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.
Ask an RPG fan for a recommendation, and you are perhaps as likely to hear about a game that's a decade old as you would a recent release. That's because role-playing games can stand the test of time. Take a look at GOG.com's best-selling games, and the first eight are all RPGs, with many more filling out the top parts of the list. It would seem that with most other genres, there's an assumption that a newer game is a better game – unless there's some kind of terrible design choice. What makes role-playing games specifically have such long-term value?
The strong stories in role-playing games are one major reason for their longevity. Alongside adventure games, RPGs have long been at the forefront of storytelling innovations within the medium. And a story isn't going to become outdated. I may prefer Ultima VII's or Mass Effect 2's interfaces and graphics to Ultima VI and the first Mass Effect, but I find the storytelling more appealing in the chronologically earlier games. Improved technology can't make this obsolete.
RPGs have another strength beyond that: their systems are comprehensible. By this I mean that the mathematical interactions of their internal statistics are usually published in such a way that the player can learn, analyze, and play with them. This is, of course, a manifestation of their roots in tabletop games where everything had to be simple and fast enough to be utilized by people. These systems can thus be weighed against one another, and judged external to technological factors.
The most obvious example of comes from across the ocean, where each successive Final Fantasy has a new magic/progression system, and fans will argue (endlessly) about which is the best. But it's also visible in western games. I'm a big fan of both Wizardry VIIand VIII, but the complexity of the class system in the former makes it slightly superior to the more advanced graphics and deeper tactics of the latter, in my mind. Or, more recently, Skyrim's removal of conventional attributes puts it at odds with previous Elder Scrolls games.
It's this combination of mechanics and narrative that makes RPGs so memorable for so long. Neither of these two components can be made obsolete. Yet despite the appeal of older role-playing games, there are still problems with blanket recommendations or treating old games in the same way as newer games. It's an unfortunate fact that, in terms of interface specifically, many of those older games are inaccessible to many people.
Planescape: Torment, for example, is probably the pinnacle of storytelling in video games, but having encouraged many people to try to play it over the years, it seems to be a coin flip whether they can deal with the quirks of the Infinity Engine or not. Much of the time I can't deal with the engine, especially given how rudimentary its combat is compared to later Infinity games like Baldur's Gate 2 (I've taken to recommending new players set the difficulty to easy, advice I need to follow myself next time I play). And Torment is relatively accessible compared to pre-1990 games, designed before the mouse was popularized as well as before computers had enough space to include critical text.
Although an older game's accessibility can occasionally surprise you, they're generally more work than a modern tutorial-heavy game with streamlined controls and clear graphics. "Nostalgia" can muddy these waters as well. Nostalgia is a difficult concept when talking about games. It can be tempting, for example, to dismiss an older or old-fashioned game that you don't understand as being only good based on nostalgia. Likewise, it's a constant worry when you discuss a game you haven't played in years: what if it's "just nostalgia" blinding you?
For this reason, I've stopped using "nostalgia" as a critical frame of reference, and starting using "fluency." Nostalgia is simply too subjective. Whereas fluency, one's ability to learn and maintain specific abilities, can be generalized. Fluency depends on willingness to learn, connection with the learning subject, and amount of time one can invest. I may try to play as many games as I can as a wide-ranging critic, but to take a few examples respectively: I'm simply not that interested in realistic flight sims (willingness); every attempt I've made to work with text adventures has failed (ability); and thanks to the need to play a variety of different games, I simply can't afford to be a multiplayer expert anymore, as a I once was when I was a World Of Warcraft raider (investment).
Role-playing games can deal with this fluency both better and worse than most other genres. Thanks to relative consistency of mechanics, it's possible to grasp core aspects of RPGs across different eras. If I play Wizardry or The Bard's Tale, I know that I should push heavily-armored characters with a lot of hit points forward, while keeping lightly-armored, offensively-powerful characters in the back. This is true in Baldur's Gate, and it's true in Mass Effect, although the interfaces changes.
My statistics in Torchlight 2 are recognizably similar to those in Curse Of The Azure Bonds. On the other hand, RPGs are hurt because there have been so many, across almost the entire history of popular video games. That means a lot of different interfaces and technologies, which get in the way of fluency. So I may be able to recognize how The Bard's Tale works mechanically, but after decades of user interface improvements, I'm going to get annoyed quickly at having to use a game-external reference sheet to cast spells. (And this works in reverse: someone fluent in The Bard's Tale-style combat might find Mass Effect or Diablo to be frustrating.)
But thanks to the RPG genre's combination of timeless stories and mechanics, two of the blocks to fluency are largely removed. We are able to comprehend them. And we may want to play them. It just becomes a matter of having access and time. So many great games, over so many years, is one of the genre's greatest strengths. Role-playing games just last.
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.