Five of the Best Role-Playing Video Games.
Throughout our lives, those of us who call ourselves 'gamers' will probably play a wide variety of different games, covering a wide variety of different styles and genres. But, most of us will also have our own personal preferences, too. We might enjoy the straight-forward action of a first-person shooter. We might like the frantic decision-making of a good real-time strategy game. Or, we might enjoy the more thoughtful approach allowed by a slower moving simulation game. My own personal preference, though, has always been for role-playing games.
There's just something that has always appealed to me about the whole idea - crafting a character that's separate from myself, and guiding them through a story. If you happen to share my love of role-playing, then you already understand. If not - well, I've never been able to explain the appeal of role-playing to someone who didn't 'get it', anyway.
Listed below are five of my own personal favorites. Five games that do the best job of providing what I always look for when I start up a new RPG. Though, before I get to that, it would probably be worthwhile to outline exactly what that is.
The difference between an RPG, and any other type of video game, has always come down to its ability to create a genuine sense of player agency – meaning the degree to which I can feel that the story being told is actually 'mine' in some way. Even if it is just a carefully constructed illusion. Fiddling with stats and figures, and weighing the advantages of one class against another, is all well and good (and, often, an important part of the process), but it has never been the appeal of role-playing for me. It was the ability to create a character, and contribute to the story in a meaningful way, that first drew me to role-playing – back in those days when I was quite happy spending my weekends surrounded by piles of books and oddly shaped dice. And, it is that same feeling I look for when I play a role-playing video game.
So, with every new RPG I play, I look for the feeling of player agency. The feeling that I (and, through me, the character I have created) am playing a key role in the story being told – and, in shaping it and driving it forward. And, most importantly, that I'm not simply following someone else's story.
Now, that being said, this isn't intended to be a list of the best games ever. It isn't even necessarily a list of my favorite games. It is simply a list of games that gave me that sense of actually role-playing – in a way similar to my experiences with pen and paper.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Honestly, any of the games in the Elder Scrolls series could have a place on this list. There may be disagreements about which is the best – with each still having its core group of loyal fans, even going back as far as Daggerfall. Though, really, each provided many hours of enjoyment for me, in its time (except for the first, Arena, which I have to admit I've never played). Skyrim gets the mention here if only because it is the one that I am currently still playing.
In the rugged and cold land of Skyrim, far to the north, the people find themselves caught in a civil war between Imperial forces, and those natives who support them, and the Stormcloaks, who consider themselves to be the true children of Skyrim. The issue at hand is the White Gold Concordat – a peace treaty which ended a previous war between the Empire and the High Elven Aldmeri Dominion. The White Gold Concordat demanded that the worship of the god Talos be outlawed – which becomes a source of resentment for the Nords of Skyrim, since the legends state that Talos was once a mortal man and, more than that, that he was a Nord. For the people of Skyrim, the White Gold Concordat is an attack on an important aspect of their faith and their culture – and, as a result, the growing Stormcloak rebellion wants to break away from the Empire and declare Skyrim an independent nation. That, on its own, would be more than enough story for a game. But, in Skyrim, players also have to contend with the return of dragons to the world – and, the ancient prophecy of Alduin the World Eater, whose return is believed to bring about the end of the world.
Or, of course, you could ignore all of this entirely and set out on your own. Focusing your character, instead, on one of a variety of alternate plot-lines concerning different factions within the world. Or, simply setting off and exploring. That has always been the main appeal of Elder Scrolls games, for me. Of the three characters I have spent any significant amount of time with in Skyrim, only one has set about bringing an end to the civil war, or dealing with Alduin. The other two have ignored those plot-lines entirely in order to focus on other stories – one the Listener of the Dark Brotherhood and, just recently, Vampire Lord and the other a master thief following a strict code of conduct.
Dragon Age: Origins
Something of an unexpected throwback to an earlier style of game for Bioware, Dragon Age: Origins was originally promoted as a spiritual successor to their earlier game – Baldur's Gate 2. Regardless of whether that overt attempt to play on fan nostalgia actually held up to scrutiny, it quickly became obvious that Dragon Age: Origins was set to become an extremely well regarded RPG in its own right. It saw you cast as one of the last remaining members of the mysterious Grey Wardens in the kingdom of Ferelden. The Grey Wardens in the past were formed to fight back against the Blight, a time when vile creatures known as Darkspawn emerge from their underground homes in great numbers to sweep across the surface. As the game begins, it seems as though a new Blight has just begin – meaning that the Grey Wardens are needed once more. Of course, a sudden betrayal, and the outbreak of civil war in Ferelden, complicates matters.
The main gimmick of Dragon Age: Origins was, of course, the origins themselves. A handful of alternate entry points into the game, that each told a different story, featuring a different cast of characters, and took place in a different part of the world. Each of which ultimately lead to the same point – your character being enlisted, willingly or not, into the ancient order of the Grey Wardens. And, from there, the story of your journey to gather together the forces to fight back against the Blight could begin. The story is the same, regardless of which origin you choose – yet, throughout the game, there are just enough callbacks to that unique opening scene to make the choice feel worthwhile.
