As I mentioned before, I've been working off of Wikipedia's chronology of computer role-playing games, going in order of publication date (regardless of the specific version I play). There are plenty of games on this list to keep me occupied for years even if I never get bogged down in an impossible game like Rogue again.
The list is notable for what it excludes, though. First, of course, it excludes console RPGs instead of PC RPGs. I hate to ignore them, as some of them are quite good, but there's a limit to how much I'm willing to invest in the project, and I can't see hunting down old consoles and cartridges. Second, it excludes online multi-player CRPGs, which I assure you I will never never touch. Look at the name of my blog. Assuming that I mean it literally--and I assure you I do--what do you suppose will happen to my life if I pick up World of Warcraft? End of discussion. (In any event, most of the older ones are offline and hence unplayable.)
But aside from platforms, what else is missing from Wikipedia's list? Essentially, anything that isn't a CRPG. But what, exactly, distinguishes a CRPG from other types of games? For instance, consider the following games (some of which you may not be familiar with). Are they CRPGs or not?
- Heroes of Might and Magic
- King's Quest
According to Wikipedia's list, only one of these classics is a CRPG. Zork is an "interactive fiction" game, which we used to call "text adventure." The Heroes of Might and Magic games are turn-based strategy games. The King's Quest series are "adventure games," as is Myst. The only CRPG on the list is Diablo, which Wikipedia classifies as an "action RPG" but still includes on the master list.
This is a little too bad, because there were a number of games that I was looking forward to playing that I won't play if I stick to my original plan. Text adventures like Zork are among them, as is the Heroes series--I've never played them before and I was hoping they'd flesh out the Might and Magic world a little more. But I have to draw the line somewhere, and that means either using Wikipedia's definitions or creating my own convoluted list with various justifications for leaving things on or off.
The distinction between different video game genres is important to me because I am, notably, a "CRPG addict," not a first-person shooter addict or a simulation game addict. Frankly, games in other genres bore me. When my wife was addicted to Myst and The Seventh Guest, I yawned. I clapped when some magazine (can't find it now) referred to Myst as a "pseudo-interactive screen saver." Often when I find myself bored by a CRPG it's because it strays too close to another genre's territory. To what specific elements, then, am I addicted?
In another article, Wikipedia tries to define CRPGs and comes up with the following core elements:
- Character development, whether based on experience points or use of skills
- Freedom of movement throughout the game world, allowing you to go navigate around at your pleasure, going backwards and revisiting locations if desired
- Quests, including one "main quest," the completion of which wins the game
- A usually high-fantasy theme
- At least a partial focus on combat
Using this list--which on the surface seems sensible--we can see why some games are excluded. Interactive fiction or text adventure games like Zork have quests and freedom of movement, but no real combat. (There was a troll and a thief in Zork, but battles like those are few and far between and owe themselves entirely to luck.) Strategy games like the Heroes series have only very limited character development, quests and freedom of movement. Adventure games tend to lack character development.
The theme or setting of the game does not seem to me to in any way characterize a CRPG. Yes, most are set in Tokienesque fantasy worlds, but plenty are set in post-apocalyptic landscape or science-fiction settings, and I don't see any reason why you couldn't develop a good CRPG in a realistic modern setting. The theme is important, of course, and I'm not a huge fan of genre blending (witness my summary of Ultima II), but I don't see this as an inextricable element of a CRPG.
If I were coming up with my own list of elements that make up a CRPG--the things I'm truly addicted to--the only ones I'd retain wholesale are "character development" and "freedom of movement." The rest I would rework and add to as follows:
- Character identification. You don't just develop a character in a CRPG, you build the character from the ground up, including its race, sex, and--most importantly--name. Granted some CRPGs give you limited or no option in these areas, but almost all give some of them, and I can't think of one (I'm sure I'll encounter one eventually) that doesn't let you name the character. In a CRPG, you're not playing as Gordon Freeman or Solid Snake, you're playing as you--your alter-ego, your avatar, within a fantastic setting.
- Weapons, armor, and items to buy, find, and equip. This method of "character development" is as meaningful as experience points and leveling.
- Combat at least partly based on probabilities rather than action. Whether your sword connects with the orc's head, and how much damage it does, isn't dependent on your aim or how fast you press the button--it's dependent upon your underlying attributes (strength, dexterity), the attributes of the weapon you're wielding, modifiers for any spells in effect, and so on. There are of course different types of combat in CRPGs, some turn-based and some real-time. In the real-time games, like Diablo or Oblivion, you have to have at least some dexterity with the mouse to make attacks and to evade or block your opponents' attacks, but the underlying statistics exert influence over the result.
- Game progression through combat and dialog, as opposed to solving puzzles (some CRPGs have puzzles, but they're usually light).
- Interaction with NPCs. This is admittedly light or non-existent in some early CRPGs, but the promise is there, and the evolution of meaningful dialog is fairly swift. By Ultima IV--coming up--you had conversations by actually typing the keywords you wanted to say.
- Random encounters. In action games and shooters, you almost always encounter the exact same foes in the exact same locations. In CRPGs there are some set encounters, but almost all of them randomize at least some of the enemies you face. You never know when you'll round a corner and meet a party of orcs.
- Choice of actions, and changes in the game world based on your actions. This is perhaps the most important element of a CRPG to me. I want the game world to feel my presence. Early games didn't do a great job in this area, but there was always something. In Ultima II you could steal food and kill guards or not. What you did changed how you were treated in that town for that session, at least. As games progress through the years, your choices and their consequent reverberations on the game world get more complex, to include "good" and "evil" choices and game outcomes dependent on them. An addict like me loves walking through the streets of the Imperial City and being hailed as the champion of the arena, or getting chased by guards for miles for stealing a sword at the local weapon shop.
Different games, of course, offer different experiences in each of these areas, and in later posts I'm going to talk extensively about what makes a "good" leveling policy, a good equipment system, good dialog, and so forth. But these, at least, are the basic elements that have made me an addict.
Note: after writing the above, I found this excellent post on the same subject. The author, Matt Barton, agrees with me on many of the above points and also includes a few more, including a magic system (I agree that almost all CPRGs have them, but there are a few sci-fi and historical ones that don't) and a "medical system" (essentially, hit points and ways to regain hit points). Read his "key contentions" section: this is what i want to discuss coming up.