I’m a fairly low-level PC gamer whose preference is very much for the FPS genre. These games (my faves being Half-Life 1 & 2 and STALKER) just seem much more immersive than any third-person game I’ve played – a group that, admittedly, dates back to the early- to mid-'90s, e.g. Alone in the Dark, the LucasArts and Sierra adventure games, and almost all the 2D platformers Apogee published.
Anyway, I know I’ve been avoiding a huge world of games by sticking to FPSes. One genre in particular that intrigues me is the RPG. The majority of players on my favorite games blog (Rock Paper Shotgun) seem to go nuts for this format, and I’m not quite sure why. I know I’m speaking from a position of ignorance, but it always seems to me that you spend a lot of time tweaking stats and choosing your strength or agility or whatever and that just doesn’t seem condusive to delving into a story/world. I didn’t even make it through BioShock and Deus Ex because you have to build your character’s attributes in what seems to be a very unnatural way. (The ironic thing is that I’m a fiction writer, so you’d think I’d be up for building characters like this. But it just feels like a dull math/stats game to me.)
I suspect I’m wrong, because RPGs are always lauded as being especially immersive and captivating, and by people whose taste I trust (e.g. the gents at Rock Paper Shotgun). So what am I missing out on? What do you like, or dislike, about these games? What are your favorite cRPGs? Are there any that you’d particularly recommend to a newbie?
Note: Please don’t just say “if you don’t like it, you don’t like it,” or “just play a game and see if you like it!” These are valid answers, but I’m posting this 'cause I’m genuinely interested in the discussion. I find it fun to dissect and analyze the why people enjoy the games they enjoy.
And yes, I’m fully aware that some wag will pipe up with the above comments just to be snarky.
It’s similar to the word toaster. A toaster, toasts your bread, OMG, it does.
Role playing gives you a role to play. Its almost like a simulator except most stories are fantasy. The goal is to get you immersed in the character your playing so that you have a second reality. Role playing games require an open mind and an imagination to take interest imo. Even then, you still have so many choices nowadays that you can make your character relate to you in many ways. I will admit, they are not for everyone. I personally play them for the freedom of leveling up.
I think RPGs offer a lot in the way of customization and personalization. Do you want a beefy fighter? Do you want a sneaky assassin? Do you want a wizard with offensive spells? Maybe persuasion is more your thing? By allowing you to customize your stats (which admittedly can be dull math if you want THE BEST POSSIBLE OMG!!!), it gives the player much more freedom in different playing styles and outcomes. For example, several games give you the option of overthrowing the local baddie or assisting her to eliminate the rebels. If you decide to help the rebels, do you use persuasion to inspire the locals to overthrow the baddie or do you storm the castle in a violent coup. Maybe an elegant assassination from a nearby window. Now do these type of playing options for over half a game.
By giving players more options and control, many people feel greater “ownership” of a character and more immersion. It sounds to me that you don’t feel that connection by choosing stats. It takes you out of the game instead.
As mentioned, it’s about playing a role and becoming immersed in it.
You ARE the champion of Ferelden that drives back the blight and the Archdemon.
You ARE Commander Shepperd space marine who discovers an ancient cycle of destruction of organic life.
You ARE one of the Bhaal Spawn. Mortal progeny of the god of murder from a time when gods walked amongst men.
Strong RPG’s feature interesting characters, lots of character development, A decent plot, lots of minor encounters that paint a backdrop of the world your character interacts with, and typically include some sort of system that allows you to customize your character.
By the way, Stalker is fairly close to an RPG. It’s obviously a sandbox shooter, but it has RPG elements. There’s a world with a specific history. Lots of NPC’s with their own back stories. There’s a plot and clear goals, loot to pick up and tweak, and consequences to some of your actions.
There aren’t any stats, but your equipment and play style determine whether you go in guns blazing or if you sneak around and pick off stragglers. About the only differences between Stalker and say Mass Effect, are the more structured story telling elements and some of the stat tweaking.
In fact I would recommend Mass Effect. It’s a great game, and the shooter elements are likely to appeal to you.
In my experience, RPG gamers can’t explain it to gamers like you. Gamers like you like easy to play, easy to learn, easy to finish games, all of which are the opposite of what draws different people to RPG’s.
