I have fond memories of sitting in my room playing Mass Effect 2 for hours on end. I did the same for Fallout 3, Oblivion, and Dragon Age. Now, as I eagerly await Mass Effect Legendary Edition, I realised that I don’t care for modern Western RPGs. Their heavy focus on voiced protagonists, large open worlds with repetitive tasks, and homogenised content have turned me away from the genre, with a few exceptions.
I admit that I used to think voiced protagonists were a great idea. As time has passed, however, I miss the days of the quiet protagonist for RPGs. There are two main reasons for this: I like to have my own character voice that matches how I’m playing the character, and that doesn’t work when you have one voice for every response in an RPG. The second reason is that voice work costs money, which has limited the number of dialogue options these games offer. An excellent example of a game impacted by this is Fallout 4. Compared to Fallout 3 and New Vegas, dialogue felt repetitive. You could either be neutral, kind, mean, or sarcastic. These four choices limit the type of character you can create. Voiced protagonists work better in Mass Effect because Shepard is a character that the player moulds, but he is an actual character going through a set story. It doesn’t work as well in Fallout, where it is supposed to be your character.
I can live with voiced protagonists. While I don’t think they have improved the genre, they don’t turn me off from a game. The trend in many AAA games these days that does turn me off is the pointlessly large maps dotted with icons; these maps are a huge reason I bounced hard off of Cyberpunk 2077. I wasn’t going on quests because I was genuinely interested in the characters and the outcomes; I was doing these activities because an icon on a map told me to go there and do something. That completely takes me out of a game when I’m just going from marker to marker. I want to play something, not go through a checklist. RPGs don’t need to have these large maps. When I played Dragon Age for hours, I never thought more walking around would make it better.
The worst aspect of AAA Western RPGs is how homogenised they have become. Here, let me describe a game for you. You go through an open world with encounters that you can go in loud or sneak through with a skill tree to improve your preferred playstyle. FarCry? Assassin’s Creed? Cyberpunk 2077? All of the above. Dragon Age took inspiration from classic CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate. Mass Effect is an RPG cover-shooter hybrid. Oblivion is a fantasy RPG centered around player freedom to use magic, bows, swords, stealth, or any combination to create various playstyles. More importantly, all of these games feel dramatically different from each other.
Now, I don’t think these are all terrible games. Nobody is wrong for enjoying these games. I just miss the days of real RPGs. Thankfully, the indie scene has been doing a great job with games like Disco Elysium, Baldur’s Gate 3, The Outer Worlds, and more. These games are true RPGs that offer various character builds and options, and they all feel different from one another. Cyberpunk 2077 and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla aren’t terrible games, but they are a far cry from Western RPGs of old. Pun intended.