Saturday, August 6, 2022

The Return of Werdna: Things Remembered

I wonder how many people prank-called Roe Adams with this question.
      
This session mostly involved me running around and trying different things and/or replaying previously-experienced content under different conditions. MALOR was a big help. I begin by covering things I was able to do without a hint.
   
As I covered last time, I lost my first encounter with Hawkwind, who guards the Temple of Kadorto, where the Amulet is found. My attacks couldn't even touch him. But the Oracle had said, "Everyone has a weakness. What is his?" The answer was literally spelled out in the dungeon walls: DINK. I returned to the pentagram at Level 1 and summoned greater demons, a demon lord, and, paging back all the way to the Level 10 pentagram, a dink. If you're wondering what a dink is, he first shows up in The Knight of Diamonds as a "little old man." He has a weak physical attack and only a handful of hit points but--in this game, at least--high magic resistance. Only one is ever summoned.
      
The new party.
     
With the dink in the party, I returned to the castle and made my way to Hawkwind. I had to fight a fixed battle with the Walking Wounded. They're trivially easy, but of course they killed my dink, so I had to reload and try again. He survived the second battle. The Von Halstern Chivalry let me pass without incident because I had the Crystal Rose. We took the elevators up.
   
I wasn't looking forward to fighting the Softalk All-Stars again, but this time they went light on the TILTOWAITs, and I was lucky enough to decapitate the bishop during the first round. The rest of the combat was easy after that. A second battle with temple guards was over in seconds.
   
At last, we were in the temple and in battle with Hawkwind again. He had no particular reaction to the dink before battle. The dink missed his attack the first round, but nailed Hawkwind in the second: 1,313 hit points! Hawkwind died immediately.
     
The author's own avatar's greatest weakness is a dink. My 13-year-old self would have found that delightful.
    
The game has some commentary when the body hits the floor: "As mighty Achilles fell to Paris' [sic] arrow, so does Lord Hawkwind fall to the stab of a lowly dink [snicker]! Long will Skara Brae be mourning his passing!"   
    
Particularly the west side of Skara Brae, right? Nudge, nudge.
    
Is this what the Oracle's hints about Homer and The Iliad were about? There are a few problems with it. First, the analogy makes it sound like Paris's arrow is the hero's weakness when instead it's the place that the arrow struck his body. Second, Achilles doesn't die in The Iliad. Homer's account ends before his death, and although the death is foreshadowed, nothing appears in The Iliad about the warrior's famously-vulnerable heel. Nor is the manner of his death mentioned in The Odyssey. But the clues are superfluous anyway since the previous "everyone has a weakness" tells you in much more direct terms what to look for.
    
On I went to the temple beyond.
    
Before you looms the giant statue of the almighty Kadorto. You are not even as tall as his little toe! As you crane your neck backwards and look up, you see the object of your long search. The mystical amulet is dangling from the closed fist of the statue.
     
Just to be clear, the game is suggesting that the statue is over 200 feet tall. That would make the amulet in the accompanying image the size of King Arthur's round table.
         
If I'm not even as tall as his little toe, those braziers must be 50 feet tall. How do they keep them tended?
          
"At last!" you cry, but your joy is short-lived. There is no way that you can see to reach the amulet! Fighting back a growing feeling of desperation, you try everything you can think of to get to the amulet. Every spell you know is useless! You rummage through your items, trying each in turn, hoping that one will be of aid!
    
Sounds like Werdna is a veteran CRPG player. I'm glad the game just scripted that instead of requiring me to do it.
   
What luck! Your Holy Limp Wrist reliquary casts a DIALKO spell! With a feeling of triumph, you watch as the DIALKO takes effect. The hand of the statue softens and opens, freeing the Amulet. To your amazement, the DIALKO spreads out.
   
The newly awakened god yawns and peers down at you with a look of utter contempt. "Insect! So you want this pretty bauble? You have no idea what the powers of this amulet are, or what its real purpose is. Here! Catch it!"
       
Fan theory: The amulet is an infinity stone.
       
