Dungeons & Desktops

Author: Mathew Tschirgi
Editing: Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice
Screenshots: David Torre
Online Layout: Matt Barton, David Torre and Bill Loguidice

You've got to learn how to see in your fantasy.

--Scatman John (Scat Vocalist)

The Role-Playing Game (RPG) is a beloved game genre featuring colorful characters, epic battles, unforgettable plots, and mazes worthy of a skilled cartographer. While today the most widely recognized RPG franchises are arguably EverQuest for the PC and Final Fantasy X for the Sony PlayStation 2 (PS2), both Computer RPGs (CRPGs) and Video Game RPGs (VRPGS) have been around for over two decades.

While there are certainly debates on whether CRPGs are better than VRPGs, and vice-versa, critics rarely discuss why some people prefer one kind of RPG over the other. CRPGs and VRPGs have offered wildly different gameplay experiences since their inception--traditionally, the former offer a difficult, combat-focused gameplay with plenty of stat-building, while the latter focuses more on strong stories and characters. Most new fans of CRPGs and VRPGs have neglected to play the classic games of the genre. Video games and computer games, much like film, have a rich history and it is through playing old and new games that one gains a greater appreciation of the medium as a whole.

This article presents a brief history of CRPGs and VRPGs from a gameplay standpoint; rather than present a series of capsule reviews, I will explain how gameplay has changed over time as well as compare the gameplay differences of single player CRPGs and VRPGs as a whole. I will not try to list and describe every single game in a particular series; instead, I'll only point out a few that represent significant innovation in gameplay.

Before things get started, I will give my definition of an RPG. An RPG is a game in which the player controls one or more player characters in order to complete an overall quest1. The game is won by solving puzzles, interacting with Non-Player Characters (NPCs), and gaining experience points by defeating enemies in turn-based or real-time combat to increase their characters' various statistics (Strength, Stamina, Agility, Intelligence, and so on.)

While presenting this article chronologically might make sense, in certain cases it would be very jarring--switching from a CRPG to a VRPG would destroy the very point that I am trying to make in evolutionary gameplay styles on various platforms (PC VS. Console). Therefore, I am going to discuss the CRPGs first, followed by the VRPGs, and will conclude with a comparative analysis of CRPG and VRPG game mechanics. Also note that because of the thousands of RPGs available2, I obviously won't be covering every single RPG ever made.

So, grab your broad sword, strap on your leather helmet, and venture off to the nearest dungeon--it's time to take a look at the origins of the CRPG!

Older RPGs seem to have a more complete world or sandbox that the player played around in, while many more recent RPGs just provide shards of the world.

--Feargus Urquhart, Designer of Fallout 23

It is worth noting that no CRPGs or VRPGs would exist without Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax's Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) tabletop RPG (1974). It offered a social gameplay experience. One player was the Dungeon Master, responsible for creating maps, planning out scenarios, and acting out the parts of the various monsters and NPCs the players would encounter. The other players spent a long time generating player characters before starting their campaigns and combat was decided via dice-rolling and the cleverness of the players' tactics. Unfortunately, the sheer amount of dice-rolling necessary for most actions, not to mention the various statistics to keep track of, caused much of the gameplay to be bogged down in mathematical minutiae.

With all the statistics to keep track of in a D&D game, it's no wonder that dungeon masters turned to computers to help keep track of things. It's also not a surprise that game designers decided to try to create the same sort of D&D experience on the computer. Playing an RPG on a computer was more convenient than meeting up with a bunch of friends once a week with odd-shaped dice, broken pencils, greasy pizza, and spilled soda.

It's a bit of a problem to sort out what the first CRPG was. Some would argue it is Adventure, the first text adventure game which involved the player going through caves collecting treasures via a text-parser interface. While Adventure is a good game in its own right, I consider it to be part of the Adventure genre; it is lacking in the stat-building and combat elements that CRPGs revel in. While there are a few characters in the game that players can fight, most of the game (as most adventure games in general) involves picking up various items in order to solve puzzles.

Certainly one of the most important CRPGs from a gameplay perspective is Richard Garriot's Akalabeth: World of Doom (Apple II, 1980) a prequel to the first Ultima game. After generating either a Fighter or a Mage character, players visit the castle of Lord British. Gameplay involves exploring various floors of the dungeon, killing whatever monsters Lord British commands. There are no other party members, but graphics change from an overhead perspective to a first-person perspective once players enter a dungeon. The game also forces players to buy food--if they run out of food, the avatar dies. While Akalabeth is very light on plot, the first-person dungeon crawling gameplay and the need for food are found in several early CRPGs.

