CRPG History Abridged - 21 RPGs that brought something new to the table
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
As some of you might know, due to my occasional rant here, I'm the editor of the CRPG Book Project, a non-profit, crowd-sourced project to promote Computer RPGs and their rich history.
Over the past 18 months working on the book I've examined almost 300 RPGs, from the latest releases to PLATO titles from the 70's. All this research is being put into the book, but I'm fully aware that not everyone thinks a +400-page book on RPGs is a cool thing (shame on you), so I've decided to make a really, really, really abridged version, focusing on one single aspect: cool stuff.
So here's a clickbait-like article on some of the most interesting things I came across. I'll focus on more obscure stuff (or at least obscure outside hardcore RPG forums), but I'll also add a few well-know games that do deserve another pass at the spotlight:
Dungeons of Daggorath (1982)
This game got some recognition recently after being mentioned in Ready Player One, but it deserves a lot more than name-dropping. Daggorath was reportedly programmed in 1980, yet it's a solid dungeon-crawler with fast-paced real-time combat. And for a pioneer, it has some interesting twists.
Each action must be typed into the text parser, either entirely (Pull Right Torch) or using abbreviations (P R T). But the game runs in real time, and thus the faster you can type, the faster you can act. As compensation, there's no fail % set by a dice roll – every time you miss, it will be because you, the player, mistyped your input. A surprisingly organic way of handling miss chance.
However, the stand-out feature is the heart-rate mechanic. Over the 40+ years of CRPG history, a few mechanics and concepts rooted themselves into the core of the genre. Hit points are one of those. But Daggorath is a game from the frontier days, and the designers tried something different.
Your health is determined by a beating heart at the center of the screen, accompanied the constant sound of its heartbeat. A normal heart-rate means you're healthy, but it will rise as you take damage, run or even simply exert yourself attacking too fast. Have a heart-attack and you're dead. Luckily, it goes down if you manage to find a quiet place and stop to catch your breath for a bit.
Play this with headphones. The wireframe graphics will blend with your imagination and the tension of hearing your heartbeat quicken as you run from a giant into a dead-end will be nerve-wrecking.
Alternate Reality: The City (1985)
Philip Price is a programmer that worked on the B-2 Stealth Bomber. But, before that, he was making games for the Atari 8-bit computers, and Alternate Reality is his (unfinished) magnum opus.
An extremely ambitious project, Price envisioned it as a series of seven scenarios. The first game, The City, begins with a giant spaceship abducting you from earth, taking you into a fantasy-like city. There you must equip yourself, visit the city's guilds and fight robbers, thieves and crazy wizards. Once you feel prepared, you import your character into the second game – The Dungeon – and continue your adventure there, searching for a way back home.
Unfortunately, only the first two games were ever released, so the epic saga was never fully realized.
Still, Alternate Reality has one impressive feature: it made full use of the Atari 8-bit capabilities to deliver an unseen type of cinematic presentation, heavily focused on memorable songs composed by Gary Gilbertson. Suffice to say, this 1985 game opened with a 5 minute intro cutscene, complete with its own theme song and on-screen sing-a-long lyrics. The game features many other songs, like one for when you die and even a romantic tavern song about an abducted man that miss his beloved:
Thirty years have passed, yet I can't think of a single RPG that uses songs this way.
More importantly, mere words cannot describe how disappointed I am that there isn't a single remix or metal cover of any of the game's songs on Youtube or at OverClocked ReMix.
Alien Fires: 2199 A.D. (1986)
This one is just a curiosity, caused by extreme technological limitations, and I can't call it successful with a straight face, but I applaud the ingenuity nevertheless.
Here's the deal: you really want to add voiced dialogs to your RPG, but you live in 1986, when games were sold inside two 5¼-inch floppies, which held about 720kb each. What to do? Well, you cram a text-to-voice software inside the damn floppy, problem solved:
Or maybe not. But it was an interesting attempt.
Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna (1987)
In Wizardry I you delve into the eponymous proving grounds of the mad overlord, exploring and fighting through 10 levels of a dungeon, defeating the evil wizard Werdna and saving the world. Hurray!
