Scars of War developer Gareth Fouche has penned a two-part discussion about Mass Effect 2 (here and here) in an attempt to determine whether its "streamlined" mechanics bring it outside of the role-playing genre. Regardless of how you feel about the game, I'd recommend giving the editorial a read as it spends a lot of time in "what constitutes a role-playing game?" territory:
Bioware games tend to focus on exploration of narrative/characters, not the environment. The narrative is active and drives the whole experience, pulling the player along with it. The player gets to explore that narrative through interacting with characters and playing the storyline but the demands of said narrative generally limit their ability to explore the environment and do things out of sequence. Thanks, Tales of the Rampant Coyote.
Now, games don't have to be 100% one or the other, it's a spectrum with the two approaches mentioned above sitting at the extremes. There are plenty of games which sit in the middle somewhere. Baldurs Gate 2 offers what I think to be a great balance between the two types. However, it seems to me that Bioware have decided that the narrative/character focus is what their games are about and they've been strengthening that focus on that in their games, to the detriment of environmental exploration. I'm fine with that. I like both types as well as the varieties in-between. The point is, I don't really think one approach is more valid than the other, but I do understand how some people prefer one or the other type. That's ok for them, but it doesn't make the other type of RPG '˜bad'.
Because when people argue about what is and isn't a RPG they run into a problem. Just about every sub-part of an RPG can be taken out of it and placed in a game of another genre and that game won't magically become an RPG. This is the thing about genres. People naturally want to look for some defining feature, some element they can point to and go '˜Ah-hah! There, see there? That proves it. This is an RPG (or FPS, or whatever)!'˜
But there often isn't any one thing. There is fuzziness, overlap. A first person game isn't necessarily an FPS. A game where you have an overhead view and give orders to a group of individuals isn't necessarily an RTS. And you can find examples of every RPG element, from inventories to character progression systems, in games from other genres. Other games have had inventories, or allowed the player to upgrade their character via some progression system.
But the Roleplaying Gareth, surely it is the Roleplaying! That's the '˜ah-hah!' element of RPGs!
Is it? And what exactly is roleplay?'