Kadorto throws the amulet at you with a disdainful flip of his huge wrist!
   
But is it a limp wrist?
           
You reach out and catch the amulet! You have it in your hand! The Mythril Gauntlet protects you from its raging energies!
   
"Hmmmm . . . ," intones Kadorto. "Think you're clever, don't you? Well, to keep the amulet, you will have to defeat me! Tell me, are you a god?"
     
Thinking quickly, you reply, "Yes!," which seems to be the right answer.
      
Better answer: "No, I am a god-slayer."
    
"Then die like a god!"
      
You draw your blue sword and begin the battle. Ancient forces are pulled into the battle, and your sword begins to glow fiercely. Kadorto lunges down at you, but you leap nimbly aside. His blow makes rubble of the marble floor! Faster and faster your spinning blade weaves a deadly pattern in your hands!

You leap high onto the foot of the throne. Kadorto is just recovering from his attack and is still bent over. On its own volition, the sword licks out and touches Kadorto's chest! The sword scores a critical hit! Kadorto utters a strange gurgle, somewhat like a laugh, then with a shimmer of distorting light, he vanishes!

The priests enter and proclaim you the new god! "What size and shape would you like, oh god?" they ask. "My own will be sufficient," you reply. The priests are not overly impressed. "How quaint," says one, glancing up at the empty throne. "At least Kadorto knew how to look like a god. Well, we will do the best with what we have. Wait until you see the new robes we will design for you, the ceremonies and processionals! We will take good care of you, oh Werdna! Your every wish is our command!"
               
Great. I wish for you to be tortured and executed for calling me "quaint."
           
The years pass quickly as you settle into the god business. Using the power of the amulet, you raise huge temples, spacious retreats, and luxurious monasteries for your loyal priests. Oh, the people grumble under the burden of their tithing. Perhaps you are pushing things a little. "But no," a priest whispers into your ear, "yours is the greater glory. The people love you for it, and you must guide them."

But yet, even though you are a god, now and then, you wonder . . . Have you forgotten something?
    
Again, I am proclaimed a "Wizardry Master Adventurer."

This guy sounds like he must have an interesting backstory.
         
I was surprised that this was an ending for a good-aligned character, so I wanted to see how it differed if I turned evil before going for the amulet. First, you can't get the ending I related last time if you turn evil. Bathing in the pool not only changes your alignment; it also causes your Crystal Rose and all of the trinkets you got from the four chivalric societies to disappear. As for the ending related above . . . nothing changes. I guess alignment doesn't matter if you go for the amulet.
          
Changing your alignment in the pool is a waste of time, since no ending seems to require you to be evil.
       
But I was pretty sure something would change if I had received a different sword from the temple on Level 7. Yes, commenters essentially told me this directly, but also the endgame narrative mentions my "blue sword," so I figured it must have different text for the other two swords. I was right, but I wasn't thinking big enough. Not only does the game have different texts, it has entirely different endings.
  
I discovered this by discarding my West Wind sword and warping to the temple. Seeing that I didn't have any sword, the god gave me the option to choose from among them again. I picked the green sword this time, which is called the East Wind Sword. It has a chance of turning enemies to stone, but I found that less useful than decapitation, and the battle against the Softalk All-Stars was much harder. I ultimately prevailed, killed Hawkwind with the dink, and went into the temple. The text was the same as before up to the point Kadorto told me to "die like a god." Then:
        
This is a surprisingly loaded choice.
       
You draw your green sword and begin the battle. Old forgotten powers awaken and the sword leaps to attack the pompous Kadorto. The sword parries thunderbolt after thunderbolt while you bide your time looking for an opening . . . There it is! A quick thrust to the ankle! Kadorto looks puzzled as a thread of green lightning snakes up his legs. In a flash, he becomes a towering statue of green stone!
     
I wouldn't exactly call that dramatic. I mean, he was a towering statue of stone-colored stone just a minute ago.
  
