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That's the title of what is already becoming a relatively controversial editorial over at Kotaku, where the author argues that Bethesda's Fallout 3 isn't a role-playing game due to the fact that it falls within the spectrum of an immersive simulation rather than an abstraction-based title. They also give us a brief history lesson to help explain how video game evolution has somehow led to this:
By 1980 or so, RPGs began to evolve, with two distinct schools of design. Origin's Ultima heads towards more simulation-oriented design, and their other games, like Wing Commander, follow suit. Interplay, Black Isle, and Bioware, on the other hand, focus more on translating traditional, abstract RPG structure into video game mechanics.
One developer, Looking Glass, had this crazy idea that they could combine the simulation components of the flight simulators they were making with the adventuring elements of an RPG. The result, Ultima Underworld yes, it's related to Ultima ended up being one of the most influential games of all time, with games from Portal to Dead Space to Bioshock owing something to it. Ultima Underworld even had an impact on Bethesda.
You can see the RPG elements in Looking Glass' games; System Shock 2, for instance, gave players (cyber modules,) which worked like skill points, allowing players to upgrade at various stations throughout the terminals. Despite this, Looking Glass' games often downplayed the traditional RPG elements, seeking to remove the abstractions from them, pushing simulation elements instead.
They had effectively created a new genre entirely. It had RPG elements, but wasn't really an RPG. It had simulation elements, but it wasn't a simulator. They called it the (immersive sim.)
Some people argue that Bethesda doesn't make very good RPGs, especially fans of the Obsidian-developed Fallout: New Vegas, and that's fine, because Bethesda doesn't make RPGs. They make immersive sims.