The great western RPGs of my childhood were unapologetically nerdy things built on maths and dice rolls and complex systems—many borrowed from older tabletop RPGs. Your Baldur’s Gates and your Ultimas were celebrated for their depth and creativity, not flash and spectacle. We’ve not quite come full circle, but the most striking RPGs of the moment seem to have that same spirit—not shying away from dense mechanics or true player agency, with plenty of nods to TTRPGs. But in the early 2000s, that wasn’t what publishers were interested in. Flash and spectacle sold games, they decided. And thus, the cinematic RPG was upon us.
We can see the beginnings of this in BioWare’s switch from isometric RPGs like Baldur’s Gate to more streamlined third-person RPGs like Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. And while KotOR still had plenty of dice rolls going on under the hood, the studio’s martial arts detour fully embraced action-based brawling. Now, these remain fantastic RPGs—some of the studio’s best—but it was hard to ignore the fact that some of the intricacies of the older games were being chipped away.
Subtlety and complicated systems were being tossed out in favour of simple-to-understand combat and big, cinematic storylines. These were games designed to be played on the same big screens where you watched blockbuster movies.
This move towards cinematic-style RPGs was really encapsulated by Mass Effect in 2007, splicing quests and dialogue trees with a third-person shooter full of cinematic flourishes. Shepard was nothing like the Bhaalspawn of Baldur’s Gate, with strict limitations on how you could roleplay them. The Paragon/Renegade system and small number of class-based skills made for a much more approachable, streamlined RPG experience, but at the cost of freedom and self-expression.
2007 also saw the arrival of The Witcher, which approached fantasy from a very different angle compared to D&D-inspired games. And like Mass Effect, we couldn’t build our hero, only nudge them in a few directions. Geralt was an arsehole surrounded by arseholes. He decapitated monsters and men. He fucked. And to mark such occasions, we unlocked lewd cards. It was a janky mess built on a modified version of BioWare’s Aurora Engine from Neverwinter Nights, but it was dark and edgy and a time when dark and edgy games were very much the in thing. Despite being based on an incredibly popular series of novels and short stories, its vibe was unabashedly borrowed from movies and TV, which has only grown more true with each game.
For those looking for something that harkened back to classic CRPGs, Dragon Age: Origins seemed like it would be a panacea. The marketing campaign and a trailer that emphasised blood and gore, accompanied Marilyn Manson track, raised a lot of questions, but Dragon Age—despite being a blood-soaked and gloomy affair—shared a lot with BioWare’s classic library. Maybe not quite as flexible, not quite as evocative of tabletop roleplaying, but close enough. It wasn’t to last, though, with the subsequent games leaning further and further into the streamlined, cinematic approach.
But every trend is precarious, and it only takes a few duds to make people start questioning things. Mass Effect: Andromeda launched in 2017 in a poor state and didn’t have the beloved characters or setting of the original trilogy to fall back on. It was so poorly received that instead of being a jumping off point for a new series, it ended up forcing Mass Effect into hibernation while BioWare muddled along with its doomed multiplayer shooter, Anthem.
CD Projekt Red, meanwhile, followed up the conclusion of its Witcher trilogy with the long-awaited Cyberpunk 2077, which has gone down in videogame history as one of the most disastrous launches ever. So bad that it had to be removed from the PlayStation store for six months. It’s an interesting case, as like Baldur’s Gate its origins can be found in tabletop roleplaying. But it ended up playing nothing like its inspiration and, while I actually enjoyed it despite its many technical imperfections and missed opportunities, it ultimately felt more like a story-driven open-world shooter than an RPG.
While Cyberpunk 2077 made an effort to keep you in character, almost never leaving the first-person perspective and never doling out cutscenes, it still drank from the cinematic RPG cup. Its fights were explosive but simple; its dialogue options were punchy but limiting; its systems sounded good on marketing slides but were incredibly inelegant. Root around inside Night City for long enough and you’ll find some killer side quests full of intrigue and nuance, but the main course was a dumb action movie, where our agency was restricted to some big, key moments.
Understandably, CDPR has returned to the safety of its beloved Witcher games. The Witcher 3 just received a new coat of paint, which should have been an easy slam dunk. That hasn’t quite been the case. Geralt’s final adventure is still an impressive RPG all these years later, full of rich characters and some best-in-class quests, but the enhancements have left a lot to be desired. Even after several chunky patches, performance is still quite poor on PC, and the fanciest stuff, like ray tracing, tanks the performance so badly that even folk with the beefiest rigs around have been having issues.
That said, people still want all that flash and spectacle. Cyberpunk 2077’s shockingly poor state at launch didn’t stop it getting plenty of rave reviews and selling millions of copies. It’s getting an expansion. More Witcher games are coming. BioWare’s working on a new Mass Effect and a new Dragon Age. But I think we’re at the tipping point. This style of RPG is only getting more and more expensive to make, with gargantuan teams being crunched to death to push out products that aren’t fit for purpose.
The publisher and shareholder expectations for these games are also extremely high. Andromeda, for instance, did not have an abysmal launch, even if it failed to really build on the success of Mass Effect 3, and while exact figures for the fiscal year weren’t given, EA claimed that it had performed well. But obviously not well enough to justify BioWare continuing down the Andromeda path. So while we’re not yet at the point where all faith has been lost, it feels increasingly dire.
Smaller teams with comparatively tiny budgets are creating RPGs that actually push the genre forward. Disco Elysium has sat at the pinnacle of PC Gamer’s Top 100 list for three years. Even Elden Ring couldn’t shift it. And now we’re seeing more games trying to emulate it, like Aussie post-apocalyptic RPG Broken Roads. And if you’re looking for a properly good cyberpunk game, it’s much easier to recommend Citizen Sleeper, which has a genuinely inventive setting, actual roleplaying chops, and simply works. Roadwarden, meanwhile, works magic with simple, static pixel art and evocative text; a reminder that there’s still power in a quality text adventure, and that text adventures absolutely do not need to feel old-fashioned.
These games are never going to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Cyberpunk 2077, as they admittedly have more of a niche appeal. But there are just so many studios making such a vibrant range of RPGs these days that it doesn’t really matter if none of them can pack the commercial punch of a big cinematic RPG. What they are doing is reminding players that cutting-edge tech and big budgets do not guarantee quality.
Given this, it feels appropriate that 2023 should be the year that Baldur’s Gate returns, with Larian’s Baldur’s Gate 3 poised to leave early access. It straddles the line between new and old, harkening back to isometric CRPGs of yore but with tactical and immersive sim twists. Any game that lets you wander around a fantasy realm disguised as a giant badger gets my seal of approval, and is infinitely more interesting than shooting cyberpunk guns at cyberpunk goons.
Elden Ring also serves as a reminder of what cinematic RPGs are missing. Here’s this lavish, striking, big-budget open-world RPG which truly embraces player freedom. Its approach to storytelling, worldbuilding and mechanical character development is leagues beyond what most blockbuster RPG developers have shown us lately. It slots into the middle ground, giving us plenty of flash and spectacle, but without sacrificing its density and complexity. And all this while being the most accessible game in FromSoft’s library.
In the face of all these alternatives, the cinematic RPG, once novel and exciting, now feels a bit old fashioned. Though still capable of telling riveting stories, they’ve become mechanically conservative, trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. And as complex TTRPGs are thrust ever more into the mainstream thanks to everything from Stranger Things to the pandemic, more developers are being influenced by them, and the limitless potential they contain. They were once such a powerful source of inspiration for videogame RPGs, and that time is upon us again.