As I sit here with my second cup of morning coffee I had an inspiration to put down my thoughts on a subject that had come up on a Live-Journal post discussion I was part of a few days back. Well, possibly flame-war might be closer to how the actual debate went. A comment that had been made was that video game RPGs had been emulating table top, pencil and paper RPGs for years. I actually have to disagree with this sentiment to a degree and here's why. Think about what comes to mind when a video game RPG gets mentioned? Final Fantasy is often the forefront of people's minds. Possibly Fable, Fallout or Oblivion for those of a western gamer mindset and view. Some people will mention the MMOs that are out there, and a frequent number of Japanese franchises will come to the fore (Xenosaga/gears, Shin Megami Tensen, Dragon Quest, among others) A few folk may even bring up computer games like Diablo or Baldur's Gate. Where am I going with this? Well, see, I feel that far too often the video game role-playing game isn't like the table-tops for several reasons.
A Table-top RPG will have the player choose their character's name, race and gender where applicable, determine their attributes with either a point allocation or random number generation (e.g. dice rolls), sometimes work on a skill set, aquire or purchase gear, and possibly have some sort of back story to why they are in the occupation/situation they are at the time of gaming. Or they work with their game-master to come to similar. Video game RPGs are more commonly having you play a named person, pregenerated and given a predelection towards a certain occupation and skill-set and it's very uncustomizable. Some games that allow for a degree of specialization or customization punish choices made, "for characters sake" because they aren't the maximized optimum to get through encounters. (Just about every game that has magic as a character option)
There are a few exceptions. Sometimes you get to name the character, but as they overcome adversity (read: Kill things in combat over and over) and gain experience, their growth is already mapped out and their skill set improves along a predetermined path. Sometimes you can alter their skill sets as they grow, but your level 45 warlock is going to look a lot like everyone else's level 45 warlock, let's face it. Some games don't allow for any real customization of the character at all, just obtain the best gear that gives the most plusses and continue forth, selling off everything else that they come across. Really, I think, that's where I think the term RPG stops fitting these games. It's not a role that you're playing, it's someone's life you're taking control over for a while. How does that differ from any action game with a pre-named protagonist? Because there's a menu and inventory system and you have to juggle an additional resource, like "Mana"?
Let's take a look at one of my favorite games of 2010, "Red Dead Redemption." At face value you're given a sandbox (That is to say free to roam the world and do whatcha want) action game set in a fictional wild west Americana stage. Your character is John Marston and some plot has happened to him and he's been set loose in this world with an ultimate goal, but needing to acquire friends, equipment and money before being able to see that goal through. Over the course of playing the game you can gain skills related to hunting and gathering. You can be a good guy and go after wanted criminals, act politely, and help out NPCs with their millions of side-quests. Or you can be a rotten bastard and tie women to train tracks. There's various things to do in this game, yet it's not labeled as a role-playing game because why? Because the majority of the combat is resolved real time and uses guns? There's even on-line multiplayer free roam. I argue Red Dead is more of an RPG than Final Fantasy XII and XIII could ever hope to be.
I think, perhaps, that the label of RPG is slapped onto any game that decides to use numerical value to represent a character's health and break combat down into stop-motion "turns" regardless of how much actual playing of a role or player freedom for customization of the in-game characters there are. Our characters are the vehicles by which we can experience the game world and those within it, let us at least have the options for some custom paint job and chrome rims! Well modeled character design is nice and all, but if I don't see an outward physical change when I equip a new suit of armor, there's going to be a level of disconnect. Now, I admit, the hybrid "Action-RPG" label exists and is bandied about on a few titles, however they often still have limited customization (Kingdom Hearts) or choice (Fable 3).
In conclusion, the market is saturated with games that make a claim of being "role-playing" when they're more like experiencing some form of cinema broken up between stages of fighting. (Looking at you Final Fantasy series) There's other games that have elements of character growth, customization and optimization that don't get labeled as RPGs and really, there's barely any game that actually emulates the experience of having "rolled up" a character like the table tops any more (Except possibly Fallout).