and stories, switching instead to do the same for Bethesda. The lonely wasteland of Fallout III, driven by exploration and not much else, was succeeded by the much denser New Vegas.

Of course, to describe all that is to make Obsidian look like the kings of RPGs, but most of its games have a completely different problem: bugs. As much as I may love many of Obsidian's ideas and games (eventually), it's hard to hold them up as a model of how to do RPGs correctly. I bring this all up to indicate that while I can look for general trends, it's almost impossible to delineate them with certainty. The story of western RPGs right now is not a battle between BioWare and Bethesda, but a more complex set of interactions.

I tend to think that everything is more complex than it seems, so moving forward with this column it seems worthwhile to mention that I'm going to happily plunge into the grey areas of the RPG world. For example, I'm going for a big, inclusive definition of the role-playing for the purposes of this column. Some of you may have seen me reference Mass Effect and want to argue that it's not an RPG. I might even agree with you generally, but my theory here is that if you can make a decent case that a game should be called an RPG, I'm happy to discuss it. It's much more fun that way, after all.

To give you an example of what this entails covering, next week I'm going to be taking a look at roguelikes, especially The Binding Of Isaac, a game that certainly stretches the boundaries of RPGs. And the week after that, I'll be looking at one of the historical pillars of the genre, the Ultima series. After that, I'll share my thoughts on a newer game that I'm just now getting to (probably The Witcher). While I have no shortage of ideas, I'm also interested in other things you all are interested in: hidden gems, surprising mods, compelling debates, so feel free to make suggestions in comments. I'm looking forward to this!
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.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.