Modern Western RPGs are conflicted. Philosophy and mechanics are at odds with each other. A roleplaying game is ostensibly about shaping the characters and the story as a function of your choices, but the freedoms and limitations of many RPGs are shaped in such a way that they weaken the story or focus too much on the wrong elements to tell their story.
Don't get me wrong, I love a good RPG. I like building a character and seeing how different choices affect the story and the world. I have dozens of D&D characters and Guild Wars 2 builds I may never get to play. But I do feel that the RPG genre as a whole is having a crisis of focus.
The main issue I see is that many players and developers equate "freedom of choice" with "the ability to do anything you want at any time". I find it odd that a genre so focused on choice and consequences would make your choices so meaningless overall. If you can go anywhere at any time, you're not making meaningful choices. You're simply ticking boxes off the checklist.
I understand the desire to do everything. I spent 200 hours in a single month achieving 100% map completion in Guild Wars 2. But letting the player do everything in the middle of a supposedly time-sensitive story cheapens the story. Why should the Reapers patiently wait for me to gather minerals and upgrade my gear? Why is it that Team Magma refuses to dry up the ocean until I'm there to watch? How come Alduin won't unleash dragon armageddon until I've explored every nook and cranny of the country? Are RPG bad guys just really polite?
Of course, while this is the biggest problem, it's far from the only one. There's the issue of morality and choice in general, where you're typically faced with only a simple binary with a tendency towards a right answer and a wrong one - but I won't retread that one too much since I went into great detail in a previous post.
One problem I haven't really discussed yet is the confusion that some people have about what makes an RPG an RPG. These games almost invariably have a system where you can level up and choose gear and companions and abilities. Unfortunately, many people don't realize that these systems are not what define an RPG. I've seen more than a few games get labelled as RPGs simply because you level up and find gear. But those are RPG mechanics, and don't necessarily make a game an RPG simply by having them.
What does make it an RPG? Just remember what the acronym stands for: Role Playing Game. You take on the role of a character and make choices according to how you see that character in order to affect the characters and narrative. Skyrim, for example, calls itself a roleplaying game, but the focus is exploration, not story and character. You can choose to play it as a proper roleplaying game by only taking quests that align with your chosen morality and philosophy, but when you play every quest chain and personally lead the mages, the thieves' guild, the assassins, and the mercs, in addition to fighting in the civil war and hunting dragons, well, that's just implausible. Levels and loot are a means to an end, not the end itself - they help define the character as uniquely yours in tangible numerical ways, but they can be much too abstract to say much about your character.
Speaking of levelling up, I've seen games that eventually offer you enough points to unlock everything on your skill tree. What's the point of that? Why offer me choices if you'll just hand me everything anyway? Now I'm not a unique character anymore, I'm exactly the same as everyone else who's reached the level cap.
So now let's tie this all together. With these flaws in mind, how would I improve the RPG genre?
- Time-sensitive missions. Sure, I could go mining after being told that the town is under attack, but when I come back the town won't be there anymore, and I'll have to visit another town if I want to be able to craft or sell ore.
- Limited resources. Don't let me unlock everything - make me pick and choose.
- A reasonable level off fiddlyness. If 90% of the loot you're giving me is useless crap I'm going to sell to the merchant, why not just cut out the middleman and award me with money instead of useless crap?
- Free exploration post-story. Don't let me do anything and everything when I should be saving the world, but do let me do it once I've finished. Maybe add in a throwaway line saying that there's been substantial recovery and rebuilding but there are a lot of loose ends to tie up.
What would all this do? Limiting my timeline and choices makes things feel more urgent and meaningful, but I can still be a completionist and explore the game world when the urgency is gone. Clawing back player freedom just a little bit is necessary in order to really make you feel that the threat is real and won't patiently wait for you to match your clothes and find the shiniest sword.
One potential wrinkle - or potential source of awesome - is difficulty. Some players just naturally play slower than others, so adding a time limit to save the town might hurt some players more than others, and make them feel rushed when they just want to have some fun. However, it does add an intriguing new option: scaling difficulty with available time instead of enemy toughness, so that instead of having a harder fights, you're scrambling to keep up with the timeline. That sounds like a difficulty setting I'd actually use.
What do you think, readers? Are Western RPGs as broken as I think they are? Do they need changing at all?