By Derrick Jean-Baptiste
One of the most common criticisms leveled at The Witcher series of games is that they're "not real RPGs" because you play as a set character - Geralt of Rivia - who has a previous backstory as well as training and experience. This creates a very strong narrative where Geralt has a lot of previously forged relationships and history with places and people and defines a set play style for the Witcher games where you play as an elegant swordsman complimented with some limited magic abilities as well as bombs and potions. You’ll never be able to play an archer character or a full-on mage. I think this approach to RPGs is refreshing – trading off some player freedom in favor of a better narrative and a stricter leveling system is something I liked in this series, and after a large number of hours as Geralt, I felt very attached to him, his friends and family, and the Witcher lifestyle.
On the other hand, there are also games like “The Elder Scrolls” or “Kingdoms of Amalur” or even “Dark Souls” where your character is some kind of “chosen one” however doesn’t have a set background and is completely “new” in all senses to the world you’re exploring. It allows more player input in “role-playing” as the character to their desire and also allows you to have a bigger range of options of play styles – stealth, archery, magic, and melee can all be equally viable and mixed up.
There’s also a third road which we’ve seen a few games do – Baldur’s Gate and KOTOR are classic examples of this and more recent examples include Tyranny and Pillars of Eternity. Your character is your own in regards to choosing a class, appearance, and race but will typically have a backstory chosen or associated with them – ie. being raised in Candlekeep before starting the main quest, or choosing your background like in the recent Obsidian games which impacts some role-playing decisions you can make too. This is sort of a “best of both worlds” path allowing the developer a bit more control over the narrative and story but also giving the player a choice.
Good role playing for me is not really about whether the character is well defined from the start, like The Witcher, or if you get a blank slate, like Skyrim. The important thing is the ability to be able to act like your character.
So even though a game like Skyrim on paper has much more options for role playing, because you can do whatever you want, it doesn't make good role playing for me at least. It doesn't provide many options for you to act according to your character and the world around you is not affected by it.
I like how the dialog system worked in Pillars of Eternity, because you often had several ways of answering a question. Even though the end outcome was more or less the game, you had options to at least partially "talk" like your character. It might not have any real impact on the story or the outcomes of my choices per se, but just having reasonable options in dialogue so I don't feel forced to act outside my character was very important to me.
In short, I believe that role playing is not necessarily about being able to whatever you want, but being able to act accordingly with your character.