Fascinated beyond all caution, you reach out to feel the statue. The entire statue crumbles to dust when you touch it! The room is filled with choking dust. You try to run outside, but you can't hold your breath long enough. As you inhale the dust, you hear a smug laugh and Kadorto's voice whispers, "Gotcha!!" You feel yourself stretching and growing rapidly. You are very dizzy . . . The room is spinning around!! You sit down. Ah, that feels much better! You try to stand. What??? You can't move! You can see and hear, but you cannot move!
    
The frightened priests return in the morning and find that a miracle has happened! A somewhat different Kadorto, all green, sits on the throne, the amulet clutched in his fist! There you sit, playing god, aware of each slow second's passing, hoping that some greedy fool will come and try to steal the amulet, releasing you. Centuries pass, and you realize that you got what you always wanted, the adulation and worship of many people. How ironic . . . But you always have this nagging doubt . . . You always wonder . . . Have you forgotten something?
       
That isn't irony, Alanis.
        
So that kind of sucked--and all because I chose a green sword instead of a blue one. Let's try the amber sword, which is called Dragon's Claw. I'm not sure what its powers are. It doesn't seem to do anything special in combat. Accordingly, when I brandished it before Kadorto, he reacted with humor:
      
You draw your Dragon's Claw. It hums with anticipation. Kadorto laughs at you. "What will you do with that?" Actually, you're not quite sure, but it has sustained you through many trials, lending you its strength and energy. Kadorto sends down a pillar of flame . . . and the blade absorbs it! He throws a bolt of lightning, only to see the blade cleave it in half!
   
You feel filled with energy!! You let fly with a mighty blow, and your sword strikes true, slicking deep into the big toe of Kadorto! You feel his life force flowing into you through the sword. As it does, you begin to grow and he begins to shrink! Finally, you are the tall god and he is the puny mortal. "Thank you, free at last," he croaks as he expires!
   
You laugh as the priests scurry around removing the remains. Finally, they all assemble in front of you, abasing themselves and raising their voices upward in supplication: "All pray to you, oh great god Werdna. We rejoice that the weak pacifist Kadorto has been defeated! Take up the sacred amulet. Lead us, oh mighty one, into glorious battle. Make the world tremble at your every step! Let us fill the altars with sacrifices, and the temple with gold and slaves!"
   
The years pass by in a blur of fire, blood, and destruction. Large areas of the world lie desolate. Your priests bloat you with sacrifices and praise. After this, there are other planes to conquer, other planes whose energy can feed your lust for power! You have all your desires, all your dreams fulfilled! But yet . . . Every once in a long while, you wonder . . . Have you forgotten something?
           
This is like that personality test Batlin gives you in Ultima VII. "What is your favorite color?" "Red." "Ah, red, the color of blood and destruction!"
     
So the choice of blue made me a venal god; the choice of green made me an inert god; and the choice of red made me a bloodthirsty god. Where was the Oracle hint about that?
   
I spent another couple of hours answering a bunch of random questions:
   
  • What happens if you show up at the meetings of the chivalric orders without the items they want? They tell you to come back when you have those items (albeit cryptically) and then attack you. It's like they know they're all going to be resurrected when you leave the level and return.
    
If you don't have the Daub of Puce.
    
  • What if I stay good but drop any of the quest items before visiting the Council of Dukes? If you don't have the Arrow of Truth, Orb of Dreams, Crystal Rose, and chosen sword when you walk into the "donjon," the councils of captains, barons, and dukes just attack you, as they did the first time I entered.
  • Do HAMAN and MAHAMAN work after I've turned good? No, it appears they don't work at all in this game.
  • Will Boltac's Trading Post sell to me if I'm good? No. It appears that the encounters in Boltac's are identical no matter what.
  • Can I get the lych-gate if I'm evil? No. Someone tell me if you know differently, but it seems to me that the lych-gate is a huge red herring. You can't get it, nothing happens there, and you don't need to pass through this area at all.
  • What if you show up at Kadorto's statue without the Mythril Gloves? You catch the amulet in your bare hand, immediately die, and wake up in your tomb on Level 10 again.
       
Who are you calling a "poof"?
        