In Wizardry IV, the evil wizard Werdna is back. And in one of the most awesome and "why no one else does this?" twists, you play as Werdna this time. Weakened by defeat, you summon monsters to fight beside you as party members and must crawl your way up the 10 levels of the dungeon (now even more maze-like than before) in search of revenge.
In yet another brilliant twist, you'll face not monsters this time, but heroes! More precisely, parties of adventurer created by Wizardry players that sent their saved games to the developers via mail. The game is also one of the most difficult RPGs ever made – battles are insanely hard, the dungeon is a nightmare to navigate, there's an invincible ghost pursuing you that instantly kills you and saving the game resurrects all enemies in the level. Taking over the world ain't easy, I tell you.
Dungeon Master was a revolution back in 1986, with its mix of real-time battles, elaborate puzzles and nightmarish dungeons, and its legacy still lives today on games like Legend of Grimrock.
Bloodwych took DM's formula and tried to tune it up to eleven. For starters, the game had multiplayer – two players could sit in front of a computer, one with the mouse and the other with a joystick, and engage in jolly split-screen cooperation:
Furthermore, you could try to talk with enemies, asking for information and sometimes even bribing them to let you pass. The game later got an expansion called The Extended Levels that even allowed some of the enemies to be recruited into your party – if you could persuade them.
Also, when you level up a fairy appears in your sleep and sells you new spells. I'm serious.
World of Ultima: The Savage Empire (1990) and Martian Dreams (1991)
The fine folks at Origin took the Ultima VI engine, pulp magazines from the 50's and a lot of imagination and combined them into these two spin-off Ultima games.
In the first game, The Savage Empire, the Avatar is magically taken to a valley where dinosaurs still roam and must unite the primitive human tribes in order to fight against a race of insect-like creatures.
Savage Empire also deserves a special mention for being the first RPG where you could romance a character, choosing between Aiela, princess of the Kurak Tribe, or Tristia, her adopted sister.
In Martian Dreams you travel in time back to the Victorian Era to join an expedition to Mars alongside Nicolas Tesla, Sigmund Freud and Warren Spector (yes, the Deus Ex developer). Also included are robots, Martians, dream machines, elaborate plot twists, H.G. Wells, Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane and even Rasputin. Just think about that next time you praise a game for having an original setting.
And yes, it did came out almost a decade before Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentleman.
Ishar: Legend of the Fortress (1991)
Nowadays the modern BioWarian take on NPCs is almost a law of RPG design, but back in 1991 party members were just a bunch of walking stats that did and took damage. French developer Simarilis tried to solve this by giving each and every party member in the game a personality and opinion, in what's probably the most democratic RPG ever made.
Say you are walking down the street and don't like how a filthy peasant is looking at you. You order your fierce party of adventurers to attack him, but they instead pause and vote the decision. The evil bloodlusty characters approve, the good natured one might refuse and some will be neutral, but the outcome of the vote is definitive – the player can't do anything other than comply.
This even applies to decisions such as dismissing a character from the party or recruiting a new one. You'll have to carefully plan your party, as a heroic group probably won't allow you to recruit that insane orc barbarian, while a band of evil knights will see no value in that cute elf with healing spells.
Some characters will also cheat you – the very first party member you find in this game will rob you and disappear the minute you close your eyes to sleep. People are jerks, the game.
Might & Magic: World of Xeen (1992)
Remember when Sonic & Knucles was released back in 1994? You could put a Sonic 2 or 3 tape on top of it and play both games combined, with Knuckles as a playable character and other new stuff!
Now, the cool thing is that a man by the name of Jon Van Caneghem not only thought of this before, but did it on a RPG! In 1992 he released Might & Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen, followed by Might & Magic V: Darkside of Xeen in 1993. Each of these games had you exploring a side a Xeen, a coin-shaped planet.
However, if you had both games installed at the same time, the games would merge and become World of Xeen, allowing you to freely travel between both sides of the planet and explore them, at your pace, as well as adding an entire new post-game quest, where you would face high-level challenges that spanned both sides of Xeen, to uncover the game's final, true ending.
Also worth mentioning how there was a Skyroad stretching across Xeen, which you could walk over by using a Levitate spell. I miss this kind of thing in games...
Wizardry VII - Crusaders of the Dark Savant (1992)
There's a lot that could be said about Wizardry VII, but I'll just focus on one thing: The NPCs.
