Just what do we really mean when we talk about “game genres,” anyway? Sure, you’ve probably seen that “fans of the genre will enjoy this” phrase in umpteen game reviews, but the truth is that the most durable game genres have walked some long, ever-evolving, and very interesting roads over the past several decades. In this weekly series, Xbox Wire’s editorial team will break down exactly what shaped your favorite genres, why they’re so timelessly awesome, and where they’re headed – while providing you with some expert advice on the past and modern classics that you should check out!

In this installment, we’re covering the granddaddy of video game genres: the role-playing game (AKA RPG). Or, at least, a subset of the genre. Now, with regard to video games, especially on consoles, RPGs properly have two parallel histories, one that developed in America (and to a lesser extent, the UK and Western Europe), and one in that developed in Japan (and later, Korea and other parts of East Asia). While the two parallel genre histories informed and subtly changed each other, ultimately, as the saying goes, the twain shall never meet. Or something. So let’s start with the history of Western RPGs – we’ll cover the rest later!

The Past
The term “role-playing game” actually precedes electronic gaming in the West by quite a bit. It was first used to describe a whole slew of games played on top of your parents’ dining-room table (tabletop games), using a rulebook and some worksheets (that is, pen and paper). The most famous of these is undoubtedly Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which helped standardize both the core gameplay elements of the RPG as we know it today, and the typically deep stories and well-realized alternate worlds in which RPGs are set.

In a real sense, the first computer RPGs (or “CRPGs”) created in the late 1970s, were less games in their own right, but rather, a means by which their creators could streamline the processes behind the pen-and-paper RPGs they already loved to play. Using a computer to handle logistics meant that die rolls for character stats and combat outcomes could be faster and more accurate, and that the need for a third-party game master to move events along was minimized or removed entirely. It was in this era that much of what CRPGs are about today came into existence: character “sheets” with numerical stats representing skills and abilities, freeform narratives with multiple means to achieve desired outcomes, loot-gathering and item-crafting, combat against monsters and other players, and meaningful choices that led to real consequences.

With the rise of the DOS operating system in the 1980s, personal computers got a lot friendlier to games, and CRPGs began to come into their own as an honest-to-goodness video game genre, set apart from books altogether. The two most important series in this rise were Ultima and Wizardry, both of which were (and continue to be) extremely influential to RPGs on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. The Ultima series brought all sorts of innovations to the genre – especially the use of the isometric viewpoint, the adventuring party, and the concept of making moral decisions and having to face the consequences. Ultima III, often considered to be the first true electronic RPG, was ported to contemporaneous game consoles, and expanded the RPG beyond the boundaries of PC disk drives. Wizardry, likewise, was extremely influential; it featured a first-person viewpoint, a complex class-based character system, and the idea of having a persistent game world ported from each game in the series to the next.

As the 1980s went on, challengers rose up to topple Ultima and Wizardry. The Might & Magic series aped parts of Wizardry’s formula, but with a more colorful look and massive game worlds to play in. Then, in the late 1980s, a company called Strategic Simulations Incorporated (SSI), mostly known for strategy and war games, released the first-ever Dungeons & Dragons-based CRPG: Pool of Radiance. Famous for its gold-wrapped box, Pool of Radiance was a watershed in CRPGs, not just because it was a fantastic game, but because it successfully adapted the landmark pen-and-paper world of Dungeons & Dragons.

The SSI “gold box” games were released regularly throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and defined RPG storytelling. These games had spinoff novels written about them, and they set the stage for the key elements of RPGs going forward: deep and involving game worlds, and the interesting characters that inhabited them. They even forayed into Wizardry-style first-person dungeon crawlers with the landmark Eye of the Beholder series, while Ultima attempted to integrate elements of the first-person shooter with its well-received Ultima Underworld titles.

By the mid-1990s, however, the RPG was on the decline in the West. The rise of the first-person shooter and the real-time strategy game had prompted audiences to demand more pace in their games, and RPGs (like adventure games) weren’t delivering what audiences wanted. Competition from faster-paced Japanese RPGs was nearly a final nail in the coffin, but enterprising Americans had one more trick up their sleeves: the action-RPG. Typified by Blizzard Entertainment’s landmark Diablo, the action-RPG employed elements of traditional RPGs – like character building, loot drops, and grinding enemies – but placed them in a quick-fix, action-based gameplay setting where combat was never more than a few steps away, and story was de-emphasized.

