Insomnia | Commentary

On Role-playing Games

By Alex Kierkegaard / March 8, 2008

Role-playing games are games in which players assume the roles of fictional characters and collaboratively create stories. Players determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, players can improvise freely; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the games.

from the Encyclopædia Britannica


Dungeons & Dragons, the first commercially available role-playing game, was published in 1974 by Dave Arneson's and E. Gary Gygax's TSR. Though the bulk of D&D's elaborate ruleset was derived from miniature wargames (particularly Chainmail), it is important to realize that these rules were not the game's defining feature. D&D was about far more than stats and turn-based battles -- it was about characters, choices, and stories; it was about experiencing fantastical adventures through a brand-new kind of collaborative, improvisational storytelling. Players became at the same time script-writers and actors of their own roles; whereas a reader of a book or a viewer of a movie always remained a passive observer, a player at a D&D game was constantly called upon to make choices that propelled the action. Compared to the role-playing dimension of D&D, the stats and battles were only minor aspects.

Or at least they were supposed to be. Since TSR's writers and most of their earliest customers came from a wargaming background, official D&D modules (i.e. ready-made adventures) tended to focus on dungeon crawling and excessively time-consuming combat. But as the game exploded in popularity, and other companies began entering the field, the focus began to slowly shift. Later games such as White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade (1991) moved further away from role-playing's wargaming roots by emphasizing plot and character development over rules and combat, and the trend has continued apace ever since, with modern games such as Sorcerer (2002) and Dogs in the Vineyard (2005) going as far as to adopt a so-called narrativist approach to role-playing (the goal of which is to promote the emergence of some kind of value-judgement through in-game events).

But though the rules and stats were clearly not the most important aspects of D&D and of the many other role-playing games that followed, they were still indispensable. This can be seen by considering that even live-action and freeform role-playing games (which make a point of de-emphasizing die rolls and rulebook references) find it hard to completely avoid them, often resorting to some form of rock-paper-scissors mechanic in order to resolve conflicts.

And the reason for this dependence on rules is simple. In RPGs rules are necessary in order to set up a framework, with the help of which the gamemaster can evaluate the players' actions and arrive at or decide on their consequences. Because even though the players' adventures often take place in wonderfully bizarre universes, these universes still have to make some kind of sense -- they still have to obey some sort of logic, otherwise players would quickly lose interest in adventures steered by a gamemaster based on nothing more than random whims. (Or perhaps some of them wouldn't, but it would take the likes of Haruki Murakami in the role of gamemaster to pull off something of the sort with any degree of success.)

The Western approach to CRPGs (or, An Exercise in Futility)
So the point of RPGs was never the tedious stat-recording and incessant battles -- indeed, the more creative gamemasters quickly discovered that all the calculations and dice-rolling often got in the way of the story, and acted accordingly to minimize it.

Yet from the very beginning of computer role-playing games (CRPGs) it was clear that the stat-recording and incessant battles were the only things that could possibly survive the transition to the electronic medium, and that nothing short of the invention of human-level artificial intelligence could change that. Because what could possibly be left of the idea of role-playing without an intelligent gamemaster to breathe life into the world surrounding the players? What chance would the players have to make decisions and act them out -- in other words, to role-play -- if they were denied the ability to express themselves, and if their actions were limited to inventory-management, battle tactics, and wandering around static maps? The quality of the RPG experience had from the very first depended on the ability, talent and dedication of the gamemaster, and some dumb computer program was indeed a pitiful substitute for a Gary Gygax or an Ed Greenwood.

All this was of course instantly recognized by the pioneers of CRPGs, who, being programmers, were well aware of the limitations of the primitive software engineering techniques available to them.

And so they focused on the stats and battles.

Within mere months from the publication of Dungeons & Dragons the first CRPGs began to appear. From crude efforts written by college students to run on university mainframe computers -- Rusty Rutherford's pedit5 (1974), Don Daglow's Dungeon (1975 or 1976), Gary Whisenhunt's and Ray Wood's cheekily-named dnd (1975) -- to the first commercially-available titles: Richard Garriott's Akalabeth (1980), Sir-Tech's Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981) and DynaMicro's Dungeons of Daggorath (1982); they were pure dungeon crawlers one and all. Containing absolutely no role-playing whatsoever, they were nothing more than simplistic strategy games, with the limited dungeon exploration aspect breaking up the otherwise monotonous business of directing endless battles. The quest to design a true computer role-playing game had seemingly been abandoned, before it had even begun.

But since early D&D modules themselves consisted of little more besides dungeon crawling, the pioneers of CRPGs could at least claim that their games managed to capture to a degree the spirit of those early modules. The computer gaming world -- such as it was at the time -- could hardly be blamed for praising their efforts.

Unfortunately, those early efforts would end up setting the tone for all subsequent ones.