For example, I used to play platform scrollers like Super Mario Brothers. Once you finish the game, that’s it. You spend a little more time learning about the turtle on 6-2, or trying to get through the final maze, but once it’s done, there’s really no reason to play it again.
For gamers like me who used to burn through several games a week, replayability was key. Not only did I want to play a good game again, I wanted to play it better. For example, I played Diablo 2 for about 4 years without ever finding ~100 of the rarest items. Not finding them is what drove me to continue playing. After I got a hack that unlocked all the items, I never wanted to play again.
My typical day of gaming was 2-3 hours grinding Mephisto, 2-3 hours trading in the trade rooms, 2-3 hours starting a new build, 2-3 hours reading forums about the game, and 2-3 hours of cubing whatever I found/traded for that day. I never, ever see casual gamers putting in that kind of effort.
Players like you want casual games you can pick up and put down whenever you want, so I really doubt you can get into an RPG where playing it again and again, investing 20-100 hours per build, is the “fun.”
In most RPGs, stat selection is almost all just at the start of the game when you’re creating your character, and then maybe a little more when you’re leveling up. The rest of the time, you’re using those skills and stats you chose to interact with the world (and how you do so probably depends on which stats you chose). Nor need the stat-choosing necessarily be all that tedious: You say you play FPSes; do the FPSes you play have different character classes (like Team Fortress 2, say)? Choosing a class is usually the biggest decision you’ll make in creating an RPG character. Everything else generally follows from that: If you want a melee fighter, then you put your best stat in Strength, and if you want a wizard, you put it in Intelligence, and so on.
Ah, thank you, everyone – very interesting and enlightening discussion! I hope I didn’t come across as too ignorant or (worse) disrespectful of the genre. Definitely not my intention. I genuinely want to get into another style of game because my preferred format is kinda limiting. I’m not into the wargame Call of Duty/Modern Warfare thing, precisely because there appears to be no story, or at least no focus on characters. So I’m very picky about what I’ll play: it has to have some heart to it, y’know? Some story that catches my attention… some reason I’m mopping up the floor with the baddies.
Don’t get me wrong: now and then, I do like mindless shooting. But it’s not the sort of thing that hooks me.
See now I think this is what I’m not “getting” about RPG gameplay. It might be because I’m so used to the linear style of Valve games, I dunno, but… what exactly happens if you choose to be either an assassin or a fighter? It seems more natural to vary gameplay depending on the scenario. Sometimes I’ll burst in with guns-blazing. Other times, if I’m low on ammo or my health is in dire straits, I’ll tip-toe the long-way around trying to avoid the baddies or take 'em out from a distance if I have the right type of gun/crossbow. Is this choice still available in an RPG, or are you stuck with being a sneak for the whole game? Even the sneakiest assassin might sometimes be faced with a situation where s/he’s obviously better armed / stronger than the opposition, and thus might think “screw this, I’m feeling cocky and loaded with some solid weaponry, I’m gonna meet these bastards face-to-face.”
Yeah, I think that’s it – it’s the mechanics of stats that throw me. Maybe I’m not so hot with choice. If y’all are saying that you only have to do the stats deal once early on in the game (or at least rarely) and the rest is simply playing the character you’ve chosen, I think I could handle that.
I’ve heard great things about Planescape: Torment but I thought it wasn’t available for modern systems. And I’m surprised that KOTOR is an RPG… I always thought it was an MMO!
There’s a god of murder? Dang that pantheon is very specific. Is there one of shoplifting too? (Probably Loki…)
Mmm yes, that’s the picture I’m getting. The atmosphere/characterization/consequences are all a big part of why STALKER rocked my world. Although there weren’t as many important supporting characters as there are in, say, HL2, which I think is the only downside to the game. But that’s part of the STALKER universe. The Half Life characters are a smallish band trying to work together and they end up bonding… after all, it’s their very humanity that sets them apart from the Combine. In STALKER’s exclusion zone, we’re all pretty much stoic, embittered loners, close-mouthed unless we trust someone implicitly.
OMG, RockPaperShotgun go into ecstasies over ME2 and this “Shepherd” character (though they seem to prefer the female version as a character for whatever reason). Does it matter if I start with the first or ME2?
Aw, I take (mild) exception to this description of me as a casual gamer who only wants the easy, shallow sort of game that I can pick up/put down as time permits. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes that’s fun for a time-waster – right now my time-waster du jour is Peggle Nights – but I don’t think that actually describes any of my real favorites.
