When I first started getting into computer roleplaying games in the 90s/00s I remember playing the Infinity Engine games by Bioware and Black Isle, such as Baldur’s Gate 2, the original Fallout games, and of course Planescape: Torment. It was the quality of writing that drew me in and took me to another world, the graphics were just a background setting to that writing.
Somewhere in the 2000s RPGs became more action orientated and prioritised mechanics and visual appeal and combat over branching stories. Nowadays a lot of popular RPGs are those such as Dark Souls, which seem more about combat and atmosphere than anything else. Blockbuster games such as Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3 still show that great writing, characterisation and real player choices can still be popular.
I still prefer the classic RPGs of yesteryear, those with mountains of dialogue and that take direct influence from fantasy novels and pen and paper, Dungeons and Dragons type games, which I grew up with. Here are some games which capture some of that great writing for me, although some are more interactive fiction than technically RPGs:
You are the butler of Philleas Fogg, the man Jules Verne writes about in ‘Around the World in 80 Days’. Your task is to choose how to get around the world not more than 80 days, as you plan routes between cities, buy and sell items and manage the finances of the trip. It really captures a sense of adventure in the world, and builds on Jules Verne’s steampunk theme as you encounter fantastical means of transport such as mechanical ostriches, airships and others. Every route is different and you can choose how the story unfolds by selecting different actions your character will take. The writing is the best I’ve ever seen in a mainstream game.
In this game which also takes influence from Jules Verne, the city of London has fallen through the crust of the earth into hell, where there is a giant underwater cavern called the Underzee. You sail across this underground sea, exploring islands and immersing yourself in this Vernesque/Victorian/Lovecraftian setting. The writing again is amazing; it reads like poetry.
Torment: Tides of Numenera
Another outlandish game, this time set in the world of Monte Cook’s Numenera, the writer behind the Planescape world which Planescape: Torment was set in. It hasn’t fully been realised yet but this game in early access form is already weird and wonderful, and much more interesting to me than yet another copy of on the elves and dwarves Tolkien formulaic settings.