New games came and went, yet little of substance changed. The Bard's Tale (1985) featured unprecedented 3D graphics and animated monster portraits (eye-candy, in other words); Dungeon Master (1987) introduced real-time action; Pool of Radiance (1988) upped the ante in terms of the variety of locations and the scope of the story, while Eye of the Beholder (1990) had difficult puzzles -- all these were indeed well-made, enjoyable games, but they weren't fooling anyone. Because it was plain that they contained about as much role-playing as Super Mario Bros. or Duck Hunt.

For one thing, they all effectively required the player to assume control of a party of characters, something which immediately ruled out the possibility of any kind of role-playing (except perhaps for schizophrenics or those suffering from multiple personality disorder). For another, despite all the additions and refinements they boasted over their predecessors, none of them managed to get far beyond their strategy/wargaming roots. Character generation became more elaborate; sprawling towns and extensive outdoor locations were added; dungeons were spruced up -- but progression through the game still depended entirely on skillful inventory management and tactical thinking (both while directing battles and navigating dungeons). Only the more ambitious titles went as far as to include a handful of dialogue choices -- the better to trick the more naive players into believing they had some control over the development of the story.

Before long, CRPGs had become something of a joke in the role-playing community, whereas in computer gaming circles the term "RPG" had been debased to a euphemism for a genre that contained a varying mixture of strategy, action, and adventure elements -- everything, that is to say, except role-playing.

It's worth taking a moment here to qualify this last statement. One can easily see that CRPGs contain elements of strategy and action, to varying degrees, but where does the adventuring element come from?

The adventure genre has hitherto encompassed all those games which allow the player to interact with the gameworld in ways more diverse than in those of pure reflex-based titles. In shooting/fighting/platform/racing games and the like, the player is usually limited to a few very specific kinds of actions, namely shooting/fighting/navigating platforms/racing, etc. But in adventure games -- whether purely text-based, graphical, or point-and-click -- the player is called upon to perform a much larger variety of actions, such as exploration, puzzle-solving, interaction with characters, etc. (That's why games like Silent Hill and Onimusha are sometimes referred to as action-adventure games: because there is a bit more to them than simply killing enemies.)

So, getting back to CRPGs, one needs to look at what remains after you deduct all the strategy elements, and once you do that you see that what is left is some form of "adventuring". You have to search for the key that unlocks the gate to the catacombs; you need to gather the necessary ingredients to cast the spell that will kill the dragon; you must track down the reclusive sage and convince him to reveal to you the location of the ancient ruins, etc. etc.

So CRPGs have always been -- and still are -- mostly games of strategy, with only occasional sprinklings of action and adventure, the exact formula of the mixture varying depending on the developer and the game in question. But whatever the formula, the end result has never had much to do with role-playing -- one need only sit in for a few minutes at a Dogs in the Vineyard game in progress in order to realize this. For those used to equating hit points and levelling to role-playing, such an experience would prove truly eye-opening.

And here it's worth noting that even games like Fallout (1997) and Planescape: Torment (1999), as well as Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series, came nowhere near enough to be considered true RPGs -- though it has to be said that they at least tried harder than everything else.

But why are these games -- justly -- ranked among the finest CRPGs yet made?

Because by employing extensive dialogue trees in conjuction with multiple story paths, or simply by allowing the player more freedom in choosing the order in which to pursue the various quests, they were able to approximate to some small degree the feel of a true RPG -- to give players a little taste of what these games are all about. We are still talking about strategy games here; even in a title such as Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (2001) you are still spending most of your time managing your characters' inventory, directing tactical battles and navigating dungeons -- all the instances of role-playing to be found in even the best-of-the-best CRPGs hardly ever amount to more than a few minutes in total. But those few minutes were enough to conjure an illusion of role-playing; to make one feel as if they played some part in steering the stories of these games towards their eventual outcomes. And the players loved them for it.

The Japanese approach to CRPGs (or, Making Numbers Go Up)
In Japan, meanwhile, things were proceeding in a most amusing direction.

The key to understanding the debacle that are modern JRPGs is to realize that role-playing took ages to arrive in Japan, and was largely ignored even when it did. D&D took almost a decade to be brought over, at which point the Japanese had already been playing western-made dungeon crawlers for several years.

That fact alone explains everything. You see Western developers have always been aware of the nature of role-playing, so at least they've always known what they should be aiming for. Granted, they messed up big-time (there's no technical reason why CRPGs with extensive dialogue trees like Torment couldn't have appeared back in the mid-'80s -- no reason why it took over a decade for them to start getting made), but one has to acknowledge the enormous difficulty of the task; and besides it is true that even the most trashy late-'80s early-'90s CRPGs contained at least a few moments which could, perhaps, by making appropriate allowances for the challenges presented by the electronic medium, be considered as actual role-playing.

