RPGs have been a staple of video games for decades, but have continued to evolve over the past few console generations. While the core pillars of exploration, combat, and role-playing, still define how good an RPG actually is, the scope and scale of the genre has evolved in a way that not many others have since they came into their own throughout the 90s.
Of course, the 90s were an absolutely stellar time for RPGs. During that 10-year period, the gaming world got Final Fantasy 7, Ocarina of Time, Baldur’s Gate, Chrono Trigger, Diablo, and a lot more. It was one of, if not the, best decades for role-playing games the world has ever seen. In fact, many of these franchises are still around today, though it’s the ways they’ve evolved that have helped define the past two decades of video games, and not just within the RPG genre.
These days, pretty much every game incorporates some form of RPG aspect, whether it’s dialogue choices, finding different gear, or even customizing a character. This spans everything, from The Last of Us, to Call of Duty. The influence RPGs have had over the rest of the industry is unmatched by any other genre, and their mechanics have become so ingrained in modern games that it's hard to imagine a world where those features not only aren't implemented by developers but aren't also expected by fans.
RPGs, at their core, have expanded in two ways: breadth and detail. The worlds of RPGs have always been wide, but only in respect to the technical limitations in place at the time they were created. Sure, there were role-playing games in the 90s with massive worlds- Daggerfall even boasted a map the size of Great Britain. That being said, many of those worlds lacked the level topographical variety seen in games today, from the snow-capped mountains of Skyrim that slowly descend into dense woodland and the open plains of Breath of The Wild that transition into a vast desert.
In the past few decades, it's grown a lot easier, or at least common, for companies to use environmental storytelling in their games, largely due to how many objects developers can actually work into a location with jumps in power. It's something that will continue to get better, too, as the industry slowly begins its transition into next-gen hardware, which allows even more detail to be added to games.
Not only have the worlds expanded, but so have their stories. Many new RPGs have released with more compelling narratives than the games of the past, which says a lot considering how good some of those games actually were. Look at a game like The Witcher 3. Not only did the game feature one of the best story arcs in recent gaming history, but The Witcher 3 changed sidequests forever with how well the game handled its side stories. Not only does it show how far the genre has come in the past few decades, but it's something other games have begun to emulate. Just look at the sidequests in last year's Assassin's Creed Odyssey, and how much it improved the storytelling of Origins from a year earlier.
RPGs will continue to evolve even further, with games like Cyberpunk 2077 being a promising indicator of what the future may hold for the genre. As technology advances well into the next generation, gamers should start seeing games that are more detailed, more full, and lifelike, than the ones we can currently play. There will always be soft spots in the hearts of those that went through there formative years exploring as Link in Ocarina of Time, but the future is exciting nonetheless.