With those that say that role playing games, or games in general *require* combat in order for it to *work* are severely limiting themselves with such narrow-mindedness. There are so many different ways games can offer challenges, or breathtaking experiences. It is by far not limited to combat.
The amount of combat in PS:T is still relatively very small, but yet it still *feels* padded out, only because of the clunky D&D mechanics, and in turn, feels less enjoyable. A different approach would likely have kept the level of immersion more consistent throughout the game. That is all I'm really saying.
I agree with a few reservations you'll probably understand. Also please understand from the get-go that I've never played PS:T.
I do not want to play an interactive movie, and I also believe quite firmly that there are much subtler ways to branch a story than to explicitly do so. More cumulative approaches can also be used, and as an example, there's a part of FF7 where Cloud Strife gets to go on a date with someone else in his team. That person is whomever the player has been nicest to up to that point; it could be Aeris or Tifa, but it could just as easily be Barrett. There's no score or any sort of indication at any point to show how you got this outcome, that's just the way it went and it was based on your actions (which in this case, granted, were answers given to dialogue boxes). The general idea can be applied more broadly to how a story cumulatively evolves based on the player, as opposed to explicitly branching the story at arbitrary points.
Now why don't I want to play an interactive movie? Because I don't care how many branches the story could follow. I really don't. You have to make me care, and if you don't, I'll just wish it were an actual movie and come to resent the mechanics. It'll also suffer from something a movie does not, because in a movie, I can skip to any point I wish.
Now, more subtle, cumulative, interactive evolution of a story could be interesting. It's not like you have to "choose path A or path B". But there's a lot
more to consider, and just the same as above, you have to make me care. If the story is just binary like that, then even more-so, you'd have to convince me why that's very interesting. And if this venture sounds overwhelmingly complex, you as a person or a team lead would have to consider that, too.
Anyway. That's what I have to say about an interactive story. Now about combat.
I agree with you that combat (especially an in-depth, intricate battle system) is not necessary to portray conflict, but it is part of the video game status quo.
- Each Zelda game, for instance, has been just as much a mythical adventure game about fighting monsters as it also has been an adventure game about using tools to solve problems and overcome seemingly difficult obstacles. (I really wish Zelda would advance that aspect instead of the former, also; do something sort of like Dark Cloud and let me build tools!)
- Flower on PS3 demonstrates very well how evil, ugly, violent darkness can be portrayed apart from beauty and light without any characters whatsoever. Your character is the wind, and your inventory is a bunch of flower petals that you pick up. Instead, it's a very visual story that plays on beauty and ugliness and color theory, and indeed it also plays on what intellectual concepts come to mind as you play this game. That evil, ugly, violent darkness, we come to realize, is very much an every day part of our modern lives.
- TheMonkey Island games don't let you "fight" anyone, but the status quo concept of combat in video games is humored by "Insult Sword-fighting" which is still awesome. As for the story, there's definitely a protagonist, there's definitely an antagonist, there's definitely a love-interest, and there's definitely a number of MacGuffins to keep things going (much like Zelda, for that matter, though the love-interest in Zelda is always either implicit or non-existant).
- And then there's Ico, in which you don't run around with a massive weapon, but you carry a 2x4 and occasionally you fight shadows with it (which always seems far more tense in that game than shooting a truckload of demons in Doom). From there, it's a game of visual storytelling and puzzle-solving around this girl you must take with you in a gigantic castle. Perhaps the player could sympathize with the main character in being alone in this big, old, dark dungeon, cast out because of something that makes him different, and how the one friend he has in the world can help him move forward just as well as make his life a little difficult at times, and that might just be enough to move the player along.
This is conflict with and without combat. Zelda certainly has a lot of fights, and they're a lot of fun, but that's only half the game. Flower has no fights at all, and really neither does Monkey Island. Ico does, and it does it without an intricate battle system, but that's certainly less than 10% of the game. All of these are fun
games! So yeah, I agree with you.