But the Japanese designers who set out to make their own CRPGs had no such understanding. They played Wizardry and other early dungeon-crawlers, and then sat down in smoke-filled izakayas and exclaimed, "So this is what a role-playing game is then!"

And off they went to do what the Japanese do best.

Hydlide (1984) and Courageous Perseus (1985), the first Japanese CRPGs (hereafter referred to as JRPGs), were quickly followed by Dragon Quest (1986) and Final Fantasy (1987), the huge success of the latter effectively dooming the genre in Japan for decades. Had player reaction to these first efforts been unfavorable, their designers would have sat back and re-examined their choices; perhaps they would eventually have sought out and studied the second- or third-generation Western CRPGs (which were already starting to move away from dungeon crawling by offering the player the occasional choice), and things would have likely turned out very differently. But since no one involved -- neither designers nor players -- knew the first thing about RPGs (even the term "role-playing" itself affording them no clue as to the nature of these games, since most Japanese don't speak English), and since Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy had much to recommend them despite their not being RPGs, that was the end of the story. They kept selling, and so they kept getting made. The extremely risk-averse corporate policies of Japanese publishers such as Square, Enix and the rest of them (many of which were practically built on the success of their early JRPGs), have been efficiently crushing any hopes of a change ever since.

And there was never a question of these games evolving to overcome their humble origins, as happened in the West. Western CRPGs have kept evolving because there has always existed consciousness of a direction towards which to evolve; JRPGs, meanwhile, have been going round in circles ever since their inception -- Fallout is worlds away from Akalabeth; not so Lost Odyssey from Final Fantasy.

The only kind of evolution JRPGs have undergone is of a cosmetic nature: Final Fantasy was no Ultima, and its endless sequels had to be justifed in some way -- and so they were. CG or anime-style cutscenes and countless hours' worth of voice-acting and orchestral soundtracks were the justification, piled up, stacked and shoved inside cartridges, CD-ROMs, GD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs, and soon enough Blu-ray discs and who knows what else.

And the results of this unchecked and wholly misdirected "evolution"? They can be clearly seen today simply by contrasting the kinds of questions asked by fans of Western and Japanese CRPGs on the launch of a new title. While the former are eager to know about the character creation process, non-linearity, multiple endings, and whether they can be evil, the latter seem to care little about anything besides the names of "character" designers and music composers. Market economies being what they are, everyone ends up getting what they asked for.

To be sure, there have been exceptions. Chrono Trigger (1995), Star Ocean: The Second Story (1998), Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (2003) and others, contained some elements of role-playing (though, it has to be said, nowhere near as many as the best Western CRPGs). But the exceptions were always one-offs and were hardly ever followed up, and every JRPG that took timid steps to introduce a little taste of role-playing, by way of some form of open-endedness or non-linearity, was quickly driven from the shelves (and from the public's notice) by fifty others that were little more than pure strategy games with elaborate cutscenes.

And yet this is not the most damning criticism that can be levelled at these games and the people who make them. Because even if you are prepared to accept that Final Fantasy is a strategy game and that the "RPG" stamp on the box is some sort of a mistake -- a cute Japanese misnomer, perhaps (let's not forget that the Japanese have yet to get their heads round the concept of genre: according to Capcom, Devil May Cry 3 belongs to the "Stylish Crazy Action" genre, and Success's turn-based strategy game Operation Darkness is labelled as a "Horror Simulation RPG", for christsake) -- you still have to face the fact that -- even as a strategy game -- it fails miserably (except perhaps if one assumes that it's directed at mildly retarded nine-year-olds).

To illustrate the astonishing degree to which the above is true I'll now relate an anecdote which I've been saving for this very purpose.

Several years ago I happened to be discussing JRPGs with a bunch of people on an online message board. After posting a lengthy explanation to the effect that Final Fantasy et al. are little more than strategy games with elaborate cutscenes, I settled back expecting nothing less than raging flames. The first reply instead turned out to be comedy gold:

"There is strategy involved in continually pressing X? That's news to me."

At which point someone helpfully explained:

"Sometimes you have to use a potion."

Alas! even this pitiful element of strategy is being done away with in many modern JRPGs. Take for example the recent blockbusters Rogue Galaxy and Blue Dragon, in which fallen party members are automatically revived after battles, and where potions might as well be growing on trees (in fact in Blue Dragon they grow right behind them). Just a bit more effort in this direction and the Japanese will end up re-inventing the movies! (In fact I dare say they already have -- Sakaguchi has a strong claim on this achievement with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, a groundbreaking JRPG comprised of a single 106-minute-long cutscene, whose only flaw was that it didn't give players the option to skip it.)

But joking aside (and I beg your pardon, dear reader, for sarcasm is the only tolerable way I can bear to approach this absolutely ridiculous subject), there are some very good reasons why JRPGs suck even as strategy games, and they are well worth looking into.