  • What if you show up at Kadorto's statue without the Holy Limp Wrist? You're unable to do anything. The priests laugh at you. One of them tells you to "Try again tomorrow," and you can leave the temple and go search for what you're lacking.
        
Why is there no ending in which I can kill all the priests?
     
  • What if you show up at Kadorto's statue without any of the three swords? Kadorto taunts you for coming before him "armed with mere toys." He says, "Back to your bier, old fool!" and you wake up in your tomb on Level 10.
     
This must not have sounded too bad when spoken.
     
Even with all that accomplished, I knew there was another end. I knew it because I'd been hearing for years about the "grandmaster" ending, but I also would have figured it out from the Oracle's clues. There are too many that don't apply to anything you experience getting to those four endings--the Qabalah, the Root of the World, the Nyin. I had that Void Transducer--what was it for? And, of course, all the other endings had ended with, "Have you forgotten something?"
   
I fixated on the Oracle clue that, "The cenotaph hides the secret way." I figured it had something to do with the lych-gate, battled my way through Boltac's again, and tried using the Void Transducer at the square where it said I found the lych gate. There was no effect. I re-explored the three levels of the castle, making sure there was no way into those "solid" areas and that there were no hidden paths and walkways on the upper floors. 
        
I got this message no matter where I tried to use the Void Transducer.
           
Thinking about the "cenotaph" again, I thought it might refer to Werdna's tomb in the dungeon. Cenotaph comes from the Greek kenos taphos, or "empty tomb." It generally refers to a tomb erected for someone whose actual body is missing or buried elsewhere, but I suppose it could apply to someone whose body has been moved from the original location. Usually that doesn't happen because the person got up and walked away, but these are extraordinary circumstances.

Thus, I MALORed back down to Level 10 of the dungeon and poked around the place where the game started. I tried using my various items (I was so sure the Void Transducer would do something) to no avail. It was time for a hint. I decrypted the ROT-13 hints that various commenters left on my "Mysteries of the Oracle" post and hit upon one from Adamant: "The roots of the world. The lowest floor. Below ten."
   
There's a floor below Level 10? That was an exciting revelation! I doubled my efforts to figure out what to do in the tomb, because for some reason I thought I'd find my way there by finding or creating a staircase down. I tried every ally from the pentagram again, thinking it might have something to do with their abilities or the spells they cast. After a while, it hit me to just try MALORing there. I stood on the pentagram, cast it, set the dial for Level -1 . . . and bounced back to where I was. I tried again aiming for coordinates (0,0) on the level and got the same result.
       
You have to remember where the game started to understand where the "cenotaph" is.
      
I was just about to capitulate and look up the answer when I decided to restart the game and verify where Werdna actually wakes up. It turns out that he wakes up not on the pentagram but in the square one step south of the pentagram. If this is where his cenotaph is, I reasoned, the spell might work here. I cast MALOR again for one level down, and goddamned if I didn't find myself at (10,0) in a brand new level. There was some fist-pumping in Chez Bolingbroke, let me tell you.
   
And then I realized that after this long, long game, I still had another level to map.
   
Time so far: 67 hours

Friday, August 5, 2022

BRIEF: Teltnuag ][a (1987)

Remind me why Apple users liked to use brackets for Roman numerals. I always forget.
     
Teltnuag ][a
United States
Sentient Mice (developer); released as shareware
Released 1987 for Macintosh
Rejected for: No character development or attribute-based combat
  
Teltnuag is an interesting attempt at adapting Gauntlet (1985) gameplay in an iconographic environment with limited graphics. (Teltnuag is, of course, Gauntlet backwards.) The result is a game that looks like a roguelike, and even has some common roguelike commands, like q)uaff and w)ear, but has the rules of Gauntlet.
    
