Friday, November 9, 2012

The Quest for CRPGs

Greetings readers! Today’s blog post is a bit of a time warp, as it discusses games that span decades—and when you’re talking about decades and gaming, especially video gaming, you’re talking about a long time. (As a side note, isn’t it interesting how time dilation occurs when you’re talking about different cultural things? Decades is a long time in television years, not so much in terms of radio, even less for newspapers. When you talk about the internet, you’re describing time in singular years, and when it comes to things like social media, twitter, and facebook, sometimes trends can last a matter of months or weeks.) 

I’ve been a gamer for over 25 years, and some of my best memories involve playing a number of computer roleplaying games (hereafter referred to as CRPGs). It’s fair to say that I’ve been playing CRPGs since the very earliest incarnations, and I have actively studied the genre from a design, experience, critiquing, and writing perspective. Mainly my purpose with this blog entry is just to go over and highlight the history of CRPGs as I experienced them and hopefully bring across not only my love for the genre, but also how it has affected me as a game designer and writer.

This is the map for Baldur's Gate -- there's a lot of adventure in this game.

Special Note: I’m purposefully excluding MMORPG’s from this discussion, as I’m not really an MMO player and I don’t really have a lot to say about them from an experiential standpoint. I’ll concede the point that technically, MMO’s are CRPGs, but I don’t count them when I think about the genre.

The Text Adventure Era

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Back in the early 80’s, CRPGs were primarily in textual form. Primarily the ones I remember playing from this era are the Zork series and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There were other text adventures out there (Leather Goddesses of Phobos and Leisure Suit Larry come to mind), but Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide made the biggest impact on me. I’ll skip explaining in detail what these games were like (the Wikipedia links should suffice for the curious) and simply say that they were fairly primitive and exercises in frustration… if you didn’t have a game guide or type things in a very precise and systematic manner, the game would only be fun for so long.

Behold, the cover to Zork. And below, a screenshot of the game itself.

So what did I learn from this era? Oddly enough, precision and a systematic approach. Seriously, the uncompromising gameplay of Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide kept me at it until I mastered the basics of these ideas, and that’s not a bad thing for a young mind. Additionally, these games were purely text, so I learned a lot about effective description—there’s an art to creating an image with words, especially a lasting image with meaningful details.

The Boxed Game Era

Moving on to the late 80’s, CRPGs took a slightly more advanced form in what I like to call “the boxed game” beginning with the SSI “goldbox” games of this period (technically Heroes of the Lance and a few other games were “silver box” predecessors, but that’s splitting hairs). Specifically, I’m thinking of Heroes of the Lance, the Bard’s Tale series, and the Ultima series. King’s Quest and Buck Rogers also had some notable entries in this period. These games were only really superficially a roleplaying game—although the player could make choices, those choices were really only meaningful in terms of what characters they could create and control in the tactical interface. It was a step up from the limited action/response options in the previous text adventure era, but still far short of any narrative experience. On the other hand, the tactical gameplay was really, really fun, and there were plenty of stories I could tell you about how my characters managed to beat some pretty hefty odds… which was not that dissimilar to many of the actual Dungeons and Dragons adventures of that time either.

Here's the cover and an in-game screenshot from Countdown to Doomsday, a Gold Box adventure game.

So what did I learn from this era? Tactical expertise, resource management, and the importance of having the right mix of characters in a party. In the Gold Box games, you could make a party of all fighters if you really wanted, but doing so meant you would struggle against many of the encounters in the game. Likewise, not having a theif to pick locks on doors or a cleric to heal your party in between encounters would change the experience greatly as well. The best way to progress through the game (for myself and players like myself) was to create a party like you would in an actual D&D game—meaning that you have a varied mix of classes and roles in your group. This approach allowed me to conquer many of the game’s challenges without having to reload the game too many times.

Special Mention: The Pool of Radiance series and the Buck Rogers games were some of my favorites—I’d love to go back and play these again someday. Pool of Radiance had a fun story with some memorable villains, and the Buck Rogers games actually had a fun ship battle interface! Alas, I never really got to play any serious games of Ultima or the Bard’s Tale, but I did muck about with them briefly.

The JRPG Era

Concurrently with some of the other entries on this list is a phenomenon called the JRPG, or Japanese-style Roleplaying Game for short. JRPGs are similar to the Gold Box games in that they generally emphasize tactical gameplay over narrative, but there are some very notable entries in their genre that should be discussed whenever one talks about CRPGs in general. The Japanese approach to the CRPG generally took a much more detailed approach to many aspects of gameplay, from the various items of gear to the types of magic the wizards can cast (Red Mage, Black Mage, White Mage, anyone?). JRPGs spanned the timeline from the late 80’s through most of the 90’s with the entries I discuss here.