If you read reviews of such games you'll have noticed that reviewers usually spend half their wordcount namedropping "character" designers and music composers, and the other half discussing battle "systems" (one would think this would give them a hint as to the nature of the games they are reviewing, but alas!) These battle systems always remind me of a humoristic piece that was doing the rounds on the internet a while back, in which it was ascertained that "Japanese vocabulary is determined by throwing tiny pieces of sushi at a dart board with several random syllables attached to it". Now this may not be true in regard to Japanese vocabulary, but I am convinced it is exactly how Japan comes up with all these utterly pathetic battle systems.

You may think I am judging them too harshly, perhaps? And yet consider: how could these systems possibly be anything other than pathetic? In the three-decade history of real-life role-playing there have been less than two dozen major systems published, yet Japan regularly churns out more than that in a single year! Is it any wonder that they all (no exceptions here, sorry) fucking suck? Even the most die-hard wargaming expert -- a Steve Jackson or a David Cook -- would give up if forced to come up with a brand-new battle system every six fucking months -- he'd turn to sushi and dart boards before long -- what can one expect from the Japanese, whose ignorance of wargaming is only rivaled by their ignorance of role-playing?

And the result of all this inanity? Even players who are right in the middle of a hundred-hour JRPG often have little idea of what the hell is going on -- and who can blame them, as it turns out they don't need to! They mash a button; random numbers keep flashing all over the screen; and if they happen to die at some point they simply double back, kill a couple hundred more green slimes and try again.

Not that the suckage of the system matters much, mind you, if we are talking about role-playing games. The battle system of an RPG is about as important as the story in a shooting game, and in fact the less the player is aware of it the better (as I will soon be explaining). But since there's no role-playing to be found in JRPGs, and since all the player ever does is direct battles, it stands to reason that the quality of the battle system becomes paramount. And this is in fact why the so-called SRPGs (the "s" standing for "simulation" in Japan (yes, I know, they are idiots) and "strategy" in the West; otherwise known as Tactical RPGs (TRPGs) or Tactics games) are, on average, of such higher quality than JRPGs -- because their designers understand this. In fact -- and this is a point worth exploring in some detail -- excepting JRPGs with action elements and those with a heavy emphasis on side-games (Dark Chronicle (2002), Persona 3 (2006) and others), there's no material difference between JRPGs and SRPGs: they are one and the same genre, and should be judged by the same exact criteria. Both types of games involve characters taking part in a series of squad-level, tactical battles, with a predetermined narrative delivered at intervals in the form cutscenes; beyond that, JRPGs have a stronger exploration aspect and SRPGs shorter cutscenes (though there are plenty of exceptions on both counts), but that's the most that can be said about their differences.

And yet what a huge impact on the quality of the actual games these little differences have made!

The above statement bears explaining, but first another quick history lesson is in order.

SRPGs are a Japanese invention dating all the way back to Intelligent Systems' Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryuu to Hikari no Ken (1990). There have been Western games which resemble SRPGs in many ways, most notably X-COM: UFO Defense (1993), Jagged Alliance (1994) and Silent Storm (2003), but since they evolved from a different tradition and since no one seems to confuse them for RPGs (due to the lack of a heavy cutscene focus, no doubt) they won't concern us here. Now Fire Emblem took its inspiration from Dragon Quest (which itself was based on Wizardry etc. etc.), only instead of relying on incessant random encounters that no one really cared for anyway, it tried to make each and every battle as interesting and challenging as possible. The two styles evolved concurrently: while JRPG developers stuck to their throwaway battle systems, concentrating on "character" designs, soundtracks and cutscenes, SRPG developers poured most of their time and money into designing solid battle systems, and, for each game, a series of balanced, challenging battle scenarios. Free from pretensions of role-playing and from the tyranny of the cutscene, they were able to concentrate on the essence of the games they were making, and they've been turning out higher-quality work ever since.

But I'll close this parenthesis here and get back on track by noting that the wild variety of battle systems employed by JRPGs (even among titles belonging to the same series!) is in itself yet another flagrant indication that the Japanese have missed the point of role-playing entirely. Because the important thing in an RPG is the flavor of the setting and the quality and depth of the players' adventures within it -- whether a longsword does 1d12 or 2d6 points of damage is irrelevant. That's why table-top role-playing systems often remain in use for decades -- what would be the point of coming up with a new system for every single adventure? And if every other week the players were obliged to trash the old system and learn a new one, when would they find time to actually play anything? And, finally, if a single system suffices for decades of high-quality adventuring in real-life RPGs (in a variety of settings, no less), why should a bunch of boring, hackneyed-to-hell-and-back preteen-level non-interactive stories require dozens of different systems?