On the whole, the idea of separate origins to choose from seems surprisingly simple – to the extent that you have to wonder why it hasn't been done more often. It also does an impressive job of personalizing the experience in a way that so many other games lack. Choosing the 'human noble' origin, for example, gives you a quest for revenge which may outshine your attempts to unite the land against the Blight. While, the 'city elf' origin will give you the added incentive of seeing your own hometown destroyed. Each is tied into the broader story in a different way which, when combined with the choices you are required to make throughout the game, provides an impressive level of variety.
Fallout: New Vegas
The almost, though not quite, sequel to Bethesda's Fallout 3 shifts the focus away from the Capital Wasteland of what was once Washington D. C., and toward the Mojave Wasteland surrounding Las Vegas. This shift brings the game closer to the locations of the original Fallout games, allowing more elements of the original games to make their return to the franchise. It is also somewhat closer to the original games in terms of theme and style, as well – with developer Obsidian's list of employees including some of the creators of Fallout 1 and 2.
Arguably, there is not much of a central story to New Vegas. There's the need to track down the people who tried to kill you in the game's opening moments, if you want, and the need to uncover the mystery of the seemingly innocent poker chip that was stolen from you – again, if you want. There's the escalating three-way conflict between the New Californian Republic, Caesar's Legion and Mr. House – and, the inevitable battle for Hoover Dam that marks the end-point of the game. There are a wide variety of side-plot to involve yourself in, that will take you all over the Mojave Wasteland. And, at the center of it all, there is you – with no clearly defined goals other than what you set for yourself. Rather than being a weakness, though, this ultimately becomes the game's greatest strength. Even Fallout 3 (and Skyrim, too, for that matter), for all the freedom offered, still presented a clearly defined central plot-line that the player would eventually have to follow, if they ever hoped to finish.
With New Vegas, though, you are given the freedom to essentially write your own central plot as you play – weaving together all of the separate elements of the game into the overarching story of your own character. The central conflict is always present, and the game will always end with the battle for Hoover Dam – but, there are many different paths that can potentially lead you to this point. Play long enough, and you will inevitably find yourself supporting one of the main factions over the others. But, you are always given the freedom to pick and choose which that will be. And, the closest the story ever gets to a last minute twist is something you can bring about yourself, if you decide that you would rather go it alone, and aim for the 'Wild Card' ending.
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura
Worth mentioning on any list of RPGs if only because of it unique, and really kind of awesome, blend of traditional fantasy and steam-punk – and, of course, the unfortunate fact that its bug-ridden state on release ultimately meant that it isn't as well remembered as it probably should be. Arcanum takes place in a typical fantasy world that is currently undergoing something of an industrial revolution – dwarven technology has been taken and adapted by humans, elves find themselves increasingly out of place in a changing world, and orcs find themselves reduced to cheap labor in factories around the world. And, at the center, was the inherent conflict between magic and technology itself – the presence of technology interferes with magic, and the same is true in reverse. So, the two have a hard time existing side by side.
Arcanum is another of the sort that allows for a non-linear approach to its central story. It makes the usual attempts to push you in the right direction, of course, but from early on you are free to simply set out on your own. Assuming that you can actually settle on a character to play, of course. The inclusion of both magic and steam-punk based technology within a single fictional world gives you quite a bit to choose from – and, the character creation system included in the game allows you to fully explore all of these options. My own creations included an elven wizard you regarded technology as a perversion of the natural world, and was eager to undermine it in any way possible; a half-elven inventor of various steam-punk gadgets who knew very little about his elven heritage; and, a wandering gambler who didn't much care about any big causes, as long as he could keep traveling.
After this, you are instantly thrown in the deep end, as the only survivor of a blimp crash – and, find yourself at the center of an obscure prophecy which may or may not actually revolve around you.
Based on one of the many campaign settings for the seemingly ever-present Dungeons and Dragons, Planescape: Torment is set in the very alien, and very strange, city of Sigil. Referred to as the City of Doors, Sigil has come to form something of a central hub between many different planes of existence in the D&D universe - it's really about as far from the classic medieval based style of fantasy as you can get.
Unlike some of the others mentioned, Planescape: Torment makes for a much more linear experience, overall. There is really only one path through the game, and really only a single end-point (though, still, with the obligatory alternate endings, of course). Cast in the role of the mysterious, and immortal, Nameless One, the goal from the very beginning is actually very simple – to find out who you actually are, and how you ended up in this position. To find out exactly why you seem to be incapable of truly dying. Because, of course, the Nameless One has been around for so long that he simply can't remember how it all began. And, as the game starts, he seems to have lost his memory entirely.
You know from the start where the story is headed – you might not know the exact form that the big revelations will take, but you know that they're coming. Also, you are given a pre-defined character to play – something that has always seemed to go against the grain of what an RPG should be. But, Planescape: Torment also happens to be one of the most dialogue heavy RPGs I have ever played. The game is famous for being light on action, with very little combat that can't be avoided – meaning that the true emphasis is on interaction. And, the sheer variety of dialogue options offered to the player provides a genuine sense of being able to shape your character as you play. The Nameless One's past might already be written, but you are still given a great deal of freedom to determine the sort of person he is now. Also, the game may carry you through a linear sequence of encounters and revelations, but you are still given a great deal of freedom to actually role-play your way through each of them.
© 2012 Dallas Matier
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