There’s no reason for us to bet against Bethesda, especially considering how many lessons they’ve learned from past games, but it isn’t the tweaks to the user interface that has us worried. RPG menus are extensive and sometimes cumbersome by necessity, with any quality game having a great deal of information to deal with. Making the systems easier to navigate or access with the press of a button seems like an inevitable step, and we can’t wait to see how it functions for ourselves.
RPG combat has always been many things, but realistic isn’t anywhere near the top of the list. Swinging a sword or staff at regular intervals while watching numbers fly out of an opponent’s head doesn’t exactly immerse a player in a fictional world, but it’s worked so far. It’s worked because realistic combat isn’t the priority of RPGs, the priority is leveling up and refining a character from a base set of predetermined skills.
Or, that was the foundation of the genre so many years ago, but not with Skyrim. For the newest entry in the series, the developers have decided to remove all restrictions of player class, and allow players to upgrade their characters however they see fit. Skyrim‘s director Todd Howard sees the adjustment not as a cop-put, but as a solution to the age-old problem of players being forced to choose a class before fully understanding the differences.
Instead of players having to choose the type of character they’ll play as, Howard and the team have put together a brand new system that he feels does the impossible – removes any necessity for the player to choose a single class:
“You just play, and your skills go up as you play and the higher your skill, the more it affects your leveling. So it’s a really, really nice elegant system that kind of self-balances itself.”
The positive aspects of the change are obvious: players can choose to develop their own characters to possess their favorite abilities from every class. No longer will players choose to go the spell-caster route, only to find that they’re much weaker in hand-to-hand combat than they would like. A change we fully understand, since nothing is more frustrating than finding out that the class you’ve chosen is designed for a completely different game style than your own. Removing the distinctions nips the problem in the bud.
But we have to ask – is that still role-playing? While some might say that the removal of artificial classes gives players even more freedom to define the role they wish to play, others could argue that Bethesda has completely removed the roles themselves. We don’t even know ourselves if the change is for the better or worse, since it’s a safe bet that a majority of players will craft the exact same type of character for Skyrim.
It’s only natural for players to want the best of all worlds, but that in itself is somewhat of a betrayal of one of the role-playing genre’s main values. If a large number of protagonists possess the same strength with weapons and talent for magic, then the differences in each player’s campaign that distinguish RPGs from other more-linear genres will rest solely in player choices.
Bethesda has described the various ways that their new Creation Engine will give players an unprecedented amount of control over their own story, so at the very least, the developers are compensating for the loss of character classes with expanded story branches.
Then again, player choices in directing the story were the biggest factors in Mass Effect‘s game design, and we’ve already seen what the developers did to that in order to make it more appealing to the action-craving masses. If choices have a chance of really mattering in an RPG, then it would seem that Bethesda and The Elder Scrolls are the most likely to preserve their potential.
That is an awful lot of responsibility to place on a single game franchise, and even if they maintain the high levels of story and depth in their own games, there’s no guarantee that other more financially successful games will follow suit. Who knows, within a few years, The Elder Scrolls may be the last true RPG that hasn’t been greatly or subtly changed to make a game designed for a narrow audience into one that has mass appeal.
But the biggest question then is: should we still call them role-playing games?
What’s your take on the current selection of big-budget role-playing titles? Do you struggle with the same uncertainty that we do, or do you feel like any improvements will be for the better?
Please leave us your thoughts on Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Skyrim, or any other franchises in the comments, since we want all of the insights we can get.