Computers and the experience-oriented approach
What the early computer RPGs never could properly transfer was the shared imagination that was so essential to the real RPGs. They did not offer the freedom of choice: they still had straightforward quests with specific ends and you could rarely choose to ignore the plot and find your own story. They did not allow you to have arguments with the other characters or choose some other way to solve a problem than the one that was programmed in. As such, they were relatively system-oriented experiences. Even one of the best early computer RPGs, Ultima IV, forced you to follow the path of eight virtues if you wanted to see the end of the story. There was no alternate storyline for those who wanted to be evil or those who just did not care to make the choice in the first place.
The main obstacle for bringing the freedom of tabletop RPGs to computer RPGs has always been the inability of the programmers to predict all the possible choices that a player can make. And even when the ability to predict was there, the programmers could not cater to every possibility because they simply did not have the time and other resources to do so.
These obstacles have been collapsing in the recent years with the introduction of so-called sandbox games. Games like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Skyrim let you roam the land and find interesting stories even outside of the main plot. In these games, and others like them, the computer RPGs are finally approaching the experience provided by tabletop RPGs. Most of them still hold onto the old computer RPG tropes of character sheets and skills progression, however, even when they really should not need to do so.
The two approaches at war
The above-described two approaches have been at odds in many forum discussions. The main argument of those holding onto the system-oriented approach seems to be that if any game where the player pretends to be another character is an RPG, doesn’t that make an FPS like Far Cry 3 an RPG as well?
My response to that would be that while Far Cry 3 does offer a sandbox environment and creative freedom in how you approach various tactical situations as well as some simplistic side quests that you can carry out if you wish, it fails to provide you with real character progression and freedom of choice. It still guides you through a pre-determined storyline and stops you from making the most important decisions and/or to avoid the obvious traps into which the story leads you. You can certainly learn new ways to kill your enemies, but you cannot choose NOT to torture someone or NOT to kill an enemy boss. That is, the character development is very much pre-determined and a single two-option choice at the end of the story does not turn it into an RPG experience.
Another point of critique that I sometimes see is the freedom to play a character that has different skills than the player: even a couch potato can become a muscular and skilled swordsman in an RPG, whereas in an FPS game they have to rely on their own skills and twitch reactions.
I admit that as we grow older, the twitch gameplay genre will become more difficult for us. But I do not see this as a valid argument to differentiate between RPGs and non-RPGs. For the experience-oriented approach, either way is valid and the twitch-based gameplay might actually be more immersive from a roleplaying perspective than the more traditional turn-based combat. Also, with computer games, we are never really relying on our “real skills”. Games are usually designed to give us the hero experience and I’d wager that most FPS combat experts would not perform that well on a real battlefield. And most of us can still not shoot firebolts out of our hands in real life.
Is there such a thing as an experience-oriented RPG for computers?
While there are many good attempts, computer games in general are only beginning to provide us with the true role-playing experience. Truly open-ended sandbox games where you can choose to play any role that you might dream of are certainly not happening for a long time, but good attempts exist in various genres. Games like the above-mentioned Elder Scrolls: Skyrim are good examples of the marriage of twitch-based gameplay and traditional RPGs, but even they still rely on character skills progression; however good the player, he will not successfully hit the opponent if the character does not have the required skill.
Personally, I’d be interested in seeing a closer marriage between FPS games, like Far Cry 3, and a game like Skyrim in the RPG genre. A game where you can choose your own path, make your own decisions, grow up as a character and enjoy immersive combat would truly bring the role-playing experience to the foreground.
But perhaps for the truly immersive role-playing experience, we will have to wait for the Star Trek style holo-decks. May they be here soon!