Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Game Design: How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 3

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 19, 2010

So here’s the continuation of the series about several CRPGs over the last three decades and how they did damage to my head and influenced my feelings on games and game design (you can read part 1 here, and part 2 here). So here are a bunch more games, principally from the end of the 80’s and the first half of the 1990s.  I’m really skipping a bunch of games at this point – even some very fun ones – but in those cases I guess that the vulnerable part of my mind was already gone by the time I got around to playing them. But I did realize that I’d missed one significant influence from the mid-80’s. My bad. So let’s start with that one, and move forward:

The Bard’s Tale – From this game, I learned the meaning of “punitively difficult learning curve.” Okay, not really, but just surviving the first few seconds of your adventure in the streets of Skara Brae took some serious doing.  However, like so many of those old games, you were allowed to mix & match adventurers from different groups. Why can’t we do that anymore? Oh, right, group-based RPGs are so Last Century. *Sigh.* If I recall, I ended up using the pre-generated characters to babysit my own characters until they got to level three or four. But the real lesson of The Bard’s Tale probably fell on deaf ears too often: Running Away can and should be an important and viable strategy. Hey, a couple of decades later, it served me well playing Wizardry 8!

Neuromancer – I never thought of this one as an RPG, but the book, “Dungeons & Desktops,” made a good enough case for it that I guess it counts. This one really did warp my brain over the course of the two or three weeks or so that I played it. I found myself reaching for the save-game toggle whenever I’d get ready to talk to someone. Of course, most gamers might assume this is a natural reaction, until I admit that I was doing this in “real life.” Talking to my future in-laws. Never found the save-game command in the real-world interface, though. Dang it.

The Pool of Radiance –  The other Gold Box games were technically superior and some of ’em were probably better games overall. But this is the one that really stood out for me. From this game I discovered that massive, tactically complex battles could be really, really fun. More importantly, I learned that deep, “crunchy” mechanics and heavy-duty tactical gameplay could be married with a compelling story.  The two are not mutually exclusive. This is something I fear many modern game designers have totally forgotten.

Ultima VI – From this game I learned that even the coolest of games (and game series) can be brought down by a tedious filler quest. One day, I hope to power through the whole pirate map pieces quest and finish what I hear is a pretty awesome game.

Eye of the Beholder II – From this game, it’s predecessor, and Dungeon Master (played on a friend’s Amiga), I learned that food found on ancient dungeon floors are perfectly edible.

Ultima Underworld –  This marked about the second time a CRPG blew my mind. Fortunately, it was nearly a decade after the last time, so I’d had some time to recover.  Back then I was always a sucker for first-person perspective games, because they’d been such a novelty before. But Ultima Underworld went far beyond the gimmick.  From this game I learned that claustrophobia could be fun. I learned that intense, focused, deep but otherwise small environments can be just as awesome as full worlds. I learned that “simulated dungeons” with emergent behavior could be enthralling (something the Dwarf Fortress dudes seem to have taken to heart). And I learned that major anti-magic zones that totally screw up everything you’ve learned to do so far in the game can be infuriating.

Ultima VII- The Black Gate: Uh-oh. So my third experience of an RPG blowing my mind happened the same year as Ultima Underworld. I pretty much worshiped at the altar of Origin after this, until they went and blew it with Ultima VIII. But Ultima VII: The Black Gate (and expansion) remains to this day my all-time favorite RPG. From this game, my holy grail became this combination of open world design, extremely interactive environments, believable “simulated worlds” to explore, and beautiful storylines that were explored by the player rather than told to the player.

Twilight: 2000 – This game taught me three things:

  1. A solid, interesting tactical combat system and a variety of interesting activities can make a game entertaining in spite of a multitude of flaws;
  2. Tank combat in an RPG may sound cool in theory, but grafting on a cruddy action-based tank simulator really isn’t;
  3. It also taught me the incredible frustration of even a mediocre game proving unwinnable near the climax due to a major, unavoidable bug.

