Why We Game - RPGs

In this special, Previous Weapon’s reviewers TheMorty and FBT argue over their favourite RPG games (instead of just celebrating the genre like we asked them to).

TheMorty - What sets apart the RPG genre is their expansive nature. Be it exploring maps and meeting odd-looking NPCs, or hunting wild animals and chasing rare collectibles, spending half an hour trying to scale atop a mountain just to take in the view is something breath-taking that rarely exists outside of the sandbox.

FBT – True, RPG is pure fantasy escapism and for me, the truest RPG is in the fantasy genre. To shape a world and forge a hero only really happens convincingly in fantasy.

While FBT has always enjoyed frolicking with elves, my favourites are set in the expanse of space, and none before let you explore it like X: Beyond the Frontier (2000) did. The ultimate flight-sim is a journey through the vast, emptiness of space without ever having to land on a planet. Instead of worrying where you left your shuttle as you walk across empty moons, you don’t ever leave your ship as you explore 54 different systems, trading with outposts, and fight your way through a horrifying alien force with a weapon capable of obliterating all of mankind. X is one of the last great ‘joystick’ games of its era before controllers rendered them obsolete. Makes me nostalgic for the days of accidently waging war with a fleet because of the awkward mapped button to the right of the base I kept hitting.

Lets leave TheMorty lost in space. If getting lost is your thing though, may I recommend The Elder Scrolls? Dismissed by some as a dumbed-down RPG for newbies, I say sod the purists; Tamriel is amazing. Morrowind’s high fantasy setting is pure RPG; you can entirely ignore the main mission, the world is alien, the inhabitants are incredible and the whole game is Tolkienesque in its fantasy richness. You can just live there - once you’ve murdered someone and taken over their house. And then there’s Oblivi-

Oh god, he can talk about TES for longer than it takes to play them all. Back to space, and if you’re not interested in putting in the time to get your pilot’s licence, you can always hire someone to do that for you. There’s no better pilot in the galaxy than the Normandy’s thinks-he’s-really-funny-but-is-actually-really-annoying Joker in Bioware’s Mass Effect. This RPG makes your choices matter. Paragon or Renegade, you choose who lives, dies and is loved as Shepard planet-hops their way to preventing the galaxy from being destroyed by an ancient race of ethnic-cleansing machines. Every tiny choice, like stopping to help a Volus cross the road or choosing to exploit a Salarian Merchant for discount, comes back to help or haunt you with each and every turn of the path.

Mass Effect is a thing of beauty, but what about Oblivion’s flowery, bright glades and jagged obsidian plains to prance about in? I can own a wizard’s keep, a vampire’s dungeon, a shack or a grand house. I can become a fighter, a thief or a murderer for hire while I keep Tamriel’s Hell at bay. And then there’s Skyrim … Bloated, boring, full of racists and with a greyscale colour-scheme, it’s terrible; and also filled with so much stuff that you can ignore all that and be your own, true elf. Building your own home, finding a wife, adopting kids, and then going fishing by the lake to avoid the family is what RPG is all about.

Space RPGs are often draw heavily on games that have preceded them. When Bioware made Mass Effect, they already had a near identical RPG, Knights of the old Republic. Meaningful narrative decisions where each choice moves you closer to the light or dark side was trialled in one before being honed in the other; KOTOR even sees the actors behind Kaiden and FemShep make their RPG debuts, recruiting a roster of companions. It feels like déjà vu, but the difference is that KOTOR is a turn-based RPG, meaning it’s not how quick you can shoot your way out of a situation, but how effectively you are able to use the loadout at your disposal. You have time to make decisions and can avoid conflict all together with a carefully timed blaster warning shot or by using your Force powers of persuasion.

Role Playing as a Star Wars character? That feels to constraining. Its binary; light/dark, good/bad. That’s not RPG. And neither should be Assassin's Creed, but it’s getting more RPG with each release. My fave so far is Odyssey, a world so vast, filled with so many side quests and events, it’s an historical RPG you get lost in for months. And the Misthios is a classic RPG character - a nobody drawn into a world-event you ignore in favour of misadventure while making choices that have huge repercussions. And we have ‘romance’ options (well, sex options).

