The Platinum Age certainly had its share of ups and downs, and gamers enjoyed a wide variety of diverse games and game engines. However, by 2002, CRPGs had lost most of their shelf space to the steadily encroaching MMORPG and RTS genres, and the latest round of games seem (to this critic, at least) to be more about looking back than looking forward. CRPG development hasn’t ground to a halt, but the grooves have worn deep. Most of the CRPGs published in the past five years have either been unimaginative sequels or games so derivative they may as well have been. To put it bluntly, we’ve entered a stage where games are one of three types—Diablo-inspired “action” games, Morrowind-style “FPS” games, and the endless sea of me-too MMORPGs.
Perhaps the two most important games we’ve seen so far in the modern age are BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights (2002) and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003). Although the long-term impact of these games is hard to predict, they seem (to me, at least) to be the most direct heirs of traditions going back at least to Baldur’s Gate, and perhaps even to SSI’s Gold Box games.
Neverwinter Nights features BioWare’s Aurora Engine, a fully 3-D engine that promised more advanced graphics than the beloved old Infinity Engine used in Baldur’s Gate. For the first time, players had a free-moving camera they could position however they wanted. BioWare also included a toolset to let players easily create their own Neverwinter Nights campaign. Like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights only allows players to create and control a single character, though they can add “associates,” such as familiars and up to two computer-controlled characters. Neverwinter Nights also followed the 3rd Edition AD&D Rules seen in Icewind Dale II, with a fun and intuitive leveling system based on skills, feats, and stats.
Although the two games have much in common, there are many important differences between Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate II. Perhaps the most significant is that the player’s avatar isn’t woven so integrally into the plot. Instead, the player’s character starts off as a “blank slate” adventurer who has responded to a call by Lady Aribeth to help the city of Neverwinter. Neverwinter has come under a deadly plague. It doesn’t take the player long to learn that the plague is only part of a much larger conspiracy to take over the city of Neverwinter, and the roots of treachery run deep. The player is allowed some leeway in directing the avatar’s action; he or she can be a saintly type, a ruthless mercenary, or a hell-bent sociopath. These choices are mostly played out in dialog options, but also in which side-quests the player accepts or rejects.
Expansion packs for the highly successful game were not long in coming. The first was Shadows of Undrentide, developed by Floodgate Entertainment and published by Atari (Infogrames) in 2003. Shadows of Undrentide wasn’t what most players expected at the time; rather than extending the original campaign, it added an entirely new one that was recommended for new characters. Besides the addition of five new “prestige” classes for advanced characters, the expansion met with generally favorable (but not over the top) reviews from critics. The next expansion, Hordes of the Underdark, appeared a few months later. Thankfully, this trip to the drow’s homeland fared much better than the aforementioned Descent to Undermountain. Besides a few epic battles that no player will likely forget, Hordes of the Underdark also added plenty of new assets to the game, including 50 new feats and 40 new spells. The massive expansion was met with good to great reviews from critics, some of whom consider it an even better game than the original campaign. Kingmaker, an expansion released in 2005, offers three additional “premium modules” for Neverwinter Nights.
BioWare’s most celebrated game of the Modern Age is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, published in 2003 by LucasArts. As the title implies, this game is based on the Star Wars franchise and the Star Wars Roleplaying Game developed Wizards of the Coast (the heirs of TSR). It’s a highly ambitious game based on a highly modified Aurora engine called Odyssey, and offers round-based combat. Although Neverwinter Nights had impressed critics, Knights of the Old Republic knocked them off their feet, with several claiming it as one of the best CRPGs ever made.
On my second day of playing, I sat down at my desk and started playing the game at 10 am. From then on, I didn't get up for anything until 6 pm that night. Not lunch, not even the bathroom. That's how good Knights of the Old Republic is. – Allen Rausch on GameSpy, Nov. 23, 2003.
Knights of the Old Republic is set some 4,000 years before the movies, but this is still a Jedi thing. Indeed, the player can decide which side of the Force to follow. Much like Neverwinter Nights, players are allowed to select among side-quests, many of which help identify them as good or evil. The game is drenched with detail and story, and some thirty odd hours of highly addictive gameplay. Critics raved about the excellent writing and dialog, which any CRPG gamer knows is quite rare indeed. It won countless awards, and is probably the most celebrated CRPG of the Modern Age.
