About a month and a half ago, in response to my posting on Ultima IV and virtue, a reader recommended that I try the book Dungeons & Dreamers (2003) by Brad King and John Borland. While I was ordering it from Amazon, I also purchased Dungeons & Desktops (2008) by Matt Barton, a prolific writer on old games who also maintains a blog. During my month of traveling, I had a lot of plane trips on which to read these books, consider them, and take notes.
Barton's book is a methodical and chronological history of CRPGs from their precursors through a few years ago. He divides his history into six "ages," which are quite sensible and useful:
- The "Dark Age" from 1974-1979 when dozens of programmers were writing mini CRPGs for university computer systems.
- The "Bronze Age" from 1979-1983 when commercial CRPGs were getting their legs and figuring themselves out. Akalabeth and Temple of Apshai are exemplars of this era.
- The "Silver Age" from 1983-1985, when the first landmark CRPGs--Wizardry and Ultima among them--appeared.
- The "Golden Age" from 1985-1993, when the number and variety of CRPGs exploded, including The Bard's Tale, Ultima IV, and the D&D "gold box" games.
- The "Platinum Age" from 1996-2001, which saw what Barton believes (and I agree) to be the best CRPGs yet designed, including the two Baldur's Gate games and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
- The "Modern Age," with an emphasis on high-resolution graphics and a shift to more online multiplayer games.
King and Borland's book is in some ways more interesting to read but extremely selective in its material. It's basically a biography of Richard Garriott (the real-life "Lord British") with a few stories from other games thrown in. If someone knew nothing about computer gaming and simply read this book, he would think that the history of computer gaming progressed from nothing to the Ultima series to Doom to Quake and then the world was awash in multi-player games. The beginning of the book talks about the development of the paper Dungeons & Dragons RPG but says nothing about CRPGs based directly on D&D. Hundreds of games vital to the development of the genre (Wizardry, Baldur's Gate, the Elder Scrolls series, Fallout), not to mention hundreds of non-CRPGs (the book presumes to cover every type of game, really) are not mentioned at all. What they do cover, however, is meticulously researched, specific, and valuable.
While neither of my brief reviews is exactly a ringing endorsement, I am grateful to both of these books for filling a lot of holes regarding the games I'm playing. Here are some nuggets from them that explain some mysteries of CRPGs I've already reviewed:
- Barton makes a useful distinction about the difference between CRPGs and regular RPGs: "It is easy to get carried away and assume that CRPGs are little more than computerized adaptations of D&D. This claim disregards one of the most critical aspects of conventional D&D--namely, the playacting...though it's certainly possible for a CRPG fan to pretend to be his character, even going so far as to dress the part, it is doubtful indeed whether his computer is capable of appreciating these antics" (p. 23).
- Given the amount of material he gave to King and Borland, Richard Garriott seems like an honestly cool guy. He comes across that way in his biography, too. This is a man who combined his love for programming and RPGs into a fantastic series of games and got rich enough doing so that he could afford to visit the International Space Station as a tourist. It's too bad his latest endeavors haven't turned out so well.
Garriott in his flight suit [source].
- Lord British got his nickname at computer camp when some boys knocked on his door and he greeted them with a formal "hello" instead of a less formal "hi." Coincidentally, he was born in England but had lived in the U.S. since he was a baby (King & Borland, 12).
- Great quote about the development of an early game called Spacewar! at MIT: "Tens of millions of dollars in U.S. Department of Defense funding poured into computer research labs at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Stanford, earmarked for serious research, while recipients of the funding spend hundreds of hours figuring out better ways to model space battles" (King & Borland, 26).
- There was a game called Avatar kicking about university PLATO systems in the 1970s (King & Borland, 29). While the authors don't say this game directly influenced Garriott, it's hard to see how it didn't.
- An enigmatic character named "Dr. Cat" who makes an appearance in a couple of Ultima games is based on a real programmer--just as enigmatic--named David Shapiro (King & Borland, p. 28). Similarly, Dupre, your erstwhile paladin companion from Ultima IV onward, is the Society for Creative Anachronisms nickname for one of Garriott's friends, Greg Dykes (p. 49); Chuckles the jester is based on Origin Systems programmer Chuck Bueche (p. 68).