Garriot followed up Akalabeth with the first game in a much-beloved CRPG series, Ultima I: First Age of Darkness (Apple II, 1981). While the dungeon crawling is the same as its prequel, now there are actual towns to visit on the overworld (still played from a third-person perspective). The quest itself is to visit different kings throughout the land in order to collect gems, ultimately trying to vanquish the evil wizard Mondain; oddly enough, near the end of the game playesr encounter a time machine and fight alien spaceships. The large overworld (an area in the game that represents a large sort of map on which the PCs walk; for instance, the PC would have to go on an overworld map to get from a town to a dungeon) actually gives the world some sort of personality, although the dungeon-crawling can get repetitive at times. Battles on the overworld map quickly became repetitive, boiling down to attack enemies over and over again until they were dead.

A screenshot from Wizardry. There are two small humanoids, one with a club, the other with a sword and shield. An information window states 'A small humanoid charges at hero and hits once for 3 damage'
Wizardry I: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (Apple II)
©1981 Sir-Tech

Around the same time gamers were introduced to the Ultima series, another franchise was started by Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead--Wizardry. Wizardry I: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (Apple II, 1981) featured gameplay that was only in a first-person perspective. Rather than just controlling one character, Wizardry allowed players to form a party of up to six player characters with a variety of different classes (the type of character the player character is; for instance Fighters, Mages, Clerics, and Thieves are all different kind of classes). From the starting point, players could sleep in the inn, revive dead characters, purchase equipment, and save games. The dungeons in Wizardry I were massive compared to those in Ultima; to have any chance of beating the game, players had to break out the graph paper and draw out maps of where they were going. While it sacrificed the epic overworld feel of Garriot's Ultima I, controlling a group of six player characters offered a more primal RPG experience not unlike a late night D&D session.

A screenshot from the text-based game Rogue. ASCII representations of rooms and a single ASCII happy face for an avatar.
Rogue (BSD UNIX)
1983

While these two series were duking it out for CRPG supremacy, one cult classic popped up providing randomized dungeons in a real-time environment: Rogue (1983, BSD UNIX). Though the graphics were little more than ASCII characters, the randomization of the dungeons keep things exciting, as does the fast combat. Having a new dungeon with multiple floors each time players started the game gave Rogue something most CRPGs at the time lacked: replayability. Surprisingly, CRPGS would tend to shy away from this kind of gameplay until much later.

In this screenshot from Ultima IV, icons are shown representing Compassion or Justice. Underneath it, a question reads: After 20 years thou hast found the slayer of thy best friends. The villian proves to be a man who provides the sole support for a young girl. Dost thou A) spare him in Compassion for the girl or <img src='e107_images/emoticons/rolleyes.png' alt='' style='vertical-align:middle; border:0' />  slay him in the name of Justice?
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Apple II)
©1985 Origin Systems

While Wizardy was offering up huge dungeons, Garriot was working on incorporating plot into his Ultima series. With Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Apple II, 1985), character generation was a bit different. Instead of merely having players choose a class, the game starts with a lengthy introductory sequence in which players answer multiple choice questions dealing with ethical dilemmas. After finishing the battery of questions, players begin the game as the class that best reflects their answers. Not only did this tie into the whole virtuous plot, but it was also a more immersive way of generating a class than just "rolling" stats as in a traditional CRPG.

Though Wizardy offered large dungeons, it lacked the expansive sense of a world populated with towns that Ultima did. Fortunately, an RPG came along which combined massive dungeon crawling with a large overworld--Jon Van Caneghem's Might and Magic Book One: The Secret of the Inner Sanctum (Apple II, 1986). Offering more colorful and better drawn graphics than the Wizardry games, Might and Magic had a truly epic feel to it to complement its first-person perspective--something that Wizardry lacked, despite its dungeon-crawling addictiveness. It still featured the rather difficult gameplay from previous CRPGs--if players didn't create a decent starting party and buy the right equipment (or, sometimes, even if they did), the first band of monsters would slice the party to bits.

