Joystiq - The State of Western RPGs
Joystiq looks over the state of western RPGs in an article that makes some general (and sometimes questionable) observations about the genre:
Though the consistent historical importance of the RPG seems to be clear enough, there are some major trends that I expect I'll spend a great deal of time discussing. There was indeed a dramatic shift in the mid-1990s, but it was not the collapse of the PC RPG as often heralded – games like Fallout, Diablo, Daggerfall, and Baldur's Gate are rightly considered all-time classics. It was instead a shift from party-based systems to single character-based systems. In each of those games, which include early entries from BioWare, Bethesda, and Blizzard, you create a single character to be your avatar in the world.
This has had wide-reaching consequences in the world of RPGs. In narrative terms, a party of player characters cannot have a single ethical system, but ever since Fallout, those lone characters do have their ethics – and party members who agree or disagree with those ethical choices. Romance existed in at least one of those old party-based RPGs – Treasures Of The Savage Frontier (1992) – but it's been refined consistently since then.
But it's not just storyline. RPGs have become more action-oriented than the turn-based games of the past, and that wouldn't be possible without the focus on a single character instead of a whole party. Instead, games from Baldur's Gate to Fallout III offer indirect control over party members in various forms, but generally complete control over the player, with Mass Effect 2 perhaps the pinnacle of the form.