What I love about the HL series, Portal and STALKER, are the stories and characters. I feel like I am Gordon Freeman. (Okay, he’s a cipher, but the characters around him aren’t, and through them and the way they talk to/about me I pretty much invent my own character traits for ol’ Mutey Freeman.) And the arc of STALKER’s “Marked One” – not using his real name lest I spoil someone for the game – captivated me because I empathized with how much he needed to understand who he was, and what was going on in the Zone. And obviously Chell’s relationship to GlaDOS was a huge part of what made Portal so hypnotic. I do replay these games, not because I want to “win” or do better in points or achievements, but because I’m hooked on their worlds and want to experience them again.
It sounds like I’m the sort of player who would enjoy an RPG, then, if I can just get past my stats phobia.
That’s good to hear! Explain this leveling up thing. I know the term – hey, I read Order of the Stick – but how does it work in a cRPG? Do you suddenly gain points of strength or more/better armour…?
Not really. I’ve only played TF2’s tutorials, and I completely and totally suck which is why I never go near multiplayer games.
Okaaay, this makes sense. So to ask a different version of what I asked above: are you locked out from fighting if you’re a wizard? And instead you go through the game using, um, sorcery or spells/invocation or whatever wizards do?
I think this might be the route to take for the start. (In fact, I’ve been intrigued by Fallout ever since seeing Nuka Break. Even though I knew nothing about F:NV, this film cracked me up!) Part of why I haven’t tried some of the newer games is because my current system won’t run anything that’s much more strenuous than Source. Happily, thanks to a few Dopers’ advice, this will soon change.
To anyone else I would absolutely recommend they’d start to play Mass Effect with the first one. It’s a great intro to the world and the dire straights the galaxy is in.
The main thing about ME is that it’s a trilogy. A trilogy that takes into account all of the decisions you make in every chapter. So all of the going ons, Who lives and who dies, the decisions you make in ME1 carry over to ME2 and continue to affect the universe and you story. The same thing will happen with ME 3. So decisions you make can and will come back in unexpected ways to either bite you in the butt or maybe reward you.
Knowing that, it takes a lot out of the gravitas of some of those decisions if you simply make them on the fly without actually experiencing them and importing your save.
So again, I would recommend any one start with ME 1. Otherwise it’s like watching the lord of the rings movies and skipping partr 1. Sure in part 2 they recap Gandalfs death. But without watching part 1 why would you care about that character?
The thing is though, ME 2 features much better shooter mechanics, and some of the rpg stat stuff is more streamlined. ME1? Not so much. You can tell it’s the developers first shot at the whole shooter/RPG thing. And since it this elements in particular that you have an issue with…
After about a decade long hiatus, I got back into gaming with Fallout 3 and have since played Oblivion and New Vegas and, a cautionary tale here, after playing those I find it really hard to get back into “traditional” first person shooters. I got Half Life 2 during the Steam chrismas sale and I haven’t really made much headway on it. I loved the first one back in the day, and I like the gameplay and plot elements of the second one, but compared to the open world RPG shooters it feels like one of those old “rail shooters” where you’re just sort of whisked from one point to another.
So I don’t know if that’s an endorsement for the genre or not!
If the stat thing is intimidating you, a lot of RPGs have an “autolevel” function, that assigns new skills and abilities for you automatically. I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, because I never turn that function on, so that’s probably not hugely helpful, but there are games like that out there.
It depends on the game. The Baldur’s Gate games were based off of the D&D 2nd edition rules, where class choice pretty much locked you down into a specific path. If you made a wizard, odds are you’re never going to be much good in a fight. If you made a fighter, all those magic scrolls and wands you find are going to be useless to you. However, in games like this you usually have the option to recruit additional characters to help you out in your quest. If you’re playing a beefy fighter, sooner or later you’ll meet up with a skinny mage to fulfill your long-range artillery needs. The downside to this, from your perspective, is that you have to juggle the stats of as many as six different characters.