Most RPGs, no matter how radiant their AI, suffer from that constant feeling that you are the only person actually doing anything. A good counter-example is the world's best-selling RPG – Pokémon –, where there's a least a rival doing stuff as well. Or being an asshole, right
The plot of Wizardry VII revolves around a search for the mythical McGuffin on the world of Lost Guardia. Various groups are searching for this object, including the sinister Dark Savant, and the game displays this frantic search in an innovative, in-game way.
Wizardry VII features multiple NPC parties that are also traveling the world, looting items and doing quests. In one playthrough you might find a map piece on a certain chest, but in the other you'll find only an empty chest – someone found it first!
You can then track the other party, engage in a conversation and try to trade the map piece. Or kill them, if they refuse. But there's always a consequence, as that NPC's faction will likely attack you on sight from now on.
It's a brilliant system, that brings the world to live and make every playthrough different. What's even more impressive is that the game was designed and programmed by a single person.
Ultima VIII: Pagan (1994)
This game is fiercely hated by a lot of Ultima fans, and rightfully so. It removed many features from Ultima VII, added horrible platforming sections, was rushed and extremely unfinished.
However, it has a fantastic premise. The Guardian, the Avatar's arch-enemy, has banished you to the wicked world of Pagan. Trapped there, you must find a way back home – by any means necessary. It won't be easy, since Pagan is a dark, cruel land, and its people worship the Guardian as a savior.
It's a mad rush, with the Guardian constantly taunting the Avatar over the destruction he's causing in Britannia, while the player engage in increasingly more uncomfortable actions – lieying, betraying, killing and even bowing to demons – going against the virtues they had heroically set in Ultima IV.
Pagan is one of the darkest games ever made. Ultima fans spent the previous games spreading and upholding a code of virtues, but Pagan pulls the rug under their feet, making them feel powerless and desperate. Then, while giving players full control, it asks: do the ends justify the means?
Wizardry 8 (2001)
The last Wizardry game made in the west (Japan would make like 200 more of these), it brings two interesting and original features.
First, it re-invented the "blobber" gameplay the series was known for. Instead of a party advancing square by square as a single blob, you could walk freely across 3D environments. Suddenly, placing heavily armored fighters in the front and squishy caster in the rear isn't the default formation anymore, since enemies can and will surround you, and the warrior at the front won't be able to reach enemies in the back. It adds a whole new layer of tactical depth to the game.
The second feature is pure flair, but it's one of the game's most memorable features. Many RPGs allow you to create a character and then choose a voice for it, but Wizardry 8 offered instead nine unique personalities (Loner, Burly, Chaotic, Laidback, Eccentric, Intellectual, Kindly, Aggressive and Cunning), each with two different voice options for each sex – yes, 36 voiced personalities!
More than just voices shouting "Yes", "I'm overburdened", "Attack!" and "I'm wounded" in slightly different ways, these personalities will freely speak their mind thought the entire game, reacting to events, environments, enemies and quests, overall being more memorable and charismatic characters than many fully-scripted pre-made NPCs from other RPGs:
You can play with a psionic dragon, constantly babbling about the chaotic nature of the world in a heavy German accent. Or with a samurai cat that narrates the your adventures in a third-person, poetic style, as a bard telling a story. Or play with both at once! And fight crystal unicorns!
Speaking of creating party members, Geneforge brings this concept to a new level.
Jeff Vogel's masterpiece introduced a refreshingly new setting that blends fantasy with technology, without ever sounding derivative. In this world there are wizards known as Shapers, who can create and manipulate life. They use this power to create servants to do their work, while they experiment with new technologies and shaping powers.
You play as a Shaper stranded on an mysterious abandoned island, and thus can also create your own creatures to aid you in battle:
There's a great deal of depth here: you can customize each creature individually, spend all your energy on one powerful monster, spawn an army of weaker creatures or even ignore the feature altogether and use the energy to cast spells instead.
ZanZarah: The Hidden Portal (2002)
Remember the late 90's, when raising Pokémon and playing Quake deathmatches while bunny-hopping was all the craze? Ever thought about how cool it would be to mix these two together?
Uh, not really.