The sequels to Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic were developed by a company named Obsidian Entertainment, which formed after the demise of Black Isle Studios. Both games were created with BioWare’s Odyssey Engine. Unfortunately, neither Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (2005) nor Neverwinter Nights 2 (2006) have attracted the fanfare of their prequels.
Although the CRPG has certainly suffered its share of ups and downs over the decades, history shows that when things are at their bleakest, there is always a new company poised to spring onto the scene with an amazing new title that brings every true CRPG fan back to the table. Perhaps we’re at such a point now; major CRPG titles have slowed to a trickle, and some critics seem all but convinced that online games like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft are the logical heirs of the “oldskool” CRPG. However, rather than trace the lineage of games like World of Warcraft or EverQuest back to CRPG classics like Ultima or Wizardry, I see them more as the descendents of another genre called the “MUD,”or the multi-user dungeon. MUDs appeared on the gaming scene almost simultaneously with text adventures and the first CRPGs, but were mostly played by college students and others with access to a mainframe (or subscribers to services like America Online or CompuServe).
Although it’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss MUDs in any detail, suffice it to say that the appeal of these games is based far more on the thrill of playing with other people than anything else. A case in point is the original Neverwinter Nights, an online game available on AOL between 1991-1997 that was based on SSI’s Gold Box engine. Rather than get excited about stories or quests, players spent time creating and participating in a player-created “guild” system; the bulk of the game’s appeal consisted in socializing and building up one’s social status. In short, the difference between the typical MMORPG and the traditional CRPG is as sharp as that between attending a Renaissance Fair and reading a good fantasy novel.
Although both offer no small share of delights, it just doesn’t make sense to claim that people should prefer one to the other, or that they are somehow equivalent. Just as self-respecting RPG fan might wish to avoid a crowd of drunken nincompoops at a “Ren Fair”, a CRPG fan may have aspirations beyond being “pwned” by rapacious adolescents.
Of course, there is the question of whether the single-player, stand-alone CRPG is still commercially viable as a genre, and many “oldskool” fans take a cynical view. No doubt, the culture of PC gaming has changed drastically since players were crawling through Wizardry, The Bard’s Tale, or Curse of the Azure Bonds. These games had steep learning curves and required long attention spans—aspects which make them seem quaintly “old-fashioned” compared to games we find on the shelves today. Many modern gamers find even Baldur’s Gate II simply too contemplative; it fails to provide enough rapid-fire bursts of instant gratification to keep them from awake. Can you imagine these folks taking the time to map out a dungeon on graph paper or reaching the level of tactical expertise necessary to complete Wizard’s Crown?
There was a point in gaming history when the CRPG was viewed as the “hard” genre; the genre that required the largest investment in time and energy but which offered the greatest rewards. These were games for the “hardcore,” the computer geek who was proud of her esoteric knowledge and superior intelligence. Some cynics claim that this began to change with the increasing dominance of console RPGs, which by the late 90s were influencing CRPGs more than the other way around (indeed, several RPGs originating on consoles were later ported to PCs, and with much success). Naturally, adapting the CRPG for use on a console required making concessions in almost every area, particularly the interface, which had to be simple enough to work with a handheld controller.
Likewise, these games had to appeal to a much wider demographic than PC games, whose developers could expect much more technical knowledge and sophistication than their console counterparts. Although the difference between consoles and computers has been steadily narrowing since the “fifth generation” or PlayStation era, many old-fashioned CRPG fans still resent the marked Japanese influence on their beloved genre (see my earlier article, Kawaisa!: A Naive Glance at Western and Eastern RPGs).
Yet, there are plenty of gamers out there still playing Rogue and running the classics on emulators or via nifty new services like GameTap (see this list of GameTap’s RPGs). Games like Oblivion, Dungeon Siege II, and Neverwinter Nights II continue to show up on the charts, and an undisputed masterpiece like Knights of the Old Republic is still enough to win over old fans and introduce hordes of new gamers to the genre.
My guess is that the next big revolution in CRPGs is just around the corner, though it’s impossible to tell from which company it might arise, or what form it might take. However, I can’t emphasize enough that the best CRPGs of all time have been far more a matter of craft than revolution, of paradigms coming together rather than breaking apart. Like Pool of Radiance, Baldur’s Gate, or Fallout, the next big CRPG won’t be so much about doing something new, but doing something right.