Other games have a more sandbox approach to character generation and leveling. The Fallout games don’t use classes at all. Instead, each character has a set of different skills, and you can assign points to these skills depending on what sort of character you want to make. If you want a thief, put points into Stealth. If you want a fighter, put points into Guns. If you want an assassin, put some points into Guns, and some points into Stealth. When games like this are done right, almost every encounter will have multiple ways to succeed. If you need to break into a locked keep, you can sneak around the back and try to find a hidden entrance. Or you can pick pocket the guard and steal his keys. Or you can shoot the guard and steal his keys. Or you can talk to the guard and convince him that you’re here on Official Business, and he’d better open up the door tout suite or he’s going to be scrubbing latrines for the rest of his life. The Fallout games are probably better at this than just about any other title in the genre, although games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Deus Ex are also good examples. The advantage to these games is that you can choose what type of character you’re playing dynamically. If your sneaky rogue character keeps getting his ass kicked, next time you level up, put more points into your fighting skills.
As to why roleplayers like this sort of thing, there’s a couple of reasons that haven’t been touched on yet. The customization and replayability are big factors, but it also does a great job of opening up the world, and making it feel more like a real place. Half Life 2 had a great setting, but it’s really pretty limited. There’s really only about a dozen or so different guns you can carry with you, and that’s it. In the Fallout game, just about every object in the world can be picked up, and most of them have some use. That rusty tin can on the ground, for example, can be converted into a primitive IED - if you’ve put enough points into your Mechanics skill.
The other big thing about roleplaying games is the sense of accomplishment you feel by the end of the game. Gordon Freeman at the beginning of Half Life 2 is exactly the same guy as Gordon Freeman at the end of Half Life 2. The only difference is that you’ve got a somewhat larger selection of guns to play with. In most roleplaying games, your character starts off unskilled and relatively weak, but by the end, you’re a juggernaut of death, with a dozen of skills and abilities that you’ve learned over the course of the adventure. There’s something very satisfying about going back to that dungeon that gave you so much trouble at the beginning of the game, and just slaughtering the fuck out of everything in it.
Well, I’d say that one of the main points of RPGs is the role-playing aspect, that is to say part of the appeal is that you are playing a specific role, not someone who can do anything as required. If you’re Conan the Barbarian and are facing a horde of onrushing enemies, then by Crom you’re going to pick up your sword and slaughter them one at a time as they rush you–casting a fireball may well be more effective in that situation to kill them all at a distance, but you’re Conan, not a wizard.
Now, that being said, single-player cRPGs do have to make sure everyone can get through the game. The pen-and-paper RPG forbears, and even modern MMOs, can get away with having situations that you need a fighter or or a wizard or whatever, cRPGs find ways around that, sometimes by letting you get multiple party members that you have at least some degree of control over.
This will vary by game, of course, but often base stats are increased automatically, and you do some sort of choice in other areas–you might be able to choose if you get better at firing a pistol or better at negotiating, or in a fantasy environment a wizard might choose between spells.
There are usually behind-the-scenes calculations as well, the base chance to hit for a level 10 character against a level 10 monster will be better than a level 9 character vs a level 10 monster. Of course, in practical terms, monster level in various areas increases as the character progresses through the world, so it’s not that big a deal unless you spend a lot of time wandering around in areas the game is not explicitly sending you to.
Armor and other equipment is generally gained through purchase or dropped by monsters, with no automatic increase by level, though there might be equipment that the game artificially gives a level requirement for.
That is going to somewhat depend on the game, but it generally really only changes your tactics in a fight. If you’re a wizard, you have a robe and can’t take a beating, so you’re going to spend more time casting spells that stop the enemies from getting to you and blowing them up at a distance, whereas a fighter will generally want to charge in and do close-range fighting.
There also may be quests/storylines that are specific to the various classes. If you’re a fighter, the Wizard’s Guild may not even let you in the door, and they certainly won’t tell you about the secret plan to obtain the Orb of Sparkly Death. But the local Mercenaries Guild may be happy to get your involved in their plan to recover the Sword of Magic Deflection that they don’t want the wizards to know about.
Besides what others have said, there’s also the appeal of creating your own mini-stories, at least for the sandbox RPGs. Everyone will have their own anecdotes, and mine might help you understand how a roleplayer does things:
Okay, so in Elder Scrolls Oblivion I was travelling on foot through a monster-infested forest when I met a soldier on horseback patrol headed in the opposite direction. I’d been itching to get my hands on some military gear for a while but every time I tried to kill soldiers or steal from them I got my ass killed with extreme prejudice.
