Alex Kierkegaard wrote:The Western approach to CRPGs (or, An Exercise in Futility)
So the point of RPGs was never the tedious stat-recording and incessant battles -- indeed, the more creative gamemasters quickly discovered that all the calculations and dice-rolling often got in the way of the story, and acted accordingly to minimize it.
Yet from the very beginning of computer role-playing games (CRPGs) it was clear that the stat-recording and incessant battles were the only things
that could possibly survive the transition to the electronic medium, and that nothing short of the invention of human-level artificial intelligence could change that. Because what could possibly be left of the idea of role-playing without an intelligent gamemaster to breathe life into the world surrounding the players? What chance would the players have to make decisions and act them out -- in other words, to role-play -- if they were denied the ability to express themselves, and if their actions were limited to inventory-management, battle tactics, and wandering around static maps? The quality of the RPG experience had from the very first depended on the ability, talent and dedication of the gamemaster, and some dumb computer program was indeed a pitiful substitute for a Gary Gygax or an Ed Greenwood.
All this was of course instantly recognized by the pioneers of CRPGs, who, as programmers, were well aware of the limitations of the primitive software engineering techniques available to them.
And so they focused on the stats and battles.
Within mere months from the publication of Dungeons & Dragons the first CRPGs began to appear. From crude efforts written by college students to run on university mainframe computers -- Rusty Rutherford's pedit5
(1974), Don Daglow's Dungeon
(1975 or 1976), Gary Whisenhunt's and Ray Wood's cheekily-named dnd
(1975) -- to the first commercially-available titles: Richard Garriott's Akalabeth
(1980), Sir-Tech's Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord
(1981) and DynaMicro's Dungeons of Daggorath
(1982); they were pure dungeon crawlers one and all. Containing absolutely no role-playing whatsoever, they were nothing more than simplistic strategy games, with the limited dungeon exploration aspect breaking up the otherwise monotonous business of directing endless battles. The quest to design a true computer role-playing game had seemingly been abandoned, before it had even begun.
But since early D&D
modules themselves consisted of little more besides dungeon crawling, the pioneers of CRPGs could at least claim that their games managed to capture to a degree the spirit of those early modules. The computer gaming world -- such as it was at the time -- could hardly be blamed for praising their efforts.
Unfortunately, those early efforts would end up setting the tone for all subsequent ones.
New games came and went, yet little of substance changed. The Bard's Tale
(1985) featured unprecedented 3D graphics and animated monster portraits (eye-candy, in other words); Dungeon Master
(1987) introduced real-time action; Pool of Radiance
(1988) upped the ante in terms of the variety of locations and the scope of the story, while Eye of the Beholder
(1990) had difficult puzzles -- all these were indeed well-made, enjoyable games, but they weren't fooling anyone. Because it was plain that they contained about as much role-playing as Super Mario Bros.
or Duck Hunt
For one thing, they all effectively required the player to assume control of a party of characters, something which immediately ruled out the possibility of any kind of role-playing (except perhaps for schizophrenics or those suffering from multiple personality disorder). For another, despite all the additions and refinements they boasted over their predecessors, none of them managed to get far beyond their strategy/wargaming roots. Character generation became more elaborate; sprawling towns and extensive outdoor locations were added; dungeons were spruced up -- but progression through the game still depended entirely on skilful inventory management and tactical thinking (both while directing battles and navigating dungeons). Only the more ambitious titles went as far as to include a handful of dialogue choices -- the better to trick the more naive players into believing they had some control over the development of the story.
Before long, CRPGs had become something of a joke in the role-playing community, whereas in computer gaming circles the term 'RPG' had been debased to a euphemism for a genre that contained a varying mixture of strategy, action, and adventure elements -- everything, that is to say, except role-playing.
It's worth taking a moment here to qualify this last statement. One can easily see that CRPGs contain elements of strategy and action, to varying degrees, but where does the adventuring element come from?
The adventure genre has hitherto encompassed all those games which allow the player to interact with the gameworld in ways more diverse than in those of pure reflex-based titles. In shooting/fighting/platform/racing games and the like, the player is usually limited to a few very specific kinds of actions, namely: shooting/fighting/navigating platforms/racing, etc. But in adventure games -- whether purely text-based, graphical, or point-and-click -- the player is called upon to perform a much larger variety of actions, such as exploration, puzzle-solving, interaction with characters, etc. (That's why games like Silent Hill
are sometimes referred to as action-adventure games: because there is a bit more to them than simply killing enemies.)
So, getting back to CRPGs, one needs to look at what remains after you deduct all the strategy elements, and once you do that you see that what is left is some form of "adventuring". You have to search for the key that unlocks the gate to the catacombs; you need to gather the necessary ingredients to cast the spell that will kill the dragon; you have to track down the reclusive sage and convince him to reveal to you the location of the ancient ruins, etc. etc.
So CRPGs have always been -- and still are -- mostly games of strategy, with only occasional sprinklings of action and adventure, the exact formula of the mixture varying depending on the developer and the game in question. But whatever the formula, the end result has never had much to do with role-playing -- one need only sit in for a few minutes at a Dogs in the Vineyard
game in progress in order to realize this. For those used to equating hit points and levelling to role-playing, such an experience would prove truly eye-opening.
And here it's worth noting that even games like Fallout
(1997) and Planescape: Torment
(1999), as well as Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series, came nowhere near enough to be considered true RPGs -- though it has to be said that they at least tried harder than everything else.
But why are these games -- justly -- ranked among the finest CRPGs yet made?
Because by employing extensive dialogue trees in conjuction with multiple story paths, or simply by allowing the player more freedom in choosing the order in which to pursue the various quests, they were able to approximate to some small degree the feel of a true RPG -- to give players a little taste of what these games are all about. We are still talking about strategy games here; even in a title such as Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
(2001) you are still spending most of your time managing your characters' inventory, directing tactical battles and navigating dungeons -- all the instances of role-playing to be found in even the best-of-the-best CRPGs hardly ever amount to more than a few minutes in total. But those few minutes were enough to conjure an illusion
of role-playing; to make one feel as if they played some part in steering the stories of these games towards their eventual outcomes. And the players loved them for it.