|I was role-playing before there were CRPGs. (Source: Wikipedia.)|
The first video game I ever owned was an Atari 2600 cartridge called Space Invaders. Those of you my age will remember it immediately. It was the simplest of games. You controlled a ship (or just a laser cannon, maybe) that moved back and forth across the bottom of the screen, trying to wipe out waves and waves of alien ships. In the arcade, a similar game--which I was also quite good at--was Galaga.
There was no way to "win" Space Invaders, just like there's no way to win Tetris. All you could do was accumulate as many points as possible while holding off your inevitable demise. This never sat well with me, so I constructed a story around the game: I was a fighter pilot who bravely volunteered to stay behind and kill as many aliens as possible while waves of escape ships took humanity's remnants from Earth. Every point in my score was another human who made it off the planet alive. Although it was a fanciful elaboration on what I was doing, nothing in the game contradicted it, and I had fun with the additional element my imagination provided.
The enjoyment that others experienced with Pac-Man, on the other hand, always eluded me. The game was exciting enough, and I'm not saying that I didn't spend a lot of quarters on it, but I couldn't construct any sort of narrative around it. There was no way to rationalize a giant yellow mouth eating dots and menaced by cartoon ghosts.
|Though some have tried. (Source.)|
I did similar things with other games. When the first Windows computers came with Solitaire, I would play Vegas style (you pay for each hand but accumulate cash with each successful placement) and pretend my disapproving wife was sitting next to me as I tried to win enough money to pay the mortgage for the year. Minesweeper, on the other hand, is perhaps more tactical, but less plausible from a narrative standpoint.
I was thinking about these simpler games in a recent quest, prompted by NetHack, to try to figure out what makes some games "role-playable" and others completely hopeless as role-playing material despite being, ostensibly, "CRPGs." When I say, "role-playable," I'm not necessarily talking about in-game role-playing such as dialog choices and decisions based on class or alignment--these are all important, but are mostly absent from early CRPGs. I'm talking, rather, about narratives that the player can imagine externally to the game in front of him or her. This could include any combination of:
- Mentally envisioning the environment through which your character progresses
- Developing a detailed backstory for your character
- Inventing dialog between your party members or party members and NPCs
- Inventing quests for your characters
- Resolving quests in ways that the game does not intend, or that does not give you maximum experience (e.g., just attack Mae'var in Baldur's Gate II because you "don't work with thieves", collect all the Threads of the Webspinner in Morrowind but dump them in the ocean to ensure they'll never be used)
- Refusing to do things that you know how to do until your in-game character knows how to do them (e.g., when I play Ultima V, I'll already know all the mantras because of Ultima IV, but I could refuse to use them until my character learns them)
- Taking time to do things like undress, eat, sleep, and socialize (much easier in modern CRPGs like Oblivion; there's actually a whole page on stuff like this)
- Making decisions that do not help game progression--that may even hamper progression--in an attempt to be consistent with a character or ethos (letting fleeing enemies flee, buying drinks at the pub that do nothing for you, donating to churches, eating only vegetarian items in NetHack, refusing to let magic users accompany your inquisitor-led party in Baldur's Gate II)
Some of these items sound silly, I suppose--like a kid playing with his Star Wars figures--but hell, thousands of tabletop RPGers do it every day, using modules as their frameworks as I use the CRPG frameworks--so I'm not going to feel completely lame about it. In any event, everyone does it, if only to say, "your ass is mine" when they encounter the big boss or "boo-ya!" when they defeat him (if you don't at least say that, why are you playing?).
So if this is "role-playing" in CRPGs, what makes some CRPGs particularly good about it and others not? I would submit that it's partly about non-linearity, which I've already covered, but also partly how well the structure and elements of the story hold up to scrutiny. It has nothing to do with the bells and whistles attached to the game. Wizardry is bare-bones, and yet it can be enormously fun imagining your party creeping carefully through the Proving Grounds, hoping to get out alive. Ultima II, on the other hand, is as technically advanced as Wizardry, but I found it impossible to construct a sober narrative out of it, with its stealing and spaceships and goofy pop-culture references. If the CRPG developers have given you a structure and game elements that lend themselves to a complex narrative without falling apart, the "RP" part of the "CRPG" is strong.
Try this exercise: imagine a CRPG that you know fairly well. Now imagine that you've been tapped to write the novelization of the game, or a movie screenplay based on it. You have four parameters:
- You must keep the basic beginning, ending, and main quest of the game.
