Toward the end of an article on RPGs that I read, Peter Molyneux muses, "... I predict that the RPGs we’ll be playing in five years time will be radically different from the RPGs that we are playing today".
That got me wondering: What paths have RPGs yet to try?
Roleplay has already been combined with every genre, and efforts of inclusion continue. Take Tom Clancy's Endwar, for example... an RTS that is recording voices for each individual soldier in an attempt to humanize the gameplay of giving them orders in combat.
The first idea that popped into my mind is something like The Sims in first-person. "Fragile" is what I thought to title the game.
The player selects, rather than creates, a character to play. The selection is made from a large group of characters, all of whom will act in the game as NPCs if not selected for the player's direct use. The player then plays with that character just as one might in a game like Fable 2 or Oblivion. The tricky part is that the character is "fragile" in the sense that permadeath is a close and constant possibility. No, that's not the innovation.
The fresh idea is that the player then selects one of the other NPCs to take control of. The consequences of the first character's life, and that character's reputation, remain active in this second character's life. When the second character dies, the player takes control of a third character; and, again, the new character must witness and live through the effects of the previous character's life. This situation continues through several characters -- characters of the same generation, but different personalities and circumstances.
This basic scenario could set the stage for tons of replayability and some powerful player-directed drama.
The prince and the pauper
For example, let's say one character is a prince and another is a pauper. If you play as the pauper first, you might decide that your character is bitter about his circumstances and blames the aristocracy. In an act of revenge, he kills one of the royals (and is quickly slain by the guards). When you later play the prince, you must decide how to respond to the situation you set up. Does the murder of the prince's sister send him into a rage, and all the city's peasants must pay the price? Does the murder direct his attention to the poverty around him, so you guide him into charitable acts that help the city's unfortunate? Or is the murder meaningless to him? Does he ignore it entirely or use the absence of a fellow royal to consolidate his own power?
On the other hand, you might first play as the prince. If the prince makes it his duty to aid the poor, then your later experience as the pauper might begin in very different circumstances (such as beginning in public housing, rather than sleeping in the street; or being able to rely on a few gold coins from the queen, rather than a few coppers from the baker at church). If the prince decides to outlaw beggars, your pauper might not even be allowed in the city, but instead have to survive in the woods.
That's just two characters. Now imagine continuing through another ten characters. The possible ways the overall story could play out are incalculable.
The fragile part
Apart from the more obvoius meaning of the title "Fragile" (permadeath), what it's really about is a Montessori-like learning experience... the sort of learning brilliant designers like Will Wright and Peter Molyneux are always talking about with their games. The game would be an intuitive and player-guided lesson in how precious time is and how monumental even the simplest actions can be.
For example, it would be possible for the prince to have no effect whatsoever on the pauper. If he spends most of his time hunting and partying with the aristocrats of other cities, the beggars of his own city might never see him or be affected in any way. But if he gives a few gold coins to the pauper just once, the player's pauper will begin with those coins and have a chance to change his life with them (such as by purchasing a bow and arrows, thereby becoming capable of acquiring food without stealing). Or the pauper might spend those first few coins on booze... attracts attention while drunk, and gets stabbed during the altercation (and dies). The simple act of giving or withholding a few coins, spending those coins wisely or foolishly, can result in huge consequences. Players learn a thousand ways in which the smallest of actions can change a life.
And it would not be difficult to be killed in this game. That sounds harsh, but I would make it so for one reason: true sacrifice is only possible through the possibility of true loss. The surest way for the player to prolong any character's life would be to "play it safe", to live with reservation and fear. Molyneux said he wants Fable 2 players to experience that living a good life is difficult. Likewise, I would want Fragile players to experience that goodness often requires making oneself vulnerable. The greatest, most memorable deeds require great risk. The more players are willing to risk, the more their characters would be remembered by surviving NPCs.
I'm fully aware that there are a number of difficult problems in that basic design, and that plenty of gamers would hear "permadeath" and not care about any qualifying circumstances. I'm just trying to offer an example of something RPGs haven't done before (to my knowledge).
What else haven't RPGs done before?