But the answer is all too obvious! -- the different systems are necessary exactly because the stories are hackneyed, non-interactive schlock!

And yet the systems end up sucking just as much as the stories, because no one involved dares to acknowledge that they are in fact developing strategy games, and go out and bring in some people who know how to make them!

But enough of this sorry subject; those yet to be convinced of the irrelevance of JRPGs should just go back to the encyclopedia definition. If the game you are playing does not allow you to "improvise freely", and if your actions do not "shape the direction and outcome of the game", then I am sorry, but the game you are playing, wonderful and fun though it may be, is not an RPG (and, incidentally, certainly shouldn't be reviewed as such).

The massively multiplayer approach to CRPGs (or, Role-Playing for Peons)
In September 1997 something extraordinary happened. Richard Garriott's Origin Systems released Ultima Online -- a game which raised hopes for radical change in the evolution of CRPGs, before mercilessly crushing them.

Garriott and the rest of his team did not invent the concept of MMORPGs -- Ultima Online was merely another milestone in a long series of titles going all the way back to the MUDs and roguelikes of the '70s and early '80s. Those games eventually led to Island of Kesmai (1984), the first commercially-available MMORPG, and between that and UO there were a number of others, including Neverwinter Nights (1991), The Shadow of Yserbius (1992), Legends of Future Past (1992), and Meridian 59 (1996).

But though UO was not the first MMORPG, it was by far the most significant. Part of its genius was that it leveraged the built-in fanbase of the Ultima series, thus catapulting itself -- and, by extension, the whole genre -- to unprecedented sales numbers and mainstream recognition (it was the first such game to reach a 100,000 subscriber base, far exceeding anything that had come before). Its success was further helped by the numerous innovations and improvements it boasted over previous games, both in terms of graphics and game mechanics, which made it far more accessible and palatable to a wider public, and more likely to hold the interest of players for a longer time. Among its pioneering features was that it allowed players to attack each other anywhere in the game -- even inside cities (a feature which has since been modified); the possibility of buying or building housing (still an uncommon feature among such games); a skill system divorced from traditional experience-based levels or classes; and a large variety of different trades and crafts which enabled the creation and sustainment of a (relatively) sophisticated in-game economy.

At the time of its release Ultima Online was hailed by many (including me) as nothing less than revolutionary. Fans of RPGs saw it as a dream come true -- for who among us hadn't fantasized of a game in which every character would be controlled by a human player, living and acting their roles inside a persistent world, one which would even continue to exist and evolve without our presence? (thus rendering it all the more believable). UO even managed to outdo real-life RPGs in one respect, what with the technical difficulties involved in arranging for 100,000 people to meet in your living room for a quick session of D&D.

But the beauty of UO's approach was that it completely eliminated the fundamental problem of CRPGs, this being the impossibility of creating an A.I. capable enough to convincingly take up the duties of the gamemaster. Because if virtually all the characters surrounding each player were other players (excepting a few shopkeepers, city guards, etc.) there would be no need for a gamemaster to control them. Free from the constraints of the dialogue trees and pre-scripted events of traditional CRPGs, players could say exactly what they felt like saying in the manner they chose to say it, and be assured of receiving a rational (or irrational, as was the case!) and completely spontaneous response. This was 100% pure role-playing, and for a moment it seemed to be the future.

That moment didn't last very long.

Because it quickly became apparent that simply by throwing several thousand players into an otherwise barren fantasy setting was not enough to guarantee that Tolkien-like epics would spring out of nowhere, and sweep players into the kinds of adventures that Gary Gygax et al. had in mind when they first created RPGs. So yes, the role-playing part was as perfect as anyone could hope for (that is to say the game facilitated no-holds-barred conversation; whether players chose to take advantage of this was another thing altogether -- eventually, special servers would be set aside for those so inclined), but RPG fans soon discovered that in a world in which everyone was an adventurer there could be no adventures worth pursuing.

After this realization set in there was not much to say or do about MMORPGs. They were -- and still are -- the only electronic games which deserve to be called RPGs (with the exception of computer-assisted RPGs[1]); but they were sad, and boring, and ironically they ended up having less of the spirit of role-playing about them than even the earliest, dumbest dungeon crawlers. Because at least in those games you were the hero; your actions had significance in the context of the setting, and if you were willing to suspend disbelief long enough you could even convince yourself that those actions hadn't all been determined by someone else long before you even started playing. But in UO no amount of suspension of disbelief could help you immerse yourself in an exciting adventure, because when all was said and done you were still some sad fuck hauling lumber or iron nuggets back and forth across the map, or waiting outside a cave for the resident monsters to respawn so you could get back in there and kill them for the hundredth time.