- Ultima was originally titled Ultimatum but was changed because a board game carried the same title (King & Borland, p. 47). The first Ultima, published by California Pacific Computing, was barely released before the company went bankrupt (p. 50).
- Garriott had difficulty finding a publisher for Ultima II because he insisted that the game be sold with a cloth map similar to the one that appeared in the film Time Bandits (Barton, p. 66).
- Garriott was influenced by the success of Wizardry in making sure that Ultima III was a multi-character game. Barton calls Ultima III "one of the most important CRPGs ever made and the pinnacle of the Silver Age" (p. 68).
- The Bard's Tale was the first game series to generate a series of fantasy novels (Barton, p. 93). [Edit from 03/05/2012: I was wrong about this. Barton mentions a successful series of eight novels but does not say that BT was "the first".]
- Garriott conceived Ultima IV after getting a lot of angry letters from Christian groups and concerned parents saying his games were corrupting America's youth. While he didn't really take these seriously, it did get him thinking about adding morality to games, as in previous Ultimas, "players came into the world, killed virtually everything they saw, stole money from anyone or anything that had it, and walked off with smiles on their faces. Who was really the evil one, after all?" (King & Borland, p. 73). The principles of virtue--truth, love, and courage--are based on the characters from The Wizard of Oz.
- The subgenre of "Rogue-like" computer games split off from regular CRPGs early, when efforts to sell the game commercially failed due to widespread piracy. To this day, most "Roguelike" games are noncommercial (Barton, p. 35).
"CRPGs are not only the most fun and addictive type of computer game, but possibly the best learning tool ever designed. They are truly grand adventures with real rewards for dedicated players" (p. 3).Despite Barton's attempt to back up this bold statement with quotes from other authors and psychologists, I don't buy it. "Fun and addictive," sure, but not the rest. Look, as I've said before, I'm investing hundreds of hours into this blog and this project, and I more than anyone have a vested interest in believing that what I'm doing isn't just a grand waste of time. But aside from the interesting virtue system of Ultima IV, I can't honestly say that I've "learned" much from my time spent in CRPGs--however, this is a topic that I will explore in some detail (and solicit your comments on) later. Similarly, after I finish a marathon night of CRPG gaming, all I have to show for it is bleary eyes and eight undone tasks that I could have done in that time frame. If there are "real rewards," they've yet to show up at my door.
King and Borland don't have any quotes quite as provocative, but the subtitle of their book is interesting: "the rise of computer game culture from geek to chic." Again, as much as I'd like to believe that all this gaming is making me hip and stylish, I really don't see this "rise." Speaking about RPGs, King and Borland note that among a culture at computer camp, "They shared an implicit understanding that computers, programming, technology, fantasy, and role-playing games were okay. They weren't nerdy, dorky, or strange" (p. 14). That's great for this subculture, but I think for 75% of the world, gaming--and especially CRPGs--are still nerdy, dorky, and strange.
It is partly due to this fact that I have kept myself anonymous on this blog. It's not so much that I care that you know who I am (frankly, I've said enough about my life that a dedicated sleuth could figure it out from my postings) as that I don't want people from my profession stumbling upon this blog and asking how I could possibly have time to play all these games, and write about them, when I'm three months behind on half a dozen projects. If, in contrast, I announced to my boss that I planned to spend all weekend watching sports, or kayaking, or attending a rock concert, I would not get the same comment because these activities are "normal." First-person shooters and console games are slightly more respectable in the real world than CRPGs, but not a lot.
I'm not trying to dis CRPGs. I'm addicted to them, I play them a lot, and I love writing about them, but I just can't agree with these authors' contentions that they are teaching me anything, providing any real rewards, or socially acceptable. If I could force myself to give them up and spend as much time practicing the piano, I would.
Well...if I could force myself to give up half the time, maybe.