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Character builds, branching storylines and spells – what makes the perfect RPG?
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Character builds, branching storylines and spells – what makes the perfect RPG?

I play a lot of RPGs (when I can make time for them), and have done since I was old enough to read. I was an obsessive reader of fantasy as a small child, an interest that naturally carried over when I started playing games on the SNES, fascinated by the worlds and characters contained in those cartridges. It’s an excitingly heterogeneous genre, encompassing everything from Baldur’s Gate 3 on the nerdier, D&D-adjacent side of things to Final Fantasy in the ultra-stylish Japanese RPG corner and Mass Effect in the story-driven realm. (And then there’s Dragon’s Dogma, off on its own island, paying no attention to what any of the rest are doing). There’s so much variety that I’ve often asked myself how to define RPG.

Is an RPG a game where you create your own character and customise their abilities, personalising a build to suit you? A game that you can play in plenty of different ways, like Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls? Must it have a non-linear story? Should you have choices about how things play out? There are a multitude of exceptions to any one of these features of role-playing games: sometimes you play your own character, sometimes you’re given one to inhabit; sometimes you fight with magic and swords, sometimes with guns and telekinesis; sometimes you take turns carefully planning moves as in a strategy game, sometimes you run in there and mash buttons like you do in an action game. I’m no genre pedant – arguments about whether, say, Zelda “counts” as an RPG send me to sleep – but still, it’s inconsistent.

If anyone would know what makes an RPG, it’s surely Feargus Urquhart, who has been making them since 1991. He is the founder of Obsidian – makers of The Outer Worlds, Fallout: New Vegas (the best one), South Park: The Stick of Truth and many more. The studio is now working on Avowed (pictured above). Before that he was one of the key members of Black Isle, which created most of the computer RPGs I played as a teenager, including the first two Fallout games, the original Baldur’s Gates and Planescape: Torment. I will admit I was very excited to meet him at Xbox’s showcase event in Los Angeles last month.

“A good RPG is pulling all these different threads of your brain,” says Urquhart. “I could do that, I could go do this, I should talk to that person, I could do the main quest, but I want to make my sword better … that is what makes me feel like I’m in this world. I’m not even thinking about the real world.”

Keza MacDonald and Obsidian’s Feargus Urquhart at the Xbox showcase in Los Angeles, June 2024View image in fullscreen

We got into a long conversation about what makes an RPG great. For him, it’s not the specific elements of the game that matter most – like crafting, or character skill trees, or whether you can decide which companions to add to your party. “A great RPG is actually the sum of its parts – just enough crafting, just enough enchanting, just enough dialogue, just enough companions, just enough reactivity,” he reckons. The most important thing is whether and how those elements reflect the player.

“The most important thing in an RPG is agency.” he says. “You are going into a world and being who you want to be, within boundaries, and making decisions, and then having the game react to those decisions. An RPG is doing its best work when no matter what you do, you’re rewarded either way. The world should always be reacting to how you are playing the game.”

The idea of a role-playing game as a reflection of the player feels right to me: whether it’s Dragon Age or Fallout 2, The Witcher 3 or Breath of the Wild (don’t @ me), I am happiest when I feel part of the world I’m playing in, when I can see the impact I’m having and how the game adapts to me. We’re not talking about boring binary good-or-evil morality choices here, but more subtle reflections. A character might talk to you differently if you did something to help their town; people might mention things that you did hours previously; you should have a choice about how to approach a situation, whether with words or weapons, magic or thievery. A good RPG should give you options. That’s what makes them absorbing.

“I used to play every single one that came out, and I play a ton of them still,” Feargus told me. “I just love the possibility of worlds.” Maybe that’s what an RPG is: a world with possibilities. It’s a broad definition, but I’m on board with it.

Keza’s flights and accommodation for Summer Game Fest in Los Angeles were paid for by Amazon Games.

What to play

A screenshot of Obsidian’s Alpha Protocol.View image in fullscreen

I spent ages trying to pick my favourite Obsidian game to recommend here. They’re all so different. So I’m going for a deep cut instead: spy thriller RPG Alpha Protocol, which recently reappeared on Steam and GOG after spending five years in limbo.

It is a messy, imperfect, buggy and unfriendly game, so be prepared, but it’s also the only game that’s ever tried to simulate everything about being an espionage agent, not just the James Bond bits. Its protagonist, Mike, is a horrible guy. You can make terrible decisions. You can try to shoot your way into an embassy. You can openly brag about being a spy to impress girls. If you try to make an alliance with a disliked character, others will refuse to cooperate with you, or just never turn up in the game at all.

Everything has consequences, and they’re often bad enough to make you curse yourself. It’s not Obsidian’s best game by far, but it’s the most interesting one. If you do play it, switch the difficulty to Easy to minimise the annoyance of the terrible combat.

Available on: PC, or PS3 and Xbox 360 if you hunt down a disc
Estimated playtime: 8-12 hours

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What to read

Pokemon Go way back in 2016.View image in fullscreen
  • Pokémon Go recently turned 8, and this year’s Pokémon Go Fest is coming up this weekend. If you haven’t played in a while, there are a lot of recent updates to check out.

  • Tokyo Game Show, which takes place every September, is a bit of a shadow of its former self – but the return of PlayStation this year for the first time since 2019 seems encouraging.

What to click

  • It’s not them, it’s us: the real reason teens are ‘addicted’ to video games | Keith Stuart and Keza MacDonald

  • Kien, the most-delayed video game in history, released after 22 years

  • FarmVille at 15: how a cutesy Facebook game shaped the modern internet

  • A hacked Game Boy, compliment battles, video games and Mr Blobby: the rise of UK nerdcore

Question Block

Astro’s Playroom Cooling Springs.View image in fullscreen

This week, Martha and Todmorden ask:

My friend and I live together and we are avid gamers. We love all the modern greats; GTA, The Last of Us, Uncharted, Days Gone, Horizon, Spider-Man and Stardew. A friend of ours – who hasn’t gamed since the 90s – wants us to help get her into gaming again. So it needs to be something we enjoy with a good learning arc. What would you recommend?

The mistake we often make when trying to introduce (or reintroduce) our friends to gaming is recommending something overly simple. I’ve done this before. But the complexity and depth is often what people find most interesting about games: a friend of mine was recently very surprised that her girlfriend got massively into Cyberpunk 2077, despite having barely picked up a controller before. The host of the Guardian’s pop culture podcast, Chanté Joseph, got into gaming with Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

So if I were you, I’d show your friend all your favourites, but let them explore them at their own pace: if she’s drawn to Horizon, it’s got a very good story mode that makes combat less intimidating, for instance. Show her games in the genres that she likes in TV, film or books. Don’t worry too much about a game being too hard or complicated for a beginner. Back in 2020, Caroline O’Donoghue wrote an article about rediscovering gaming as a bored adult – it has some unusual suggestions.

And, as you’re PlayStation gamers, I’ll add in a rec for Astro’s Playroom (above). It’s just such fun. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like it.

If you’ve got a question for Question Block – or anything else to say about the newsletter – email us on [email protected].

Source: theguardian.com