I'm a big fan of the Modern RPG. When games like Fallout, Mass Effect and the Elder Scrolls series come around I pay attention, because these are the ones I consider the best. And while I enjoy games like the Uncharted, Assassin's Creed and Gears of War series (I actually consider these some of the best this generation), if you were to ask me what I've had the best experience with, it's still the Modern RPG.
Now, the more and more I play these games, I wonder why? What makes these games so good? Why do I consider them the best this generation has had to offer? and I can only come up with one answer; player choice.
It's the freedom the player has. Now not just how big the world is or where you can go, but what the player can do. If your actions in the game can change the world and the story, that is the ultimate gameplay mechanic.
The purpose of a game is to make the player feel immersed in the experience. It's how the experience is provide, that's what truly matters. You give the player as much control as possible, in the best way possible. Some of the best games do this exceptionally well, but even some of the best show the limitations in what the player can do. The Modern RPG not only shows very little limitations in what the player can do, but hides them very well.
Lets use Fallout 3 for example. You start the game from birth to early adulthood. You choose from what you're going to look like to you're basic skill set. Then your release from the vault. Lights are bright, things start to focus and then that's when the whole world is open to you.
From that point on what happens in the game is completely up to you. Where you go, who you meet, what alliances you make and what missions you take. Never does one feel they've lost control of what their character can do. Players are given set choices from how to respond to NPC's to whether or not they wish to blow up Megaton.
Understand though, these choices mean nothing if they have no consequence. That's where the immersion of the game hits a high point. The motivation is to make certain choices in order to experience or deal with certain outcomes. How many playthroughs of Mass Effect or Fallout do any of you have? I have at least three on Mass Effect 2. My second play through was just to see what the opposite outcomes of my first choices were. My third was playing as female Shepard and seeing how her alliances and relationships differ form the male perspective. The choice and consequence mechanic are one of the most compelling and engaging things created in games.
Now, I call this the Modern RPG and not the Western RPG and there's a reason why. From my perspective all RPG's should incorporate these type of mechanics. I'm not saying RPG's like Final Fantasy should lose their turned based gameplay or story, but RPG's shouldn't be defined by just their battle mechanics and customizations. RPG's should be defined by what the player can do with the role they've assumed. The main criticism of Final Fantasy 13 was the linearity of a good portion of the game. It shouldn't take 30 hours for a game to feel like an RPG.
Make the space open, make the player feel like every inch of the game needs to be explored, as if there is something hidden around every corner. Like I mentioned before the turn based mechanic is not a problem and fits in a Modern RPG. In fact the turn based mechanic is actually smart, moves you make are in anticipation of your opponents, like a game of chess. The problem is, it seems some Japanese RPG'S are afraid they'll lose their story, not letting players stray far from it. You don't have to lose your story. It can begin and end the same way as intended, just let the player affect the journey in between.
Even if the game doesn't have that choice and consequence mechanic, player choice is still a big factor in an RPG. Let the Player choose where they wish to go within an RPG. When you give the player that freedom, then you can craft each and every place, the characters that inhabit it and the things they player can do. It's this obsessive need to feel immersed in a game's world and find something new around every corner that makes an RPG feel so satisfying.
Maybe it's because of my western perspective that I feel all RPG's should incorporate mechanics that are particularly known in Western RPG's. However, think of the innovations that Japanese developers would bring to RPG's if they were to incorporate these mechanics. Like I said, this should be accepted unanimously as the Modern RPG, the only thing that should separate east and west is style and tone.
Let me leave you with this thought if you've played any of these games. The Modern RPG fits the criteria for what the best of any game can offer. A story that opens and branches off throughout an expansive world. Game length that seems never ending, satisfying any gamers appetite for how long they feel a game should be. And last but not least gameplay that includes customizations, player choice and mechanics that can range form shooters to action adventure games. If you haven't noticed already most games incorporated an RPG elements in it. From customizations and level systems to good and evil mechanics. If you ask yourself what makes the best game imaginable, just remember the Modern RPG fits the build.