How Mass Effect Challenged My Definition of RPG

There's a new opinion piece up on Gamasutra, and this time the author explains why BioWare's Mass Effect series has forced him to reanalyze his personal definition of what a role-playing game is. Stats and morality meters in a cover-based shooter will do that:
The big question surrounding Mass Effect in genre terms is whether it is a role-playing game or not. Unlike most games, especially every other major BioWare release, the answer isn't obvious - it depends on how you look at genre. That's a big concept, but it can be examined in a few different ways. I tend to think there are three main ways that people try to define the role-playing genre, which parallel the three questions described at the start of this piece: "Do you play a role in the game?" "Does the game work like other role-playing games?" And, the most complicated one, revealed by the oddity of the film grain, is, "Where does this game fit in the history of role-playing games?"

Deciding whether a role-playing game involves "playing a role" suggests that there is an inherent quality that RPGs share. It is also judgmental a game that doesn't live up to the required qualities doesn't qualify for the genre. This idea that a role-playing game demands the player play a role, a puzzle game demands the player solve puzzles, etc., seems overly limited to me. After all, you solve puzzles in adventure games, you go on adventures in virtually every game with a story, and so on.

But there is a better form of this kind of argument, which is that role-playing games specifically have a straightforward core concept: they encourage players to project themselves into the game more than others. From this perspective, the Mass Effect games aren't merely RPGs, they are perhaps the best example of RPGs in the world. At most every point in the game, Commander Shepard's actions and reactions can be influenced by the player, and those affect the game world. Shepard's actions affect things in the game, and beyond into the sequels. Her responses to dialogue, cleverly described indirectly by the game, help Shepard feel like an extension of the player's will. If you want to step into the role of the hero of a science fiction epic, there's no better game series than Mass Effect.
I'd argue that there have been many video games that have challenged the definition of an RPG over the last 30 years, but I suppose Mass Effect does make for the most relative and compelling argument at the moment.