Well, a few guys in Germany did, and the result is ZanZarah – a game where you explore a magical world as a young British lady, collecting fairies, demons, dragons and other mystical creatures... to fight in fast-paced first-person arena battles:
There are dozens of arenas with interesting layouts, many different skills to choose from, various creature types with the traditional effective & non-effective relationship and even magical balls you use to capture wild creatures. Your creatures will also evolve after reaching a certain level, of course.
One can wonder why no one else followed this concept, but it's easy to see why the mix of cute fairies + arena deathmatches didn't really work out from a marketing perspective
Yeah, Fable isn't obscure, but I mention it here for one interesting mechanic that is rarely brought up amidst all the talk about growing acorns into trees and Molyneux being a compulsive liar.
I love self-imposed challenges. Things like solo-ing Baldur's Gate 2 with a crazy multi-class characters or playing Dark Souls without using shields provide a fresh challenge to a game you already mastered, forcing you to adapt and try things you would never do otherwise.
Fable has a "Boasts" mechanic, which implements self-imposed challenges in a wonderful in-game and in-lore fashion. The game puts you in the shoes of a hero searching for fame, so why not impress people in the most heroic way possible? Taking the quest to slay the white werewolf is already a feat, but Fable allows you to go in front of a cheering audience and say that you're such a badass you'll kill the werewolf with your bare hands, without taking a single scratch. And you'll do it naked!
You wager gold on each boast, so there's a price for failing but also a nice reward for succeeding. Sadly, this feature never came back in the sequels.
Magical Diary (2011)
This game is a Visual Novel/RPG hybrid about a girl who finds out that she's a
wizard Harry witch and goes to a magical college, where she'll engage in student activities, make friends, attend classes, learn spells and perhaps find a date to take her to the endgame prom. I'm so bad at this I even managed to get married, divorced and expelled once.
Now, if you're still reading this, here's why you should put your prejudice aside: Magical Diary has one of the most flexible and interesting dungeon/puzzle system around.
Once in a while you’ll have to take tests, that teleport you to a maze and require you to reach
the exit. The challenges range from a monster hunting you to a rival wizard, or just a big chasm to cross. And the solutions are all up to you – and the +70 spells the game features. For example, to escape the monster you can kill it with one of many damage spells, teleport it elsewhere, teleport yourself to the exit, distract it, scare it away, blind it, put it to sleep, turn invisible or even simply dig a tunnel across the maze, among other solutions.
It’s an extremely rich system that really offers you the proper range of choices a spellcaster should have, instead of simply wearing pointy hats and shooting fireballs. Sadly, the game is very short and only has 7 dungeon challenges, but it's a wonderful system I would love to see further explored.
Expeditions: Conquistador (2013)
It's a game based on a real historical period, but it isn't set in Europe, the US or Japan. Pause for a moment and count how many of those you can think of – besides Dynasty Warriors. Yeah.
Moreover, dealing with a cultural clash that actually happened, based on language barriers, prejudice, racism, religious dogmas, miscommunication and past conflicts that did in fact took place – no matter how brutal and illogical they might appear now – feels much more grounded and real than the tired old "Mr. Dwarf dislike Mr. Elf because Tolkien said so".
When forming your expedition you'll have to hire followers, and of them all come with a personality. For example, Blanca Alegría is an altruistic and pious nun, that will praise you when you're being generous with the other colonist, especially the poor. But she's also racist, will be strongly against any native you come across and ask you to put a stop on all pagan rituals – violently, if needed.
Every character has flaws. Avoiding all the racists will force you to take some that are proud, greedy, narcissistic or aggressive – there's no absolute good & evil, only personalities more or less like yours.
NEO Scavenger (2014)
In a time where itemization means "let's copy Diablo" and even party-based single-player RPGs are using DPS to measure weapon damage (I'm frowning at you, Dragon Age: Inquisiton), this game from an ex-BioWare employee goes the opposite way, bravely challenging modern game design trends.
In NEO Scavenger you never know how much damage a weapon does, how much protection an armor offers or even how may hit points you or your enemy have. All you know is that it's raining, you are in a dark forest, wearing a hoodie and carrying a knife, fighting against a crazy crowbar-wielding cultist that just broke your leg. It's a survival rogue-like that challenges you to think by yourself, to put away the safety of number-crunching and trust your insists – or at least learn from your failures.