It mostly works, for both good and ill. I'm not a Gauntlet fan. It fails my definitions as an RPG for lacking character attributes and development (and please, let's not have another discussion of why blah-blah-blah isn't functionally the same thing as "character development"; it just isn't), but that's not why I don't like it. Gauntlet was created as an arcade game (it didn't have a Mac port until 1989), and as such, its primary mechanic is to keep players feeding quarters into the machine. To ensure this, the developers made it so that you don't just risk death from enemies. Instead, you're constantly starving and must thus constantly be on the lookout for food. Exploring, finding items, and fighting come to seem like incidental tasks that occur during your all-encompassing quest to fill your ravenous stomach. To that extent, Gauntlet is almost an anti-RPG. What kind of RPG player wants to skip an interesting room because he's almost dead from hunger, or eschew a cluster of treasure chests for a grain sack?
     
Out of my way, grunts! I have cornmeal to consume!
     
Teltnuag, unfortunately, adapts that mechanic quite literally, and in the hour or so that I spent with it, every single death I experienced was due to starvation. You can save the game and reload, but you have to be careful not to accidentally save in a "walking dead" situation in which your food level is already too low and there's no more in the area.
    
The game invites you to create a barbarian, cleric, knight, ranger, or wizard, and I'm afraid I didn't really get a chance to scope out all the strengths and weaknesses. You begin in Level 1 (which the game calls "Room 1") of a fixed dungeon--no randomization here--with keys, treasures, wands, torches, lanterns, potions, and food sacks strewn liberally throughout, and large clusters of enemies waiting for you to mow through them. Combat is handled by simply bashing into foes, although you can use the mouse for ranged attacks. The nominal goal is to find four pieces of armor, the only items that you can actually w)ear if you happen to find them.
      
Character creation.
      
The author couldn't quite replicate the real-time action of Gauntlet, so he made the game turn-based, but so that you automatically "pass" if you haven't taken an action in a second or so. This allows for the game to seem more action-oriented than it otherwise is.
   
I assume the key to success is playing it enough that you essentially memorize the levels and plot the most efficient routes to ensure that you find key items while minimizing food use. I didn't get anywhere near that close. This was partly because of my dislike for this kind of game in the first place, but also because of a bug. When you die, the game invites you to enter your name for the leaderboard. Unfortunately, after you enter your name, no key that I could identify lets you record the name and move on. ENTER just clears the field. You end up stuck on this screen, which has taken over the interface. You can't return to the finder; you can't quit the game; and Mini vMac won't let you just kill the emulator without going through the proper shut down process first. Thus, every time I died, I had to CTRL-ALT-DELETE and force the emulator to quit. That quickly kills enthusiasm. [Ed. As commenter James Schend helped me figure out, the issue here was I was using Mac System 7 while the game was designed for System 6. The ENTER key works as expected in the earlier system.]
          
I can't leave this screen.
      
Teltnuag was created by Kevin S. Wiechmann of Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. His label was Sentient Mice. I don't know if there was a Teltnaug I, but if so, the Internet has forgotten it. I can't find any evidence that he produced any more games. Assuming I found the right individual, he was a Computer Science major at Rutgers when he wrote Teltnuag, then became a software engineer and web developer. I feel like his game deserves more ink than it has received online, but a different type of addict needs to be the one to write about it.
  

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Some Musings about CRPG Narratives

For the student who asked me some questions for his or her thesis but needs a verifiable written source to cite:
      
Would you consider a CRPG to have an inherent narrative to it?
     
I don't think a particular narrative is inherent to the definition of a CRPG, but almost all of them have one. Many CRPG developers, early ones in particular, tended to be programmers first and storytellers second, so their games sometimes lack a coherent narrative. The tendency in the early era is for the narrative to be rather threadbare, often encapsulated in what I call a "framing story"--an excuse for the game that appears mostly in the documentation but is rarely referenced in the game itself. For instance, the very first CRPG for which we know any detail, The Dungeon (1975), opens with a paragraph that sets the adventure in the year 666 in the country of Caer Omn. None of the information in the paragraph is necessary to play and enjoy the game, and indeed you could replace it with a different paragraph and the player would be none the wiser.
      
It isn't much of a narrative, but it's something.
     
