Ultima VII continued and enriched the moral ambiguity its predecessors introduced to the genre. Rather than the impending end of the world, the two-part saga revolves around a murder mystery, espionage, and a "benevolent" would-be dictator. As The Elder Scrolls would allow a few years later, you could interact with just about everything and everyone. Sometimes that propelled your quest forward. Sometimes it didn't! But it always made Ultima VII feel like a living, breathing world -- before it was cool.
On paper, Dragon Age: Origins is Bioware's most archetypical RPG. All the classic fantasy races are there, along with an evil dragon to slay at the end, and armies of very orc-like creatures in between. However, Origins turns the Tolkein-esque status quo on its head for one of the most fascinating fantasy worlds in video games. Dwarfs are ruthless aristocrats while elves live in squalor, close to extinction -- and you can play from each of their perspectives in vastly different origin stories depending on your custom character. Add a deeply strategic combat system (in which you can pause to give orders, or "program" your party members to behave automatically) and you've got one of the best RPGs of all-time.
Planescape: Torment's story isn't quite like any other in video games. It kicks off with its immortal protagonist, the Nameless One, searching for the secrets to his past at the intersection of the multiverse. That fictional openness leads Torment down all kinds of wacky, tragic, and otherwise bizarre paths. The game is ultimately about what defines a person, and what can change them. But it's the characters around that story (penned by the wonderful Chris Avellone) that truly explore the ways in which we live with ourselves.
The original Deus Ex is a smorgasbord of ideas that seemingly every AAA RPG has borrowed since. You can sneak through vents, charm guards, go in guns blazing, hack security systems, and, and, and... the game never admonishes you for making any of a dozen kinds of choices at a given time. The freedom is downright stressful, as you begin to worry that your meticulous investigation through Deus Ex's conspiracy-laden science fiction still missed something of value. Half the time, you probably did. Such is the game's daunting size for a game that came out in 2000.
System Shock 2 has as much in common with horror games as RPGs. Like Resident Evil's mansion before it, the entire starship Von Braun feels as though it's out to extinguish you. That choked hallway might hide a zombie right around the corner. You might not even notice that protocol droid coming up from behind to explode right next to you. But if you can brave them, each nook and cranny reveals more of a grim sci-fi world just outside the Von Braun's lonely bulkheads.
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