Diablo was a massive success and spawned countless imitators (“Diablo-clones”), which dominated much of the RPG scene in the 1990s – some of which, like Dungeon Siege, were really good in their own right. One notable exception to the Diablo-clone trend was 2000’s Deus Ex, an action-RPG built on a first-person shooter framework which emphasized choice above action. Deus Ex let players decide whether they wanted to shoot, sneak, or talk their way through problems.

Of course, traditional RPGs didn’t disappear totally in the 1990s. A company called Interplay was still hanging tough until just about the close of the decade... when it, too, finally folded. It used two development studios for most of its games: Black Isle Studios and BioWare. In 1997, Black Isle released an RPG called Fallout, which was set not in a high-fantasy, swords-and-sorcery world, but in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. Fallout featured a near-perfect character and attribute system (the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system), and a deep, involving game world filled with interesting choices to make, fascinating people to meet, and wonderful creatures to fight. BioWare, in turn, was keeping the Dungeons & Dragons flame alive with Baldur’s Gate, an isometric real-time RPG that allowed for six-player cooperative multiplayer, and perfectly balanced the story and character-development aspects of the traditional RPG with the combat and tactical aspects of the action-RPG.

The Present
Interplay eventually wound up selling the rights to the Fallout series to Bethesda Softworks, who produced the enormously popular Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. BioWare became an Electronic Arts studio, and has since gone on to create some of the most iconic RPGs of all-time, including Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the Mass Effect series, the Dragon Age series, and the action-RPG Jade Empire.

While the Ultima and Wizardry series came to an end, Ultima did lead to a multiplayer version, Ultima Online, one of the first really popular massively multiplayer online RPGs – a genre that would prove to dominate much of the RPG player base in the 2000s, up through the modern day. Unlike traditional RPGs, MMORPGs required players to use the now-ubiquitous Internet to connect with others, embark on quests, shop for items, and, yes, sell in-game things for real-world money. This eventually led to Blizzard’s 2004 phenomenon World of Warcraft. We’ve got a whole separate Know Your Genre feature on MMOs, if you’d like to check out a more detailed history.

As computers and game consoles got more powerful, and players got more used to playing in big, open worlds online with their friends, tastes shifted away from tightly curated RPG stories, to games that catered to something of an MMO experience... except, solo. Bethesda was among the first to have major success with these massive, open-world RPGs, producing titles like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and most recently The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Each of these epic games placed players in the center of massive, open worlds, where they could choose which way to approach the story with complete freedom.

Some games went the other way, taking only particular RPG elements and leaving the rest out, resulting in some memorable and genre-bending games. Borderlandsand Destinytake the pace and loot-drop mechanics of the action-RPG and fit them into a first-person shooter framework. XCOM: Enemy Unknown and The Banner Saga use character progression and combat die rolls within a tactical adventure context. One enterprising studio in Poland even managed to combine the action and relatively low barrier to entry of the action-RPG with the massive open world and intricate storyline and character of the traditional CRPGs of old – resulting the monumental The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a new watershed in role-playing games.

The Future
The RPG is charging ahead in every way, thanks to powerful triple-A series from major publishers – as well as smaller indie titles that evoke the old-school depth of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Bethesda is continuing its tradition of bigger and better open-world RPGs with Fallout 4 in November. The Witcher 3 is getting a steady stream of new downloadable expansions. And the seminal Deus Ex series is getting a new, slick prequel in 2016 with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.

On the PC, independent developers are keeping the story-driven flame alive with in-depth titles like Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin (which is receiving an Xbox One port later this year). The genre is getting parodied, too, with games like the upcoming South Park: The Fractured But Whole – which makes fun of many of its venerated tropes and traditions, while at the same time relying on them to keep its gameplay exciting.

These days, all sorts of games – even those whose developers would never label them RPGs or anything near it – are borrowing elements from the genre all the time. Whenever you put points into a skill here, or sneak your way past a guard (rather than kill him) there, you can thank role-playing games for that. They opened many doors to help video games become the open-ended, freedom-loving pastime it is today.

The 10 Western RPGs You Should Play
Betrayal at Krondor (DOS – Dynamix/Sierra, 1993)
Deus Ex: Human Revolution(Xbox 360/Windows – Square Enix, 2011)
Dragon Age: Origins(Xbox 360/Windows – BioWare/Electronic Arts, 2009)
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Xbox 360/Windows – Bethesda, 2011)
Fallout 3(Xbox 360/Windows – Bethesda, 2008)
Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360/Windows – BioWare/Electronic Arts, 2010)
Planescape: Torment (Windows – Black Isle Studios, 1999)
Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut (Windows – Harebrained Schemes, 2014)
Ultima VII: The Black Gate (DOS – Origin Systems, 1992)
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (Xbox One/Windows – CD Projekt RED, 2015)