Framing stories persist deep into the CRPG timeline. For instance, I just finished Eye of the Beholder III: The Ruins of Myth Drannor (1993). The documentation for the game contains a short story that sets the backdrop, and this story has far more text than the game itself. Unlike The Dungeon, the story is referenced throughout the game, and some people might object to my calling it a "framing story" for that reason. But those references are never in the gameplay itself; they're all in cut scenes that could easily be swapped out to tell a completely different story.

Even when more complex, integrated narratives started to appear around 1980, they were often light on detail. To some degree, this is a good thing. CRPGs have always been about self-identification with the player character. Modern CRPGs tend to enhance that self-identification by giving you lots of quest choices and dialogue options, but as a player who got started in the 1980s, I can tell you that it was great fun to simply imagine your own dialogue and motivations and to engage in behaviors that I like to call surplaying, or doing things for role-playing reasons that aren't even recognized by the game itself. Creative players made their own plots and interpersonal dramas within the confines of the game mechanics. Thus, even games without inherent narratives to some degree inherently supported player-created narratives. Some early games, like the Dunjonquest series (1978-1982) or Stuart Smith's Fracas (1980), explicitly encouraged players to make up their own stories as they played.
 
What do you think qualifies as the first CRPG that has a narrative? What about one with a branching narrative?
 
As I mentioned, the first CRPG with any narrative is the first CRPG: The Dungeon (1975). But let's expand the definition of "narrative" a bit, and assume it means a game that a) establishes the setting; b) clearly identifies the player character's part in the setting; and c) offers a denouement at the end, rather than just a congratulatory message. For that, I think we're looking at a 1979 game also called Dungeon, although renamed Maces & Magic: Balrog Sampler when it was redistributed a couple years later. Dungeon is a hybrid between a text adventure and an RPG, and as such, it has an ongoing narrative throughout. Text adventures had already existed for years, of course, going back to William Crowther's Colossal Cave Adventure (1976) and including the first games in the Zork series. Thus, the innovation of Dungeon, and other hybrids that followed like Eamon (1980), was not to add narratives to an RPG but to add RPG elements to a narrative.
   
You might then ask what is the first graphical CRPG (not a text game) to feature a full narrative as defined above. That distinction belongs to a crop of 1981 games, and I don't know which is technically first. Ultima, Wizardry, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves all featured not only introductions and conclusions but in-game plot points along the way. Their approaches are all very different, and Ultima is the least coherent, but it did establish a tradition of telling a full story along with the mechanics of a tabletop RPG. None of them really supported enough material that they could be made into a novel or film (although somehow, Japanese animators managed to eke one out of Wizardry), but they could have at least supported a short story.
           
Wizardry (1981) not only had a beginning and an ending but also developments in the middle.
        
The first CRPG to support a "branching" narrative depends largely on what you mean by "branching." The early text/RPG hybrids let you encounter text and thus plot points in a variety of orders, but they all ended at the same place. True branching narratives with alternate endings took a long time to develop. The earliest are in games that aren't really full CRPGs. Apventure to Atlantis (1982) had two endings, but it was practically at the game's end that they "branched," and the game is arguably not an RPG. There were a couple of very literal adaptations of choose-your-own-adventure style gamebooks in 1984 (The Citadel of Chaos, The Forest of Doom, Lone Wolf: Flight from the Dark), but again, I have trouble calling them CRPGs for the lack of mechanics. I think we're all the way to The Return of Werdna (1987), a game I'm just finishing, before you see anything complex in the "multiple endings" department. Even after that, alternate paths and endings are rare into the 1990s.

What does become a lot more common in the RPG timeline is giving players an open world so that although they all reach the same end, they've gone through different experiences and had different accomplishments when they get there. Many such games also allow players to achieve things specific to their character classes and alignments along the way. The Might and Magic and Quest for Glory series and the Dungeons & Dragons "Gold Box" titles from SSI are notable in this regard.

The Quest for Glory series offers special content for each of the four character classes.
        
I've always considered an RPG a game that lets you customize to some extent your character and lets you sway the story somewhat. You define it differently, however. Why is that?
 
