Bold statement, that, yes? And I mean every syllable of it. Let me explain.
Despite mostly-mediocre or slightly-above-average reviews, I have fully immersed myself in this game over the last few days, and plan to keep that up for the next few to follow. After completing the first two “chapters” of the game, I am convinced that like Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, Alpha Protocol is one of the best representations I’ve ever seen of core tabletop RPG concepts being implemented in a digital gaming format.
So far, I’m in love with this game, and want to tell you all about all of its awesome components, right there alongside all of its annoying and downright awful ones. But this isn’t a review. Don’t get me started on how I feel that most graded online game reviews are totally bunk. I’ll save that for a later time. No, this is more of an essay.
When asking gamers to declare “what defines a game as a RPG,” you’ll get a good variety of answers. Most console gamers will be quick to define a RPG as a game with a skill-based advancement system, where the internal mechanics of your character improve as you invest rewarded experience points into them. Many tabletop gamers will tell you that yes, advancement is fun or even crucial, but the ability to make choices for their characters is also pretty requisite. Without choice, you’re really only playing a limited combat-based board game with progressing development mechanics. Without choice, you’re not playing a role.
I’m in that latter camp. I feel that the true measure of a RPG is Choice, which comes in two forms: 1) Being given the options to choose paths, stories, and opinions for my character, and 2) seeing the choices I make actually bring about definite and sometimes drastic changes to both the present and future of the game. In most tabletop RPGs (aside from those run by really bad games-masters), you have the power to choose anything and everything your character does, says, thinks, and believes. When you make your decisions, you then see the consequences of those decisions in the world around you, and the story reacts accordingly.
With Alpha Protocol, Obsidian has brought forth a level of choice-based video gaming that surpasses that of recent titles like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and Mass Effect 2 by leaps and bounds. While I definitely praise those latter titles for the diversity of options that they present to the player, I recognize that with Alpha Protocol, those options are both multiplied in availability and amplified in their immediacy. The choices you make in dialog, combat, mission approach, mission path, romance, in-game email responses, weapon augmentation, lethality, and more all have both immediate and long-term effects on the flow and outcome of the game.
In addition to directly affecting the physical play of the game, your choices affect the opinions of the other personalities in the game towards your own character – changes which then turn back around and affect you both mechanically and narratively. I might be inaccurate here, but I believe Bioware can be credited with popularizing (or even standardizing?) the sliding “alignment” scale in today’s gamut of video RPGs. Mostly evolved as a simplification of the D&D alignment system utilized in Baldur’s Gate and its ilk, this sliding scale of the character’s relative nature within the game world usually represents Good vs Evil, Light Side vs Dark Side, Cool Guy vs Complete Douchebag. With Alpha Protocol, the only such gauges are in the form of a versatile Opinion scale with each of the game’s other non-player characters. Dragon Age did this too, of course, but the difference here is that there are no “bad” choices: be their opinions of you positive or negative, there are no “wrong” outcomes. If a character dislikes you, they might push you harder in the field, or even open up new side missions that wouldn’t have been there had that character liked you. It works on the other end of the spectrum as well.
All of these things… these are what RPGs are all about, for me. Contrary to what the game industry’s choice of lexicon may claim, slapping a grind-heavy advancement mechanic upon a linear turn-based combat sim does not make a RPG. That comes from being given actual and frequent in-game choices, and then seeing the consequences play out around you. I believe that Alpha Protocol and the recent Bioware titles are but glimpses of the future of the video RPG. I’m less for the antiquated focus upon simulation of dice-rolling and chance-based mechanics in video RPGs, and more for the increased variety of both realistic and consequential choices presented to my character.