Though the CRPG genre was booming at the time, it was a bit of a surprise that an official D&D CRPG had not been released yet. SSI fixed this situation by releasing Pool of Radiance (1988), which was set in the Forgotten Realms setting with some novel additions to the genre. Controlling a party of up to six created characters, players explored towns and dungeons in a first-person perspective, but saw things from a third-person perspective during battle. Players could control where their characters moved in a battle, giving combat a unique tactical flavor--not only did playesr have to worry about who to attack, but also had to worry about where they could best move their characters. This style of combat is arguably a precursor to the later style of strategy-VRPGs, such as Shining Force and Final Fantasy Tactics. Pool of Radiance also offered several side quests, giving the game more replay value than other CRPGs of the time.

While most CRPGs offered a first-person perspective, they were all controlled via the keyboard. Doug Bell's Dungeon Master (Atari ST, 1987) offered mouse control in a CRPG for the first time, which changed the gameplay experience more than one might think. Although it's a dungeon crawl in the tradition of Wizardry, Dungeon Master allowed the player to click on the enemies during combat, attacking them in real-time. While this sort of gameplay sped things up, it also took away the more contemplative nature of turn-based combat, degenerating battles into a click-fest (battles were less about deciding the best order in which to attack the enemies and more about clicking the mouse as fast as possible in order to defeat them).

Around this same time, an interesting hybrid genre of CRPG was being created by Lori and Cori Cole, combining the combat of a CRPG with the puzzles of a graphic adventure game. Originally titled Hero Quest 1: So You Want to Be a Hero?, Quest for Glory 1 allowed players to choose between a Fighter, Mage, or a Thief character. The entire game was played from a third-person perspective, with simplistic real-time combat. Puzzles could be solved differently depending on what class was selected, offering tremendous replay value. This combination of the CRPG and the graphic adventure genre offered a unique gameplay experience that really hasn't been seen since.

The CRPG genre remained relatively dormant for much of the early 1990s. Games were still coming out, but nothing truly revolutionary in the gameplay department. It took a more action-focused CRPG to give the genre a shot in the arm: Blizzard's Diablo (Windows, 1996). Featuring a third person perspective controlled via the mouse, it allowed players to pick from three different classes to go on various quests in randomly generated floors of a dungeon. The randomizing dungeons of Diablo gave it huge amounts of replayability, not unlike Rogue. To attack monsters, players clicked on them repeatedly. Great graphics and an excellent soundtrack created an addictive game that sacrificed deep gameplay for some classic old-school fun.

Two years later a D&D CRPG with unique gameplay and a very strong story came out, blowing fans of the game away--Baldur's Gate (PC, 1998). The entire game was from a third-person perspective, offering gameplay that was real-time by default with Diablo-style controls. What made things different is that players could pause the combat at any time to issue commands to various player characters in their party, which was necessary during the majority of battles. The game had wonderful music and a deep plot with lots of side quests, drawing players deeper into the experience.

Now that we've taken a brief tour of the CRPG, it's time to switch over to the VRPG side of things. So let's go back into the wayback machine to 1980 and see how things began.

Older Console RPGs tend to feature epic, sweeping stories, a variety of experience/gameplay, list-interface combat, lots of equipment shopping, and less of a stats and treasure focus than CRPGs.

--Tom Hall, Designer of Anachronox4

Much like the CRPG, it is difficult to tell when the first VRPG was created. Some might consider Enix's Dragon Quest (NES, 1986) to be the first VRPG, but this would be ignoring all the consoles from the early 1980's. We will cover Dragon Quest in due time, but I think that arguably the first VRPG is a well-known title for the Atari 2600.

This game, of course, is Adventure (Atari 2600, 1980). Programmed by Warren Robinett, it featured a third-person perspective, giving players the opportunity to control a knight who has to work his way through various castles to collect a chalice. Featuring a few different kinds of monsters, it offered a simplistic take on the seminal dungeon-crawl experience. It was challenging because players were only limited to one item in your inventory, forcing them to make choices as to which items were truly necessary.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (Intellivision, 1982) was the first time an official D&D experience was offered on a console system5. Featuring a quest in which players led three warriors through various caves in order to fight a dragon, it featured a small overworld with third-person perspective gameplay. As players explored the dungeons, new sections of it were revealed (not unlike the "fog of war" feature in many RTS games).

The sequel to this game was way ahead of its time: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: The Treasure of Tarmin (Intellivision, 1983). Featuring a first-person perspective, players explored several floors of a dungeon while picking up items, opening doors, and slaying monsters. The graphics were colorful and better drawn than the monsters in the early Ultima games.