AC is so far from its roots now the next game will be set in space. Okay, I’d play that. Talking of genre-mashing, can a session-based strategy be RPG? Yes, according to me. XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Firaxis’ sci-fi strategy magnificently deploys you, top-down style, as commander of a space fleet desperate to stop an invasion of Outsiders, shapeshifting aliens intent on enslaving mankind. Unlike other RPGs where choices appear as dialogue options, XCOM forces you to make decisions in the heat of battle. In XCOM, you can customise every character, levelling up their attributes and forming a real emotional attachment. Then, all it takes is accidently moving forward one too many squares and your indispensable squad mate is gone and not just from this mission. If they die, they die. No do-overs, no restarting from checkpoints, that’s it. Complete your mission as best you can and train up another rookie recruit from scratch; investing emotionally in an NPC is pure RPG.

The Far Cry series isn’t RPG, but like stable-mate AC it seems to be moving toward it, and Primal does qualify - you’re the lone hero trying to establish a new home for your clan; you build a town, bring in traders and specialists, face moral choices. It’s not a pure RPG, our character’s journey is dictated by the main mission, but if you want to live by your wits and by the spear, this is the game to do it.

Fair play, Primal is an RPG. Continuing to meet FBT halfway, hows about an earth-based sci-fi RPG? One of the best Sci-Fi RPGs of all time is the original Deus Ex (2000). Many see it as an action FPS with stealth-elements, but there’s so many qualities that RPG purists adore. Everything is down to you and how you build a skill tree, tailoring it for a truly unique experience; lockpicking and computer hacking help with a stealth-focussed playthrough whereas the medicine trait is a must for brawlers looking to shoot first and ask questions never. What’s not to love about going toe-to-toe with enhanced enemies in cybernetic warfare? The fans agree – check out mod remake Deus Ex: Revision.

The problem with RPGs is all the walking. Test Drive Unlimited (2006) is a different kind of RPG; it lets you roleplay as a rich person. You collect cars, wear expensive clothes, buy huge houses, and parade your cars around Hawaii. We’re not saving the world, owning the world is the goal of the game – you’re basically role-playing as Jeff Bezos. When you can’t remember which mansion you parked the Pagani in, you know you’ve made it.

Is FBT really over here arguing for racing games as RPG? Fine, I’m adding First Person Shooter. There’s a lot of open-world space shooters, like Borderlands or Rage, but none that have all the hallmarks of a 50hr+ game, that is until The Outer Worlds.

You wake in a dormant ship with no memory of how you got there or what you’re supposed tobe doing, and like all good RPGs you figure it – and who you are - out as you go, served with a side order of Good or Evil to shape your story. They even throw in a giant, wearable moon head to sweeten the experience. The gameplay is very much in the mould of Obsidian’s most successful RPG, Fallout: New Vegas... just in space and with way less glitches and shorter loading time. The scenery is breath-taking to the point where you often forget you’re playing a game as you get lost looking up at the stars to see moons and planets align.

STALKER is like the forgotten RPG; it was destined for greatness before Fallout 3 eclipsed it, and just when it seemed poised to make a comeback, the Metro series trumped it. But I have a soft spot for its world and attempts to be more realistic - battered weapons, scant supplies, stronger enemies, unnerving AI (for its time), the local wildlife, those strange nuclear bursts; STALKER was an inner city lout to Fallout 3’s public school boy.

Hang on, FBT is finally onto something - Fallout 3. That conceivably is the defining RPG. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where every choice, dialogue option and action you take informs not only the world but your character, you can truly be the master of your own destiny as the Lone Wanderer.

FBT – I have to concede, Fallout 3 is the best example of RPG – you’re a nobody and can chose to stay as one, or save the planet. The choice, alongside a million others, is yours. I agree, Fallout 3, the best RPG - but only because it’s Oblivion with mushroom clouds.

TheMorty – Anyway, what’s clear to me is SciFi really has some of the most diverse and aspirational RPGs. Taking on the role of a galactic explorer, a hardened marine or even just a pilot who just wants to fly and trade. But, to FBT’s wild, rambling point, almost any setting or environment can be an RPG so ultimately, the reason RPG is the most exciting, immersive genre in gaming is because it’s all on you. You’re the one saving or ruining the world. And we chose to go do something else instead.