I like to split up my experience with JRPGs into two sub-categories, Tactical and Storytelling.

Tactical JRPGs

The tactical side of JRPGs focuses on the combat, leveling, and character growth elements in a CRPG. In many of these games, developing your character over time is critically important—choose the right set of careers along the way and your character can end up quite powerful. Make foolish or dead-end choices, however, and it’s back to the start screen for you!

Ack! This screen is from Dragon Warrior.

Probably the most well-known of these games is the Final Fantasy series, but I actually began my journey into the realm of JRPGs with the NES game Dragon Warrior. I remember that I was so fascinated with the game that I stayed up all night killing slimes and raising levels. I did eventually get into the Final Fantasy games after that point, of course, and my personal favorites include FF6 (3 in the US), FF7, FFX (or Ten), and Final Fantasy Tactics. FF6, FF7, and FFX all deserve special mention in that they also possessed a very stirring and compelling narrative that draws you into the game far above and beyond the simple factors of fun and engrossing gameplay. The Disgaea games also fall under this category.

Square is definitely a fantastic company for this kind of approach, and I’d like to single out another similar tactical game for special praise: Front Mission 4. If you love Final Fantasy and giant robots fighting each other, this is the game for you. In recent years, a new notable entry into the same field is Record of Agarest War, which blends the typical JRPG with dating sim elements and introduces an interesting new mechanic in dynastic gameplay, where your character’s choices determine the effects to the next generation of characters—up to five times in the first game!

Storytelling JRPGs

As previously mentioned, FF6, FF7, and FFX all shared a truly dynamic and engaging narrative. Alongside these giants in the industry are some slightly less well-known games that are definitely RPGs but stress the story elements over the actual gameplay. For this section the games that come to my mind are the truly excellent Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger for the SNES. A later entry into the same general type of game is the amazingly immersive Shenmue.

 A memorable moment in Chrono Trigger. Behold the time portal!

So what did I learn from JRPGs? From the tactical side, I learned that you can create compelling gameplay elements for tactical thinkers – combinations of abilities, little mini-games to power up abilities (remember Vincent’s games from FF6?), interesting opportunities for traversal of the overland map (airships!) and how you can combine effects and/or special events (i.e., “limit breaks”) to build some impressive cinematic combats. From the storytelling side, there’s a great deal of narrative value to be found in things like FF7 and Chrono Trigger, from making characters the player can identify with and care about to building a villain with a tragic past that the player nevertheless is determined to stop at any cost.

The True CRPG Era

During the late 90’s into the mid-2000’s came a wave of computer roleplaying games that truly took the genre to the next level. I consider this timeframe to be the era of the “True CRPG,” since these are the most iconic games that I think of when describing the term. CRPGs really came into their own about this time, with fascinating storytelling, engaging gameplay, and the ability to build your own character and interact with some of the most memorable NPCs of all time. CRPGs of this era also included branching storylines and incorporated meaningful choice into the gameplay experience for the first time, meaning that multiple playthroughs could have very different outcomes.

The originator of this era and probably the most well-known is the Baldur’s Gate series (which also includes the Icewind Dale games). Created by Black Isle/Bioware, these CRPGs pioneered many effective gameplaying techniques that are still in use today. Fantastic music, voice work, art and interface design combined with a great story made for an unforgettable experience. The characters of Baldur’s Gate resonate through the entire industry—up to and including references in modern games like Mass Effect.

Note: For me, personally, Misc is the greatest NPC and companion of all time.

This is the man.

Of special note is the Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition that is nearly out now—a great way to experience this game-changer of a CRPG.

The True CRPG Era started out strong but it would hit an amazingly high peak by the unparalleled Planescape: Torment in 1999. Torment redefined what an RPG was capable of and how people perceived the genre.  A tour de force of storytelling and characters, Torment set a standard for CRPGs that has yet to be equaled.

Other CRPGs of this era include the very influential Fallout series. Fallout’s contributions are many, amongst them a unique vision of a post-apocalyptic setting and cementing the isometric 3rd-person interface as the preferred method for many RPGs to come.

Torment was followed up by two worthy successors: Arcanum and Neverwinter Nights 2. Neither of these games were quite as good as Torment, but that isn’t to say they aren’t both great games—they certainly have earned that title.

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura was a flawed but exceptional game that had a ton of potential. It combined magic and technology and cashed in on the (then-brand-new) Steampunk aesthetic. I encourage anyone who loves CRPGs to give Arcanum a shot, because it also possesses a fascinating story and some great characters.

