Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 14, 2010
I have been reading Matt Barton’s excellent book, Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-playing Games, which highlights the contributions and unique features of an impressively comprehensive set of computer RPGs. It’s made me think a bit about the influence these games have had on my own thinking of what a CRPG should be. After all, I’ve been playing these games since I was thirteen or something.
And they had an impact on me. Warped my brain. I’ve written a little bit about a few of the early CRPGs that I played. Here are a few of ‘em and how I think they’ve affected my mindset as a gamer, and as an indie RPG designer (wow, that kinda sounds formal and pretentious…). Some I’ve already written about before, so I’ll just sum up some of the “design lessons” that they’ve taught me:
Dungeons of Magdarr (My Other First CRPG) was probably the first “true” RPG I ever bought for my computer. It was bargain-priced, mail-order only. And I discovered that you get what you pay for. But more importantly, the game was written in BASIC, which meant I could look at the source code. And I realized that I could do better. So I guess the Dungeons of Magdarr deserves some gratitude for helping convince me to keep learning how to program and to write my own games.
Telengard (see Telengard – My First CRPG) was another early game for my C-64 (my first computer actually capable of running a “serious” game… apparently my 1K Sinclair ZX80 couldn’t cut it for some reason…). This one was also written in BASIC, and after spending many happy hours delving through its procedurally generated dungeons I printed out the entire program and spent many more happy hours delving through its source code. I learned a few tricks. But it also helped solidify in my mind some staples of very “old-school” RPG-ing. Mysterious floating cubes, teleport traps (ugh! Not my favorite), thrones with gems, lots of wild magic flung around, the occasional non-hostile creature in dungeons. And since the sheer randomness of results eliminated all concept of “right” or “wrong” decisions, it boiled everything down to a simple concept: Risk Management. You can’t know what sitting on the throne will do of the various random results, but you could know if you could afford the risk.
Colossal Cave Adventure (Twisty Little Maze of Passages, All Different)- While not an RPG, this one preceded Dungeons & Dragons for me, and I cannot begin to understand how much this game screwed with my head. It was this game that taught me that there were worlds inside of computers ready to be explored.
Adventure (Atari) – Also not an RPG. But from this game, I was taught the basics of RPG design. See, there were these problems. And you had tools to solve them. The thing is, there was no EXACT way to solve them. You could fight the duck dragon with a sword. Or you could drop the sword on the ground and let the dragon impale itself on it. You could use the magnet to grab the key from across the river. Or use the magnet to get the bridge to cross the river and take the key. That kind of thing. This is, IMO, how RPGs should work. They should be more about problem-solving, not so much about puzzle-solving (though a dash of that is often fine, too).
Wizardry I (The Most Influential RPG I Never Played) – I never played this game very much, as it didn’t become available for the Commodore 64 until very late. But I read a great deal about it, and eventually got the chance to play this masterpiece on other systems. I don’t think I ever got past level four or five of the dungeon. But while the title of the game was “Wizardry: The Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord“, the name of the game was Exploration and Resource Management. It was a true old-school D&D-style experience. It was the opposite of today’s Diablo-style action RPG hack-and-slashers. There was no rushing down through the levels half-cocked. You planned. You mapped. You measured. You turned back while the getting was good to return to town, knowing you’d have to fight your way back. You had to take your dungeon delving seriously in this game. And for many players, that was more compelling and immersive than any cool modern 3D graphics.
The Temple of Apshai – To be honest, I think my view through dim rose-colored glasses at this game is probably much, much better than actually playing it. But – from my dim recollection – the cool thing here was that they attempted to marry the old-school “roguelike” (back before there was a Rogue to be like, I think) with the pen-and-paper RPG mentality using text in the manual. The dungeon was static, room-based, and treasure and rooms were numbered for look-up, and the prose resembled the boxed text found in (later) D&D modules. So, in a sense you were playing through a D&D module solo. The thing that stuck with me from that game is that while a picture may be worth a thousand words, sometimes those words in text descriptions can evoke thoughts, feelings, and understanding that a picture alone cannot convey – even with the best of modern graphics.
I will stop here, as the next game on my list would be Ultima III, and that game might be an entire article unto itself.
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