In Ultima Online and all the games it has spawned you are indeed role-playing. But you are role-playing a peon, and no amount of credulity on your part or tinkering with the formula on the part of the developers can change that. It is indeed true that in some of these games you can rise to become something more than a peon -- at least if you are prepared to make this your (real) life's goal for a few months. But the process of levelling up (or amassing a fortune or whatever) has little to do with role-playing, and in all the countless hours you'll spend accomplishing this you'll likely not even experience the thrill of a single session of, say, Fading Suns or Dead Inside -- you won't even live through a single story worth retelling. And is this what you are looking for in role-playing games anyway? Is this what you are looking for in video games? If so, I guess you should be happy. You certainly got what you wanted.

The history of a genre (or, We've Come A Short Way, Baby)

Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.
--Robert E. Howard, The Phoenix on the Sword, 1932

Mankind has had a date with role-playing games ever since the poets of antiquity began spinning their seductive tales of adventure and epic struggles. The Iliad and the Odyssey, the Arthurian legends and the Norse sagas, inspired the late-19th early-20th century swashbuckling tales of Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini, which in turn led to the twin fantasy sub-genres of Sword and Sorcery fiction (epitomized by Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories) and High Fantasy (exemplified by J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings). It was out of a desire to experience adventures such as these that Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax were compelled to invent role-playing games. Combining the centuries-old traditions of improvisational theatre and historical reenactment within a framework of rules borrowed from modern wargames, they were able to create the most demanding, the most complex games yet -- and the most rewarding.

Though many early role-playing games retained D&D's fantasy flavor and heavy wargaming focus, it was not long before they broke out of that initial mold, eventually setting down on the path to exploring an ever-wider variety of themes and play styles. From dozens of pure fantasy settings to science fiction (Gamma World, Ex Machina), historical (Draug, Imperial Rome), horror (Little Fears, Unknown Armies), superhero fantasy (Aberrant, Millennium City), cartoon (Toon), espionage (Spycraft), urban crime (Gangbusters), satire (Bunnies & Burrows, Macho Women With Guns) and comedy (Paranoia, kill puppies for satan), to a myriad of other flavors and blends of flavors: Arabian (Al-Qadim), Western (Deadlands), Oriental (Legend of the Five Rings), steampunk (DragonMech), anime (Big Eyes, Small Mouth), alternative dimension (Planescape), martial arts (Dragon Fist) and even philosophical- and religiously-tinged ones (Kult), role-playing games quickly spread out across the farthest corners of human imagination, all the while experimenting with all kinds of game mechanics: from countless variants of D&D's "exploration-wargaming" approach, to all sorts of rules-heavy, rules-lite and diceless systems and everything in-between, some of them more focused on the problem-solving aspect, others on the dramatic, and to live-action and freeform variations of all of these.

Yet role-playing's astonishing depth and range came at a cost: that of extreme complexity and steep barriers to entry, two factors that have always kept RPGs from reaching the mass of potential players. Compared to RPGs, the requirements of any other kind of game have always seemed trivial. Board games? Card games? Sports? -- even the most complex computer strategy games seem like child's play compared to the demands on the average player made by RPGs, let alone on the gamemaster, who is expected to be an inspired improv director, actor of a thousand roles, expert rules teacher and all-knowing, infallible referee all at the same time. And all of that before we even factor in that RPGs require three to four players minimum, and are usually best enjoyed with a group of five or more.

What adult in this day and age has time for such games? More importantly, what adult in this day and age has a group of equally intelligent, enthusiastic and, above all, frequently available friends in the same city or neighborhood?

This is where computers come in.

The promise of CRPGs has always been the replacement of the gamemaster by a computer program, and thus the dramatic lowering of the barriers to entry and complexity of RPGs. (The apparent complexity that is, because the true complexity of the mechanics powering the game could then be indefinitely increased, since calculations would be handled by the computer, instead of an overworked and all too fallible human being.) Opening up role-playing to the masses, to those who lack the time and dedication to set up real-life RPGs, is what CRPGs have always been about. Let me rephrase that -- It's what they should have been about.

Cast a look back over this essay, over the history of the genre as I have sketched it out for you, and try to discern what we have to show for our efforts after more than three decades of CRPGs. What progress has been made since the days of pedit5 and Akalabeth? After thirty-three years and several thousand games, how close are we to delivering a true role-playing experience through the use of a computer program?

LOL

That's more or less all we have to show for it, dear reader. Apart perhaps from Deus Ex, a game released nearly a decade ago that still hasn't been properly followed up, that's roughly all we have to show for it: a big fat LOL.

