The Elder Scrolls (this includes Morrowwind and Oblivion) is a big sandbox world. The main character is defined entirely by the player, who designs not only the look of this character but decides what their personality and motivations are. The game is centered around freeform exploration and is by definition non-linear. The game is mostly made up of optional sidequests. If you stick to the main story you’ll see far less than half of the game.
Final Fantasy is a long confusing book in videogame form with a wonderful self-balancing system where you control three characters in turn-based combat. There are about seven main characters, each with their own fixed personality, motivations, and abilities. The story unfolds as these seven interact with each other and the world. The player has no impact on the personality or appearance of amy of them. They simply travel through each conversation, getting to know their character in the process. The story is as much about what happens to these seven as it is about saving the world.
Diablo isn’t so much a game as a piñata simulator. Click on the monster to kill it and prizes come out! What will you get? Some coins? Some gems? The ultra-ultra-ultra rare rare drop Mace of Ubersmashery? Another damn stamina potion? The main character has no personality outside of what character class they are. The story is strictly linear.
So what do these games have in common? Nothing, really. Except that they are all filed under the heading of “Role Playing Games”, a genre so wide and so diverse that it means almost nothing.
The closest thing to a definition I can come up with that can be applied to all games of this type is “any game where your character(s) grow in power or improve their stats over time or through accomplishing in-game goals”. I suppose that works, but according to this definition Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas would be a Role-Playing Game, since Carl Johnson has a lot of stats and abilites that the player can develop.
I bring this up because I think these sorts of games are among my favorites. I derive great satisfaction from games where I can grow my character. However, when I see the label RPG slapped over a game, I have no way of knowing what sort of RPG it really is. Is it a “kill monsters and take their stuff” game like Diablo? Is it a story game like Final Fantasy? Or is it a freeform game like Fallout, Morrowwind, or Oblivion? The former types are good, but it is these freeform games that really scratch my particular itch.
Despite its many grievous flaws, annoying bugs, unintentional AI hilarity, and the occasionally infuriating quest, Oblivion really appeals to me on some deep, fundamental level. I don’t know why.
I have certain patterns that I follow when playing these freeform games.
- I never take my first character all the way through the game. I usually create a character, then advance a little ways into the game until I reach the point where I understand how the leveling system works. Then I see all the ways in which I could have developed my character better. I’ll then abandon this character and create another. (I always save a backup of them while entertaining the fantasy that I might come back to them later, but I never do.) Sometimes I get to my third or fourth character before I find one that I like and that I take all the way through the game.
- I usually alternate between male and female characters. I like games that take your gender into account and react differently based on who you are.
- I always play as a good or heroic character until I beat the game. Then I go back and beat it as an evil character. Note that I very much prefer games that allow you to define your good / evil via actions, and I scorn games that have the nerve to ASK me if I’m good or evil.
- I love games like Oblivion that come up with their own stats and leveling system. I love exploring these new systems. I generally don’t like games that adopt the D&D d20 system for the computer.
- I tend to “hurry” to the end of the game on my first trip through. On each subsequent trip I tend to go a bit slower and do more of the sidequests than on the previous trip. On each journey through the game I try to find new things, new quests, new places, or new items that I’d missed on previous trips.
- Once I think I’ve seen it all, I usually stop playing, and begin waiting for the new freeform game to come along. All other games are just passing distractions to keep me amused while I wait for a real freeform RPG.