Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Rough Guide to Computer (Western) Roleplaying Games

Note: this follows an earlier post on JRPGs.

Origins: 1980s and 90s
Videogames in the early 1980s meant arcades or personal computers for the most part: an Atari, Commodore or Apple II, perhaps an IBM machine running DOS. At the same time tabletop roleplaying was still in relative infancy, eagerly seized on by a generation of (mainly) boys who craved games that allowed them to exercise their imagination and play a hero (they'd long grown out of Action Man). The two went together like Whizzer and Chips: getting a computer to do the dice-rolling bit made sense and the first attempts at RPGs were created by students on university mainframes – needless to say, they wouldn't engender much excitement today.

Ushering in the 1980s, one of the earliest RPGs worthy of the name was Akalabeth: World of Doom, created by Richard Garriot (under the pseudonym "Lord British"), who went on to develop the Ultima series that would dominate early 1980s CRPGs. Ultima's main competition was the Wizardry series from Sir-Tech, beginning in 1981; and they were joined by the first of New World Computing's Might and Magic series in 1986. But in 1989 another player entered the ring, former strategy game publisher SSI, boasting an official Dungeons & Dragons license on the front of Pool of Radiance, first of the seminal "gold box" series. All these games can be seen as the foundations for the 3D Ultima Underworld (1991), and in 1994 the first of Bethesda's Elder Scrolls RPGs, which are still going strong today.

In the years since, CRPGs haven't ever fallen out of fashion, but they have absorbed influences from first-person shooters and third-person action games, while the ubiquity of 3D has put paid to the isometric viewpoint beloved of both RPG and strategy gamers. Of course the other revolution in gaming, and the roleplaying genre more than most, has been the Internet. Now online worlds inhabited by thousands if not millions of players have made it possible to have as social a gaming experience on the computer as around a tabletop.

How to define a CRPG?
You could say it's any RPG that's not from Japan; the computer criterion isn't so useful now that consoles have the necessary processing power for developers to successfully port games to the Xbox 360. Of course the distinction's not quite that easy, as every genre adopts elements from others, and the defining lines continue to blur. Ironically, the videogame RPG has even begun to influence tabletop roleplaying itself: the latest edition of the Dungeons and Dragons game has adopted elements from World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy, amongst others. The following, then, could be seen as definining features of roleplaying games generally.

Skills and levels Whatever the statistics or properties of the character you create or take on in an RPG, they won't be the same when the game ends. You become responsible for developing that character throughout the adventure, picking up new skills, growing better at existing old ones, gathering or buying equipment and becoming more competent overall. It's one of the most engrossing things about the genre, ensuring you always have a goal that's not necessarily related to the story, while rewarding the time and effort you put into the game, and has therefore been borrowed by numerous other types of game.

Atmosphere and environment While it started firmly in the Tolkienesque fantasy milieu and mostly sticks with variations on that, the CPRG has ventured into more original settings with games like Fallout and System Shock 2. Any environment has benefited from the evolutionary step of automapping, which shows you where to go next as well as reminding you where you've been. Back in the early 1990s, your best friends if you wanted to get out of a dungeon were a pencil and some graph paper.

Stories Sometimes these are central to the game, as they are in JRPGs, for example the Baldur's Gate games by BioWare. At other times it's a framework within which you can do whatever you please, taking the route of good or evil, a thief or a knight, say, the important thing being that your character is a creature of the game's particular world, and there's usually no shortage of books and documents to pick up for background reading on the world's history and culture. This can be more interesting than any voice acting, but however the story is told doesn't guarantee it'll be worthwhile in itself.

Why play a CRPG?
Bearing in mind that you don't necessarily need a high-spec PC or Mac (though some games aren't available for the latter anyway), with plenty of games including World of Warcraft sticking with specifications that will allow the greatest number of users, plus the fact you can play an ever growing number on consoles too, there's no reason not to. What you'll be signing up to is a longish game, but one with an engaging mix of strategy and all out hack and slash plus the satisfaction of building up a character to the heroic heights of childhood dreams.

For a really indepth read about computer RPGs, I recommend Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-playing Games
by Matt Barton.

Coming soon: a list of the best RPGs in all genres.


Anonymous said...

What games are the pictures from? The top one looks like Oblivion (far too colourful to be brown-tinged Morrowind!) and the middle one looks like a D&D game. But who's the freaky purple-bearded tree-guy?

KateB said...

You're right, the first one is Oblivion. The second one is Baldur's Gate and the third is World of Warcraft. Thanks for the comment.