Luckily enough, a troll ambushed us and focused on the soldier, so I stood back and hoped he’d get killed, allowing me to loot his corpse. However, once it became clear that the soldier would win I decided to join in and at least get some experience points killing the troll. But just as I shot a fireball at the troll’s back, the soldier cut him down, meaning the soldier took my fireball instead, killing him instantly.
At this point I was freaking out. “Holy shit I murdered that mofo’s ass and I haven’t saved in 45 minutes! The army’s going to hunt me down like a dog!” As it turns out, the army has no way of knowing when one of their soldiers has been murdered in the middle of the forest. This next part was unnecessary, but I did it anyway because I was doing my best to roleplay. I took the soldier’s corpse and dragged it off the road and into the deep woods,where I hid it in some thick bushes. Then I stole the soldier’s horse and abandoned it in a remote corner of the forest. It was unnecessary because game-wise I could have dragged the corpse through the streets of the capital city and no one would have batted an eye. It did let me feel more like I was in a real world, though.
And it turns out someone did notice my accidental murder - the Guild of Assassins. At the moment I fried soldier boy, I got a message from the guild inviting me to join them. So I killed a cop, looted his corpse, and even got rewarded for it! How awesome was that?
So you see, the opportunity to create stories like this is what keeps me coming back to RPGs. That and dressing up my character in different clothes and armour. I even had my character carry around a set of appropriate clothes for different occasions so I’d always be ready for any social situation. When going into town I’d take off my armour and put on civilian clothes, when hunting deer I’d take out my Robin Hood clothes, and when going to meet the Duke of Skingrad I’d put on my fancy court finery. And all this despite the fact that every ounce of weight counts and for almost all social occasions none of the NPCs would have cared if I was standing around in my underwear.
Now, all of the roleplaying I described might sound like a hassle to stick to, but doing it actually enhances my enjoyment of the game. It’s fun because it’s something I’ve made for myself which the game’s mechanics allowed me to create. And guess what, not once did I look at my stats sheet. Because I couldn’t have cared less about the numbers, it was all about the roleplaying.
first, you should know that the term RPG is very broad and generic. so much so that, it seems to me, any game with stats and classes can be labelled as some sort of RPG. as such, you should know that a game like say, Baldur’s Gate is totally different from Mass Effect. heck, even an MMORPG like World of Warcraft has their normal servers and specially reserved RPG ones emphasizing the RP in RPG.
i’ll recommend the Mass Effect trilogy - it is light on stats, with the “autolevel” function if you wish; it is light as a shooter (originally an xbox game); the role play is light (basically the Light vs the Dark side) ; it has basically an ‘on rails’ but in-depth storyline; it is cinematic; it is immersive.
if there is one word to describe Mass Effect, it would be immersive. that fits your requirement and would be a safe choice as a first foray into RPG. if you find yourself setting the “autolevel” function back to it’s default off position, you might then be better able to understand why some like to tailor their character exactly as they want them.
that’s because Jennifer Hale is Commander Shepard. her voice work is way better than the generic male jocky.
I’d start with the first Mass Effect; it’s cheaper than ME2 so if you end up not being fond of it, not so much of a loss. Oh, and a heads-up - as it’s a Bioware game, there’s potential for one or more of your teammates to become interested in you. Similarly, you may do things that might really piss off your teammates. You’ll also have to make some really tough choices. That’s pretty much true for all of their RPGs - Baldur’s Gate (1 & 2), Neverwinter Nights (1), SW: Knights of the Old Republic (1), Dragon Age, and Jade Empire.
Slightly offtopic but it’s funny how these things go - went to check this RockPaperShotgun blog OP linked and watched Elder Scrolls V trailer and read a few other posts there, and saw one or two mentions about how the Witcher was awesome and how they were waiting for the Witcher II. Checked Steam, saw it was 20e or something like that, went to the Witcher forum and found a link to demo, downloaded it and liked it. Luckily saw a mention on yet another RockPaperShotgun post that it was on sale on another digital download site. Bought it for 8e.
So, if nothing else, this thread sold me yet another cRPG even if it was preaching to the choir in my case given I’ve been playing RPGs for over 20 years.
And thanks for the blog link choie, that site looked just what I was looking for!
No, you can indfeed drag bodies around in Oblivion. Any object can be mvoed unless it’s too big and heavy, and even then you may be able to tilt of knock it around.