Ultima VII pt 2: Serpent Isle – From this game, I learned that the frustration caused by a bug blocking all future progress in a mediocre game is nothing compared to the soul-crushing vexation felt when the same thing happens in an otherwise wonderful game.

Menzoberranzan – This game made me realize that the heartbreak of drug abuse not only destroys those who fall victim to it, but can also hurt all those who play the games they design.  And that sometimes a game can be so boring that it really isn’t “better than nothing.” (Okay, I guess I knew that before, but this game helped reinforce that lesson…)


The Rest of this Article Series:

How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 1

How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 2

How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part 4

Filed Under: General - Comments: 10 Comments to Read

  • Stu said,

    I remember stumbling on twilgiht 2000 and thinking wow!

    A lot of your stepping stones were similar. Bards Tale, Pool of Radiance, Eye of the Beholder (for me it was #1 and not #2 that kept me rapt), Ultima 6. I didnt like the ultima underworlds much.

    Ultima 6 was when I first thought, wow this is a _REAL_ world, where things were no longer tiles and I could move spoons around and be a mouse and go through the mouse hole. Ultima 6 changed the scale of the world to me.

    Did you ever play Laser Squad, Universe or Breach??

  • Peter said,

    “More importantly, I learned that deep, “crunchy” mechanics and heavy-duty tactical gameplay could be married with a compelling story. The two are not mutually exclusive. This is something I fear many modern game designers have totally forgotten.”

    More to the point, I think this is a lesson most modern game designers never learned in the first place, given the lack of either in so many games.

  • Aelfric said,

    Yes. Now THESE represent for me the beginning of the golden age of CRPGs. Bring back the crunch!

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Stu – I thought it was Breach that I’d played, but no — Breach was apparently a very good game. It was Tegel’s Mercenaries that I played – and it was awful.

  • Groboclown said,

    On an aside – for Ultima VI, you don’t need to actually find the pirate map to finish the game. In fact, there’s a slight bug where you can fly the balloon over one of the statues on the Isle of the Avatar to skip most of the game.

  • MalcolmM said,

    From Ultima Underworld I learned how poor Origin’s playtesting was. My savegames got so corrupted that near the end of the game I was doing the minimal stuff just to complete it before it crashed yet another time.

    Same for Ultima VI.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Ouch. Suckage. I think I had one corrupted save in Ultima Underworld, IIRC, but I only lost a small amount of progress.

  • Vasagralem said,

    Ultima VIII was the first Ultima I played and, not knowing the previous Ultimas, I loved it, I loved the feeling of the game, how you came on to an unknown land and ruthless that the first scene you encounter is the decapitation of a poor woman, the hopelessness of the whole game it was like playing some post apocalyptic setting and i actually didn’t even finish the game due to technical problems.

    I guess is all just a matter of perspective, the next Ultima I played was Ultima IX, and again became one of my favourites ever, what I loved was the freedom of the game due to some glitches that you could exploit you could create a “bridge” over seas (out of parchments and bottles and staves) or you could climb to the highest mountain thanks to this glitch. I also like third perspective applied to all kind of games, and the combat system was very intuitive also. The story was a mess and difficult to understand without having played the previous Ultimas, but all of the gameplay was a lot of fun.

  • Game Design: How CRPGs Warped My Brain, Part IV said,

    […] That, or they just haven’t been validated by time yet, and so I am just not fairly giving them their due. Either way – here’s the last group of CRPGs (so far) to warp my brain. If you haven’t read the previous installments yet, you can click on these links to see  part 1, part 2, and part 3. […]

  • Miral said,

    I was just about to post pretty much what Vasagralem just said. My first Ultima was VIII, and I loved it; my next was IX, and I loved that too (although I didn’t abuse the physics model as much as they apparently did). To date I haven’t really played the others, although I did play IV for a few minutes a long time ago 🙂