A battle from the U.S. version of Dragon Quest, also known as Dragon Warrior. Four windows adorn the screen. The window in the center shows the enemy being fought, a Red Slime. The left window shows a list of player stats. The top window is a battle menu with the following commands: Fight, Spell, Run, Item. Finally, the bottom window is a battle log, containing the following: The Red Slime attacks! Thy Hit Points decreased by 2. Command?
U.S. Dragon Quest aka Dragon Warrior (NES)
©1986 Enix

It wasn't until the mid 1980's than a VRPG was released upon which most others would be modeled after: Enix's Dragon Quest (NES, 1986). Featuring character designs from Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball Z fame, it featured a large overworld, colorful anime style graphics, and a simple quest: rescue the Princess and slay the evil Dragon Lord. Gameplay was from a third-person perspective, except in battle where players fought monsters from a first person perspective in turn-based combat. To do different actions in the game, a window popped up in which players could Talk, Search, Equip, or other actions. This greatly simplified gameplay compared to an Ultima game in which players had to know over a dozen keyboard shortcuts.

In Zelda, Link is fighting a bunch of red creatures (Octaroks) who spit boulders at him.
The Legend of Zelda(NES)
©1986 Nintendo

During the same year that Dragon Quest was unleashed upon VRPG fans, another classic game was released: Shigeru Miyamoto's The Legend of Zelda (NES, 1986). Featuring a third-person perspective and an extremely large overworld, players controlled Link, an elf from Hyrule who had to explore eight dungeons to retrieve the missing pieces of the Triforce. Controls were very simple and combat was real-time, allowing less of a learning curve than what was necessary for Dragon Quest. From the upbeat overworld music to the challenging puzzles (and rather poor English translation), it set the stage for later Action VRPGs. A big advantage The Legend of Zelda had over other RPGs at the time was its massive overworld of over 200 screens. This gave a truly epic feel to the game, as well as encouraging exploration, providing somewhat nonlinear gameplay.

A noted exception to the "Zelda formula" that most games in that franchise had was it first sequel, The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES, 1987). Instead of the entire game being from an overhead perspective, dungeons and towns were played from a side-scrolling perspective, making the game feel like an action-oriented Super Mario Bros. at times. This was also the only Zelda game in which players gained experience points and levels. While it was fun, it certainly didn't have the classic Zelda feel and later games in the series didn't deviate much from the existing gameplay style of the original game.

The currently most popular VRPG franchise also debuted in the late 1980's: Squaresoft's Final Fantasy (NES, 1987). With an overworld several times larger than Dragon Quest's, not to mention a more complicated story (restore the four Crystals by defeating the Four Fiends), Final Fantasy offered much more involved gameplay than other VRPGs of the time. It had turn-based combat like Dragon Quest, except that it was in a third-person perspective. Players started off by creating a party of four player characters, then started off on a brief introductory quest before starting on the main quest. Featuring a musical score containing around two dozen different musical compositions by Nobuo Uematsu, Final Fantasy set the format that several VRPGs in the future would follow.

Though most VRPGs were very formulaic, one that managed to mix things up a bit was Dragon Quest IV (1988). Instead of offering one main quest throughout the whole game, the avatar plays through four different quests: the first quest as a soldier who had to solve the mystery of why children in a village were vanishing; the second quest as a princess who escaped from her castle, longing to participate in a fighting tournament, and so on. This gave the game more variety and it made the last portion of the game more satisfying: all the characters united in one large party to take on the evil bad guy terrorizing the land.

VRPG gaming was thrown for a loop with the release of a particular game for the Sega Genesis: Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention (Genesis, 1992). It offered more of a strategic take on the genre; combat was turned-based and players took turns moving each character in their party across the different maps, giving the game a feel not unlike chess. Moves had to be planned out in advance in order for players to succeed, and their characters only gained experience points when they hit an enemy. Balancing out the different characters was challenging, but helped give the game a new feel from other VRPGs at the time.

While several VRPGs were released, many of them did not innovate. Graphics went from sprites to polygons, plot advancement went from dialogue boxes to CG (instead of conveying the plot through brief animations with accompanying text, later VRPGs relied on long 3-D computer animated sequences that could sometimes go on for over thirty minutes!, but the core gameplay remained the same. It took an RPG for the GameBoy to introduce a new gameplay mechanic: Nintendo's Pokemon Red/Blue (GameBoy, 1997). What was different was who did the actual fighting--instead of the avatar, combat was performed by the various monsters (Pokemon) players collected. Each monster had different skills and experience levels, adding an addictive quality to the game; players could even view a roster in which they could see how many Pokemon they were missing. Several sequels, remakes, and spin-offs were made to the game, most of them being best-sellers.