It's a game where you don't replace a knife for a baseball bat because the tooltip is green or says it does +10% fire damage, but rather because you – the player – feel safer with it. Because you think that the extra range is nice, and that a breaking bones might be more effective than causing bleedings. And you might live or die next battle based on those assumptions. That's a hell of a lot more interesting than replacing a 250 DPS weapon for a 254 DPS one.
NEO Scavenger cleverly expands this concept to the rest of the game, always obscuring the stats and mechanics, leaving it all to player's intuition. Is it better to walk barefooted or to use a shoe in the wrong foot and get blisters? Is it safer to drink water from an old bottle or from a lake? Should you leave that nasty wound open or try to bandage it with a dirty rag and risk an infection? Is eating spoiled meat really that bad? I'm hungry, there's this dead dude here and I have a knife, can I...
Decide yourself, and then live (or die) with the consequences.
Special mention: The Age of Enlightenment Trilogy:
There's a reason why the Ultima series is so revered, and studying CRPG history only confirms that. These next games turned a pioneer series into the most important and influential RPG series, period.
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985) is well known, at least by name, but one can't talk about it enough. In 1985, RPGs were all about killing stuff. Plot was a brief paragraph in the manual, something like "kill the evil wizard", or "kill the evil wizard and... uh... bring his orb back".
At that time a young Richard Garriott had just released Ultima III and got a lot of mail from parents who were worried that his game (which had a demon on the cover, no less) promoted nothing but violence. Moved by this, he decided to change things.
In Ultima IV, the world of Britannia is already saved. You slayed evil in the previous games, the land is united and lives in peace. But its ruler, Lord British (Garriott's alter-ego), is worried about the spiritual well-being of its people. So he tasks you with the most unusual and still original quest ever: become an example for the people. The entire game is based around the concept of meditating on how to improve yourself, until you embody all eight virtues and achieve avatarhood.
Even small actions can bring you closer or farther from the virtues, from aggressively haggling prices at a store (Greed, bad!), to donating blood at a healer's house (Sacrifice, good!). The game ends not with a climatic boss battle, but with you ascending into Avatarhood, becoming the spiritual leader of Britannia and reading the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom – the book of absolute knowledge.
In Ultima V: Warrior of Destiny (1988), you return to Britannia to find that the virtues have been distorted into dark, extremist laws by Lord Backthorn. The virtue of Sacrifice, for example, became a law: "Thou shalt donate half of thy income to charity, or thou shalt have no income."
But don't think you'll just march into Blackthorn's castle, punch him and revert things back to normal. Turns out that a lot of people prefer the world this way – an honest merchant feels safer knowing that people won't steal him because they'll be sentenced to death if caught, and the poor beggar now has food since the rich are forced to share their wealth. And so the Avatar must not be wary of Blackthorn's guards as much as the public opinion, in one of the most political games ever made.
The final game of the trilogy, Ultima VI: The False Prophet (1990), begins with the Avatar being nearly murdered and Britannia under siege by demonic gargoyles. Lord British orders you to kill them and save the world, but this is the Ultima series, not a dumb RPG. As you explore the world, gather clues and talk to people you'll begin to realize that you didn't "found" the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom in Ultima IV – you stole it from the gargoyles and destroyed their world in the process.
So, what will the living embodiment of virtue will do when faced with the realization that the invading demons are actually desperate victims of your actions, trying to save their race from extinction?
There's a lot more to talk about these gems, like how Ultima V pioneered the concept of world simulation, with all NPCs having individual schedules – sleeping at night, opening the shop at morning, etc. While technologically we came a long way in the 30 years since Ultima IV, I would be lying if I said we came a long way in story-crafting and tough moral choices.
When writting for a broad audicence it's hard to know if games like World of Xeen are common knowledge or entirely unknow, so I tried to bring something new to old-time grognards and new players alike. I could list many other interesting titles, but for a quick click-bait article this one has already gone long enough. Maybe I'll do a second part or something like that later on.
But hey, if you enjoyed this list there's a 200-page preview of the upcoming CRPG Book right here for download, filled with this kind of content! And it's free! ;)