- You must include all of the story elements that the game includes.
- You must not include anything that contradicts any of the material in the game.
- As long as you adhere to the first three restrictions, you can include as much additional or extraneous material as you want.
Now imagine whether, based on these parameters, you could write a book or screenplay that would hold together--that anyone would actually want to see, and that wouldn't ruin your career.
Try it with Ultima IV. You can make your protagonist a recently-released convict, a disaffected teenager, a university professor, or a hardened street cop--none of these options contradicts the character creation in the game. Suddenly, he's whisked through a moongate to another world--no problem there; plenty of good movies and books feature magic. He has a long period in which he's disoriented and doesn't know what to do (the game doesn't show this, but neither does it preclude this). He finally makes his way to the sovereign, Lord British, and learns about why he's there--the conversation in the game isn't very cinematic, but remember you can add additional dialog, as long as you retain all of the dialog in the game. Dupre has to be a paladin and Katrina has to be a shepherd, and both must accompany your protagonist, but nothing says you can't construct a love triangle among them. And so on. There's nothing about Ultima IV (that I can think of) that would be absurd in an elaborated novel or film. Hence, it's a good CRPG.
Now try this with the original Ultima. Make a backstory for your elf, dwarf, human, or hobbit. Describe his slow rise in power and his accumulation of weapons and armor. Somehow introduce an air car with lasers. Figure out how you can plausibly get him into a spaceship so he can shoot down tie fighters and become a "space ace." Determine a logical reason that he needs to explore dungeons to improve his health. Finally, think of a credible explanation for his slaughter of Lord British's jester and guards, just to get a key. I suppose there is a tortured way in which all of this could be done, but I'll bet Ebert doesn't give it a thumbs-up.
I think the comparison to writing a novel or screenplay is quite apt. After all, when you're role-playing, you're essentially constructing a narrative. It might only be for you, but in order to be any fun, it still has to hold together within the world that the game provides. Might & Magic mostly holds together; Ultima II doesn't (unless you can figure out how a person might sensibly walk from the tip of South America to Africa and back in the course of one lifetime). In The Bard's Tale, you can construct an elaborate external world for your characters if you want (you practically have to, to alleviate the boredom of repetition); Beyond Zork is fun but too goofy to actually role-play.
Occasionally, you will be playing an otherwise good CRPG, but you will experience role-playing pangs over a nonsensical story element. We covered some of these in "What Were They Thinking?" Baldur's Gate II: My best friend is missing; why am I wasting time solving quests for innkeepers and druids? Why am I managing a production of "the Turmish play" at my own theater? Why am I not raising 20,000 gold and rushing immediately to her aid? Oblivion: the world is under attack from hell, I'm on a quest from the emperor, and yet I'm worried about getting promoted in the fighter's guild? But mostly these worlds are expansive enough that you can construct plausible external reasons for these inconsistencies; sometimes they even enrich the role-playing possibilities (I trust the thieves' guild less than the Cowled Wizards; Martin needs a really long time to study the Mysterium Xarxes). But in these early games, you'd have to use really tortured logic to explain why all the enemies come back to life when Werdna saves his progress (Wizardry IV) or why alien robots would keep codes to their own destruction on non-encrypted computers (2400 A.D.), and for these reasons I had trouble role-playing them.
Apply all of this to our most recent games: Mission: Mainframe and NetHack. I dare you to write a book in which an evil computer takes over an office building and your protagonist spends decades trying to find its location while slaying office workers with rulers and file folders (oh, and every time he leaves a floor and returns, everything is in a different location). Such a book would be worth the Amazon.com comments. But there's nothing in NetHack that's patently absurd. On the contrary, it's various touches (monsters leave corpses, you're constantly battling hunger, rocks occasionally block your passage, you don't automatically know what magic items are when you find them), by being both plentiful and realistic, provide a bonanza of role-playing options.
There are other factors, of course, that make NetHack good for role-playing. Randomization of the game world means that no two games will be the same. There are enough gameplay elements for you to hang a story on. (Akalabeth features a reasonably plausible game world, but there isn't enough stuff to tell a story with.) But the integrity of the game world is where it starts. Like the writers of Dungeons & Dragons modules, the developers created a coherent world, outlined a credible story, seeded it with various elements, and stepped back to let your character and those elements interact. Yes, the graphics and sound are nonexistent; yes, it is maddeningly difficult, but by god, you can role-play this one. I'm sorry that I assumed all roguelikes were cut from the same cloth. A roguelike can be a good CRPG.