The Diablo style of gameplay was converted to the PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo GameCube in Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, a spin-off of the CRPG franchise. Featuring good graphics, great music, and a variety of settings, it offered a different kind of gameplay for the VRPG; oddly enough, Blizzard had released Diablo for the PlayStation, but it didn't catch on too well. Although Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance lacked randomized dungeons and a cohesive story, it still made for a good "mindless" sort of hack and slash VRPG anyway.

A novel attempt was made to create a MMORPG (stands for Massively Online Role-Playing Game; they are typically an RPG that is played online, featuring various classes, quests, and thousands of different players they can talk to along with a world that is constantly updated through expansion packs) experience in a series of four games for the PS2: dot hack (PlayStation 2, 2003). A spin-off of a manga and an anime, it featured real-time combat and randomized dungeons from a first-person perspective. Combat was made more interesting than in Diablo because it limited control to two other party members. While it had an interesting plot (random players were mysteriously receiving seizures and going into comas from playing the online game "The World"), it progressed slowly over the course of four games. Still, it had a unique interface (aside from playing the game, players could "log on" to message boards to access new areas, and customize their "desktop" with unlockable music and movies) and wonderful music.

Who needs girls when you got RPGs?

--Anonymous

The CRPG and VRPG genres have certainly progressed a lot over time, ultimately becoming more linear. The original Ultima throws players into the world without much direction, letting the player's avatar explore Brittania as they please. This contrasts greatly with Ultima IX: Ascension, in which the player's avatar is guided through a heavy-handed tutorial lasting around thirty minutes, long before the plot of the game actually starts. While this sort of linearity makes it easier for more casual gamers to dip their collective feet into CRPGs and VRPGS, it also robs them of the sheer freedom earlier RPGs provided.

This doesn't mean that all newer games are worse than old ones, however. While I still enjoy a few rounds of The Bard's Tale every now and again, the better graphics and sound of newer RPGs make them much easier for me to get into. I don't have to "suspend my disbelief" with gorgeous CG cut scenes of Xenosaga as I sometimes have to when battling the pixilated imps of Final Fantasy. Still, in this day and age when most VRPGs and CRPGs lead the player down a forced path of story points in such a formulaic fashion, it's quite refreshing to get into an older game where players are free to do almost anything they choose.

Ultimately, what does this all mean for the CRPG and VRPG genres? Are they going to turn into multiple choice collections of cut scenes with little interaction? Probably not; as much as some players enjoy being dazzled by a great story and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, it is ultimately the gameplay that keeps a gamer interested in his or her favorite game. You don't enjoy Wizardry just because of the stunning monochromatic orcs--you enjoy it because of the time when your characters were turning around a corner only to face a pack of banshees and barely survived to tell the tale. VRPGs and CRPGs will evolve in their gameplay style over time, but the fundamentals of battling monsters to get your avatars stronger will remain the same.

I truly hope upon reading this article that some of you dig through your musty collection of classic RPGs and play through a few of them again, perhaps having a different perspective than before. Also, for those of you who just recently started playing RPGs (and those of you who haven't), maybe you will be inspired to play through some of the classics and gain a new appreciation for modern RPGs.

If you have any comments on the article (was I as clever as a wizard or as daft as an slime?), send me an e-mail or post comments in the message area below.

Notes

1 Editor's note: This definition would seem to exclude RPGs without an overall quest or story-arc, though I suppose gaining experience or accumulating wealth might be considered "quests."

2 This statistic, as well as all the release dates for the various games in this article, come from the wonderful Website Moby Games. It's basically the equivalent of the Internet Movie Database for video games and is a great resource.

3 This is from an interview I did with Feargus Urquhart for E-Boredom.

4 This is from an interview I did with Tom Hall for E-Boredom.

5 Editor's note: This game was re-released as ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS CLOUDY MOUNTAIN Cartridge in 1983.

For Further Reading

While I did not quote directly from the following books, I did use them as reference when I was writing this article... Check them out if you would like to read more on the subject of video game history.

Borland, John and Brad King. Dungeons & Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic. Emeryville: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

DeMaria, Rusel and Johnny L. Wilson. High Score! The Illustrated History of Electronic Games. Berkley: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Kent, Steven L. The Ultimate History of Video Games. Roseville: Prima Publishing, 2001.