This game is a must play!

Neverwinter Nights 2 was developed by Obsidian Studios, featuring a lot of the same creators as Torment. Whilst Neverwinter Nights 2 is fairly pedestrian from a storytelling standpoint, it does present everything you’d expect to find in a CRPG with some unique twists. The companions in the game are well-designed and the major selling point is that you eventually are given a keep to supervise, upgrade, and defend in an extremely memorable climax. Alas, the otherwise unremarkable story and the perplexing ending keep this game from succeeding wildly.

What did I learn from True CRPGs? The right voice can turn a good character into an unforgettable character. Exploration gameplay and storytelling does not have to be linear. RPGs can turn your world upside-down and change your perception (Torment!). The nature of a man can change through belief (more Torment!). Classic fantasy RPG tropes can form the foundation for truly epic stories and intense game experiences. Music and sound are vital to the experience of a CRPG. Challenge beliefs, change expectations, and you can create something beautiful.

The Console Era

Starting in the mid-to-late 2000’s, CRPGs moved primarily into handhelds and consoles. With this move came an increase in technology and the ability of the game to convey information, primarily through visual means. This stripped away some of the verbosity from CRPGs – where before, a crucial conversation could involve multiple pages of text, it was now resolved with just a few sentences. Storytelling remains strong in console CRPGs, but the focus has shifted again, lifting visuals and gameplay experience more into focus.

The Sith Triumvirate of KOTOR II are some of my favorite villains ever.

The Knights of the Old Republic series is probably the first and most heralded of the console CRPGs. In my personal opinion, I credit KOTOR 1 and 2 for saving Star Wars after the truly atrocious prequels nearly destroyed any interest I had in the IP. KOTOR (once again created by many of the same minds behind Baldur’s Gate and Torment) paved the way for even more advanced CRPGs to come from Bioware. The Dragon Age and Mass Effect series (with the unfortunate exception of Mass Effect 3) were both excellent game franchises that capitalized on all the strengths of the genre. Mass Effect and Dragon Age returned some of the depth in the form of in-universe journal entries and informational packets, helping to build some very strong worlds, organizations, and characters that have made an undeniable mark on the genre.

A very underrated CRPG is Alpha Protocol, a CRPG that goes into a rarely-entered subgenre of espionage action. If you’ve ever been a fan of James Bond or Jack Bauer, make sure to give this game a try.

A scene from Alpha Protocol. The game features about a half-dozen ways to get around those guards, from direct combat to smooth talking to stealth.

Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas helped to cement this era with open-world gameplay and a very “sandboxed” approach that contrasted nicely with Bioware’s much more linear designs. Both games are very good, but New Vegas really pushes the envelope with its amazingly innovative DLC designs.

In addition, no mention of console CRPGs would be complete without discussing the surprise smash hit of 2011, Skyrim. This entry in the Elder Scrolls franchise made a huge splash into the gaming market and introduced a whole new generation to fantastic, open-world gameplay linked with stunning environments and excellent level design. So far, the only thing I can critique about Skyrim is that its DLC is very lacking, especially compared to Fallout: New Vegas.

One special note here is the Shadowrun SNES game from 1993 is one of the earliest console CRPGs that I remember... and it was very, very good.

What did I learn from the Console Era?  Meaningful choice as the centerpiece of a game is a powerful tool. Concise textual design can get the main ideas across without requiring a player to read multiple pages. Memorable climactic moments can turn a good game into a great one. The importance of creating a good, solid ending to a CRPG cannot be overstated. Building a character’s story over multiple games in the same line can launch a legend.

Death is a badass. In Darksiders II, you get to play Death. Seems like it would sell itself, right?

A special mention I’d like to make here is for Darksiders II. Whilst Darksiders II is an “action RPG” and is definitely further towards the action side of that scale, it is a fine RPG and features design and writing work from yours truly.


Into the Future

For diehard CRPG fans like myself, the future is actually looking very good. Wasteland 2, Project Eternity, and Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition are on their way to completion from some very good teams in the industry, and they promise to bring back much of the “True CRPG era” strengths to new technology like the ipad whilst leveraging more modern design principles. The success of Skyrim, Mass Effect, and Fallout 3 have bolstered the role of CRPGs in the marketplace, and the upcoming Dragon Age III promises to build on that legacy of quality. I, for one, am very optimistic about what’s coming soon for CRPGs and I hope that the genre continues to build momentum long after today.

In Conclusion

This blog post has been all about my experiences and memories of CRPGs – what are some of yours? No doubt there are a lot of folks who will point out some games I missed along the way, so don’t hesitate to make a comment below!