Yes and no. The player ic creating a role and fulfilling it. SUre, it’s within the bounds of the game. The key element which marks RPG’s is choice, though. It’s your role, your decision.
choie, I’d reccomend Mass Effect, Deus Ex, and Fallout: New Vegas to get started. Those are all hybrid FPS/RPG’s.
Mass Effect was more of a classic RPG in ways, and it gets a bit tedious in spots. So you could try the sequel first if you like.
Deus Ex is rather dated technology, but the gameplay is so good the game is STILL amazing aafter all this time. Plus, it’s all of five bucks most places. Stay away from the sequel: it’s not exactly bad, but the plot sucks, the characters are dull, the stages small and the customization options minimal. I’d also reccomend you take a look at the long-awaited Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Wait for the reviews, but it apears the game will be a fine addition to the series.
Fallout 3 would also be a good introduction, but New Vegas is so much better it’s just not worth bothering with. New Vegas has a killer story, incredible depth of play, and many more options. I absolutely love playing around with guns in it, and trying out new ones. Yet it never feels overwhelming.
Classic RPG’s tend to be heavily party-based, and in that vein you might try some of the old classics. Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment are good ways to get started. They both explained the rules pretty well. Baldur’s Gate is the original Bioware RPG, made in conjunction with Black Isle. Those two companies esentially created the modern RPG game, and they both still are leaders and innovaters.
I’m going to go against the grain here. I play RPGs more than anything else, and I’ll make the argument that the majority of RPGs are actually LESS immersive than games like Half-Life 2. RPG fans tend to only think of games with their preferred aspects in them, ignoring the majority that don’t fit. Most RPGs don’t have anywhere near the level of choice and writing as Planescape: Torment or the exploration factor of Fallout 3, for example. I think Mass Effect 2 was incredibly immersive, but Baldur’s Gate II (which I loved) wasn’t so much. The latter had a nifty story and characters, but it played far more like a tactical game to me, albeit with a decent amount of story/character interaction. I never felt like I was the character, but rather that character’s general!
Anyway, here’s my attempt to distill some of the RPG elements that attract people:
Customization of character. You can make a unique character with unique skills and play the game that way. Some RPGs limit you to a few token skills/stats (some Final Fantasies and Dragon Quests), while some really give you free rein in how your character plays (Fallout 1-2, Deus Ex, Vampire Bloodlines). The key is having these choices be meaningful, rather than just 10 different ways to do 30-50 damage.
Strategic party-based gameplay. Icewind Dale series, Wizardry series, Baldur’s Gate series, etc. You have a party, can tweak their physical development and equipment as you desire, and you command and position them like a group of magic-wielding Navy SEALs through the heart of the medieval jungle. Of course many RPGs are about being the lone warrior and play more like a FPS (Deus Ex, Mass Effect)
“Engrossing” story/characters. Most of them, though some require far more suspension of disbelief at the ridiculousness of it all. Torment and Vampire Bloodlines are probably my favorites here. Games which pretty much don’t even bother include Diablos, Nethack, etc.
Choice/Ability to affect the plot. A lot of games have this to some degree, like Baldur’s Gates, Arcanum, KOTOR. You can control a few key things and/or a lot of minor things, be they good/evil/neutral solutions to things, siding with a certain faction, controlling who gets to join your party, deciding how to treat people etc. The main line is usually still stuck to a script, though. Torment and Fallouts excel here, really giving you the sense that you’re carving out your own destiny. Games which do not give you much choice include most Final Fantasies, Dragon Quests, Diablos, Dungeon Siege, etc.
Exploration/free roam factor. The world is at your fingertips; just don’t get eaten. The Elder Scroll games shine here, as do Fallouts, Arcanum, Gothics, etc. Most games try to give you a sense of that, but don’t really let you roam outside of a set area or series of locations (Deus Ex, KOTORs, BG2, NWNs). Of course, there’s something to be said about quality over quantity; the walkable world may be huge but lifeless (like Daggerfall).
Overall atmosphere. How well the world seems like a world, rather than just a collection of stuff. Art direction, dialogue, lore, geography, etc. all play a huge part here. Vampire Bloodlines and Mass Effect 2 did a splendid job in this department, I think.
Different aspects are important to different people, which is why it can be really hard to gauge what the hell people like about RPGs. For me, I tend to prefer games that excel in at least one of these areas, rather than just be mediocre in all of them…