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Review: Dungeons & Desktops – The History of Computer Role-Playing Games

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 26, 2010

For my birthday, my wife gave me the book,  “Dungeons & Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games,” by Matt Barton. Not to be confused with the very amusing freeware game, Desktop Dungeons.

The Articles Level Up!

I’d previously enjoyed the series on the History of the Computer Role-Playing Game by Barton in Gamasutra. If you haven’t read ’em yet, I recommend checking them out. For the most part, the book is a pretty major expansion on what he wrote in these articles. So if you want to know if you’d like the book or not, there’s no better preview than these articles:

History of Computer Role-Playing Games, Part 1: The Early Years

History of Computer Role-Playing Games, Part 2: The Golden Age

The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, Part 3: The Platinum and Modern Ages

Is It For You?

Ya gotta admit, the history of computer role-playing games (CRPGs) is pretty freakin’ niche. But I’m tickled that this awesome little hobby of ours warranted a book documenting its history. The book sticks with its focus – it is principally about the games themselves, though it’s free with throwing around anecdotes about their development, marketing, and people involved. But this is a book about the games – what they were, how they played, what they were about, what their influences were, and how they were received by their audiences. Single-player RPGs that played on honest-to-goodness general-purpose computers are the subject of the book, though it does touch on some of the highlights from the massively multiplayer RPG and console sides of things, as their histories intertwine with each other.

Within that focus, it’s a pretty comprehensive. If you are a CRPG fan, and if this is of interest to you – especially if you’ve been around long enough to remember the “golden age” of CRPGs from the late 80’s through the mid-90s – then you simply must read this book. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I’ve hot some nitpicks, but seriously – this is The Book if you are an old-school CRPG fan. And for indies harboring RPG-making plans, it is a Must Read.

Okay, now that the basics are out of the way, allow me to delve into a bit more detail.

The book consists of twelve chapters and an index. I geek out just a little over the index. I mean, you’ve got an index with the letter “U” filled with thirteen “Ultima” references, plus “Universe,” “Unlimited Adventures,” and “User-generated content.” That alone should tell you whether or not the book is for you. But anyway, moving on. The details!

Chapter By Chapter: What Does It Cover?

Chapter one is an introduction to computer role-playing. Besides introducing the rest of the book, Barton tackles the ever-slippery subject, “What is a computer role-playing game?” attempting to differentiate it from other, similar game categories. While his will hardly be the final word on the subject, he takes a pretty good stab at it. Ultimately, he notes that it all comes down to “family resemblances” rather than strict categorical definition.

Chapter two discusses the origins of computer RPGs, including the usual suspects as Strat-O-Matic baseball, tabletop wargaming, J. R. R. Tolkien, renaissance fairs, Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop role-playing games, Colossal Cave Adventure, and others.

Chapter three deals with the “Dark Ages” of Computer RPGs – principally the era before home computers and the commercial computer game industry. His name for this stage of history is fairly apt – in many cases, we have very little information about these games, as their code has been lost to the fickle enforcement of university system administrators, known only through the dim memories of a few players.

With the dawn of the home computer and an actual consumer market for computer games formed in its infancy, we get Barton’s “Bronze Age” of computer RPGs, the subject of the fourth chapter. Many of the games of this era are barely remembered today, and were often the product of one or two people who distributed them in local computer stores in Ziploc bags with photocopied instruction pages. Some of the recognizable titles include Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth: World of Doom, Eamon, and the Temple of Apshai series.

The Silver Age, covered in chapter five, starts pretty much with the publication of the first Ultima and Wizardry around 1980, and continues until 1985. Besides the early games of those two series, this era includes some memorable titles such as Stuart Smith’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, The Sword of Fargoal, and Dungeons of Daggorath.

The Golden Age begins around 1985 (Barton tends to break up his ages by trends and influences, rather than strict dates), and is so huge it covers four chapters. This spans a pretty wide era, up through the early to mid 1990s in general. This is the era where CRPGs came into their own. The “Gold Box” D&D series, Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, the middle Ultimas and Wizardry games, Might & Magic, The Bard’s Tale, Wasteland, and many others are set squarely in this era. Chapter eight finally breaks down and details the console RPGs of this era, and both the influences they received from western CRPGs and their influence upon the same.

Chapter nine is a sad one. Entitled, “The Bigger They Come,” it principally documents the fall of the most prolific RPG-publishing powerhouses of the golden age era – Origin, Interplay (pre-Black Isle), and SSI.

Chapter ten, “The Platinum Age,” overlaps a lot of the same time-frame as the previous chapters. But it discusses the new players on the field and the new styles of games that emerged during the 1990s. Starting with Ultima Underworld (which I see as being not far past the middle of the golden age myself, but then everybody agrees it was ahead of its time), it covers the rise of the Elder Scrolls series, the advent of Diablo and other “action-RPGs,” Baldur’s Gate and other infinity-engine games, Fallout, the Krondor series, and several others, culminating in the early 2000s.

The modern age, covered in chapter eleven, is a bit stranger. It begins with games from the earlier part of the last decade – the Vampire the Masquerade games, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, and so forth. This is the part that really begins skipping a few notable titles. Some of it may be excused as the games caught up with the time of his writing, around 2007.  But it also seems like he was in a hurry to move on to discussing more console games (starting with Final Fantasy VII, which admittedly hit the computer & console RPG genre with the force of a nuclear explosion),  and the rise of the MMORPG.

The book concludes with chapter twelve, “The Future of a Genre.” I have some disagreement with Barton over some of his points here, but gazing into an unclear crystal ball and predicting the future is always subject to argument. I have a few. Barton’s view of the future of the genre doesn’t quite line up with mind. He sees an evolution in a particular direction necessitated by the MMORPG and console jRPGs leaving only direction open.  I don’t see it that way.

He also includes a very short guide for people who may want to try out these older games – principally a short introduction to emulators and “abandonware,” and advice for developing a tolerance for retro-gaming.

The End…?

If by some chance the book ends up with a second edition in a few years, I’d expect to see a new chapter entitled, “The Indie Age.” The big RPG makers of the last era seem to be retreating from the field. RPGs are once again becoming the “dying genre” – just like they were before the genre exploded into back into significance in the mid-late 90s after a somewhat quiet period. But this time, I’m seeing indies carrying the torch. Too bad Barton doesn’t seem to mention ’em at all, but that would be a daunting task even for me!

Bottom line (again): I loved the book. If you are a serious computer RPG fan who doesn’t believe the genre began with Oblivion or Diablo II, and especially if you are at all involved in making or reviewing RPGs, you should give it a read.

Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-playing Games

Filed Under: Books, Mainstream Games, Retro - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

  • Stu said,

    Matt’s book is great, I love it. There are several gems I found in there I had never played or even heard of. Do you follow his YouTube videos? he has some good crpg reviews on there too

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I just found out about his YouTube videos a couple of days ago. Definitely fun to watch. I particularly enjoyed his John Romero interviews.