Thirty-three years and almost nothing to show for it other than a bunch of (mostly poor) strategy games pitifully masquerading as RPGs. And not only are the mechanics of CPRGs still stuck in the '80s, but even the settings remain either flagrant D&D ripoffs or poor anime hackjobs. The range of flavors and play styles explored by real-life role-playing games has been left virtually untouched by CRPGs, all the while gamers, designers and the specialist press remain so much in the dark on the subject, that they blissfully keep on slapping the "RPG" label onto every game that happens to have stats in it in any way, shape or form. Countless games that allow no dialogue choices and no story interaction whatsoever are said to contain "RPG elements" simply because they have character classes, levelling or hit points (in which case we might as well go the whole way and consider every action game with a lifebar as having "RPG elements". Street Fighter II an RPG? Why not!) Even when someone somehow stumbles on the truth by calling Deus Ex an RPG, they do it for the wrong reasons. Not for the extensive dialogue choices and the elasticity and non-linearity of the plot, but because of the levelling, skills and hit points -- without which practically no one seems to realize the damn game would STILL be an RPG!

How long can this inanity go on for? For how much longer will we have to put up with trashy, infantile strategy games getting shoved in our faces and touted as the latest and greatest "RPGs"? And don't even think of telling me that this is a trivial issue of naming conventions -- the problem could not possibly be more immediate and real. We'd have hundreds of Deus Exes by now if the term "RPG" hadn't been debased to virtual meaninglessness. If players do not one day start asking for real CRPGs they will never get them, except perhaps once a decade or so as happened with Deus Ex, after the necessary cattle sacrifices have been performed according to the rituals prescribed by the village elders, and when the stars in the northern sky align as foretold by the prophecies handed down to us by the ancients. For lovers of real RPGs who long to see -- within their lifetime -- what can be accomplished through the power of digital computing, hoping and praying would seem to be all that's left to us.

The intelligent approach to CRPGs (or, Can We Please Stop Being As Dumb As Rocks Now?)
And yet it doesn't have to be this way. Apart from educating everyone on the nature of role-playing (a task which it is my intention to help accomplish with this essay), a number of critical points must be understood before we can begin to move forward -- that is to say, not round and round in circles as we have so far for the most part been doing, nor blithely groping in the dark in hopes of one day stumbling onto something worthwhile -- but steadily advancing towards an achievable and clearly defined goal.

Role-playing versus action
It is important to realize the fundamental difference between an action game and an RPG. In an action game, the player's character is ultimately as capable in performing tasks as the player himself. If you can't physically line up the crosshairs with your enemies in an FPS you'll never be able to kill them. If your reflexes are not up to the task of dodging bullets in STGs or fireballs in fighting games, you will never manage to get very far with them. But in an RPG you could be a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic, and still controlling all kinds of fully-functioning human (or inhuman!) beings -- from regular Joes to veritable supermen. Hence pure role-playing games are controlled completely by the player's mind, and the only human ability that is being tested is that of decision-making. This is how ALL real-life RPGs work, with the exception of some extreme forms of live-action role-playing, in which players physically hit each other with kicks, punches and all kinds of fake (or sometimes even real!) weapons. These latter ones are NOT considered pure role-playing games, hence the "live-action" label.

Stats alone do not a role-playing game make
Since a character's abilities in a pure RPG are not in any way linked to the player's physical abilities, stats are used extensively in order to set limitations to what a character can and cannot do within the gameworld. Depending on the game, a character may be able to fly, teleport, or travel to other dimensions, or he may even be severely handicapped and bound to a wheelchair (see Professor X in the Marvel Super Heroes RPG by TSR, circa 1984). But stats alone do not make an RPG. At the end of the day all games have stats, even if in most of them they are not directly revealed to the player. In fighting games, for example, each character has his own set of strength, vitality, speed, etc. attributes, yet only the lifebar is displayed on-screen. Same goes for even the simplest FPS, RTS, platformer, etc. What these games lack compared to RPGs is rules enabling the player to influence the plot in meaningful ways, or, to put it in Britannica's terms, to "shape the direction and outcome of the game". The ultimate goal of CRPG designers should therefore be to get to the point where they can create story-based games which -- in a similar fashion to real-life RPGs -- arrive at different outcomes every time they are played, and for every player. This of course is an impossible goal without the invention of human-level artificial intelligence, hence the "An Exercise in Futility" subtitle of the first section of this essay. Regardless, it is still a goal towards which great strides can be made. Plot-driven, non-linear games may be very demanding in both creativity and effort, but they are very much feasible. The payoff is that when this is done, and done well, as it was in Deus Ex, it feels like magic.

Role-playing versus strategy
We've seen that pure RPGs are all about decision-making, but then so are turn-based strategy games (RTSes, on the other hand, are a blend of action and strategy, so they won't concern us here). The difference is purely one of focus; indeed, strategy games can also be seen as RPGs, in which the player assumes the role of the ruler of whatever fantastical kingdom is at the center of the game (in the same vein, Railroad Tycoon is an RPG in which the player assumes the role of a workaholic robber baron). What I am trying to explain here is that an RPG can be larger than any strategy game -- it can contain a strategy game, if that is what its designers want to it to do. In a pen-and-paper D&D game, for example, a player can rise to become ruler of a kingdom, at which point he will command armies much in the same way as in any fantasy-themed computer strategy game (Master of Magic, Age of Wonders, etc.) If he later happens to lose this kingdom for whatever reason (perhaps due to conflict with another kingdom, or by treason, uprising, etc.), he can simply pick up his adventures where he left off (indeed he never "left them off" anywhere, since his days as sovereign naturally formed part of these adventures).

In CRPGs, stats MUST be hidden from the player
I've never met or heard of anyone in the videogame industry who realizes this. The reason why stats are so prominent in real-life RPGs is because SOMEONE has to make the necessary calculations, and without the help of a computer the players are forced to do this boring work themselves. As anyone who has tried the role of gamemaster knows, the calculations get in the way of the actual game, and are therefore to be avoided as much as possible. When computers enter the scene, however, there is absolutely NO REASON why the player should have to see any numbers on the screen. Indeed, in my days as gamemaster back in high school I used to roll all the dice behind a screen: my players would simply tell me the action they wanted their characters to perform and I would respond with the result, without them ever having to calculate anything. This is how CRPGs should work. The reason why they never work like that is purely historical. As mentioned earlier in this essay, CRPG designers initially focused on the stats because it was the easiest part of real RPGs they felt they could simulate. Thus CRPGs started out as strategy games and never really moved on from there, creating, in the process, generations of players with an unhealthy numbers fetishism who miss the point of role-playing entirely. The end result is that decades-old adventure games such as The Secret of Monkey Island have more role-playing elements in them than most anything that gets passed off as a CRPG these days. (Some recent BioWare titles such as Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect do contain elements of role-playing, but the strategy and action components are so completely dominant, that the games end up feeling almost nothing like RPGs.)

The tyranny of the cutscene
Cutscenes are anathema to CRPGs, because every single cutscene introduced has the effect of reducing the plot's elasticity, the degree of which determines how close to a real RPG the game manages to get. Say at one point I wanted to have the player confront a difficult dilemma. His best friend may be betraying him, and the player gets the option to either kill him, or let him live and run the risk of falling into a trap at some later point. If I wanted to use cutscenes to display the outcome of this choice I would have to make two of them, one of which the player would never get to see. The more choices I give the player the more cutscenes I need to make, and the fewer of them the player ever sees. To a degree, that's fine if your cutscenes only last a few seconds or whatever, but when you are stipulating that every fuckin' cutscene be an OVA-sized anime wankfest, you get to the point where the only way to make the game financially feasible is to not give the player any options at all. Thus we see that the path down which Square et. al set down all these years ago led them away from role-playing, further and further away, to finally reach a point from where the road to the future is not even visible anymore -- because it's in the other direction.

The coming CRPGs (or, The Wishful Thinking Part)
It is not optimism that leads me to be certain that true CRPGs are just beyond the horizon; it is my sense of realism and my belief in the inevitability of progress. At the moment, things look hopeless. Westerners are stuck on their numbers fetishism; the Japanese on their anime wankfests; and the MMO crowd on their pointless, absurd powerlevelling and hoarding of useless trinkets. Gamers know nothing and game journalists even less, while developers are either old dudes who have simply succumbed to market realities, or young ones who grew up on dungeon crawlers and know no better. Who will educate all these people? Who will remind them of how all this shebang got started in the first place and where it is supposed to be heading? It would be easy to be a pessimisist under these circumstances, and yet I am certain that the games people like me are dreaming of are on their way. The coming CRPG will be born somewhere at the conflux of adventure game and interactive movie[2], operating on a rigorous yet invisible framework of rules and guiderails. What themes would lend themselves better to open-ended, non-linear plots filled with tension, dramatic moments and meaningful decisions? What advanced scripting techniques will be invented to facilitate that level of interactivity? How could a limited multiplayer component be carefully set up to spontaneously deliver many of those moments? Now these are the interesting questions.




[1] It's worth noting here that while games like BioWare's Neverwinter Nights indeed qualify as RPGs when played with a human gamemaster, they should not be considered as true CRPGs, because the computer only handles some of the gamemaster's tasks instead of completely replacing him. We call these games "computer-assisted RPGs", and though they do have their merits, in their current state they amount to little more than unwieldy, idiosyncratic calculators, and end up restricting the gamemaster's stage-setting, directing and acting abilities far too much compared to their contribution in lightening his workload. Their only real advantage is that through online play they solve the problem of physical distance between players. In every other respect they are several steps behind compared to both real-life RPGs and true CRPGs, so they won't concern us here.

[2] I use the term "interactive movie" very loosely, since it is an oxymoron (a movie is by definition non-interactive).