Tabletop role-playing has always featured some level of player agency in the evolution of the story. A human dungeon master can adapt quickly and creatively to such player choices. But a game developer doesn't have the time or resources or (sometimes) foresight to be so flexible. In the early days, of course, disk space and computing power also put lots of limitations on how much the player could bend the story.

In those early days, everyone understood that the "RPG" part of "CRPG" meant the mechanics of tabletop role-playing: attributes, levels, weapon and armor statistics, monster statistics, and tactical combat that followed a discernible set of rules. No one expected the narrative flexibility of tabletop roleplaying, nor did they complain when they didn't get it. Only in the late 1990s and early 2000s did CRPGs evolve to allow for more ability to "sway the story," and it's absurd to suggest that the CRPG genre didn't exist until 1997. In short, to define it your way would be to eliminate hundreds of games from the 50-year history of CRPGs that no one had any doubts were "CRPGs" at the time they were created. 
     
The Bard's Tale (1985): One of many classic CRPGs that would no longer be considered CRPGs if "meaningful role-playing choices" was part of the definition of the genre.
      
That said, player agency has over the last 20-25 years become an expected part of the RPG experience, except perhaps for a few independent games that inevitably get tagged as "retro." I certainly value those role-playing options. I just don't insist that, say, Skyrim "isn't really a CRPG" because it doesn't offer the same dialogue options as Fallout: New Vegas.
    
Is Ultima IV really the first game to have ethics as a game mechanic?
   
Yes, except in the most superficial sense. For instance, Wizardry would occasionally serve up a party of "friendly" monsters. Attacking them was an evil act, and it could change your alignment if you were good. Letting them go was a good act and could change your alignment if you were evil. There may have been some other games that I'm forgetting that offered some basic good/evil options.
   
But Ultima IV (1985) was definitely the first game to integrate multiple considerations of right and wrong into a complex system. Throughout the game, you have to demonstrate virtues like honesty, compassion, honor, and sacrifice, and the game gives you multiple methods of doing so, including dialogue options, combat options, and creative uses of the economy. I say it's the "first" to offer such options, but as far as I know, it's the "only" game to offer such options. Sure, plenty of later titles have a basic "karma meter" that tracks you on a scale from angelic to satanic, but Ultima IV had eight such karma meters. Not even its own sequels offered that level of complexity.
      
I demonstrate honesty in Ultima IV by not cheating the blind herb-seller.
     
That isn't to say that the system was perfect. You can't win the game if you don't conform to its system of virtues, so doing the right thing isn't really a role-playing option. Modern games are more likely to offer different content and paths for different ethical choices. I enjoy this to some extent, but I also find the ethical systems of most modern CRPGs a bit facile. "Good" means a normal amount of compassion and "evil" means unrepentant sadism. It would be nice to see a CRPG that wrestled more with, say, deontology and consequentialism. I have no idea why so many RPG developers were keen to implement the "good/evil" axis of the D&D alignment system, but so few of them have been interested in the far-more-interesting "lawful/chaotic" axis.
   
Do you think there are games we can pinpoint as the so-called pathmakers for the modern-day CRPG?
 
That's an interesting question. Many games that were landmarks through the era that I've played (part of 1993) have little in the way of detectable influence today, including Wizardry, The Bard's Tale, and Might and Magic. Even the Ultima series is more admired than emulated today. There's an extent to which I can't even answer the question fully, as my experience with CRPGs post-1993 is very selective.
   
Doing my best, though, I'll nominate the following:
  
  • Rogue (1980). For a while, its influence was confined to "roguelikes." That changed with the appearance of Diablo (1996), a franchise that's still going strong. The roguelike subgenre also shows no signs of slowing down.
  • There's a direct line to the Elder Scrolls series that starts with Alternate Reality: The City (1985) and passes through Legends of Valour (1992). These games established the idea of a CRPG as an open-world simulation with various factions to join and lots of player freedom.
       
The Elder Scrolls has an acknowledged debt to Legends of Valour (1992).
       
  • Dungeon Master (1987) established a sub-genre of abstract, real-time RPGs that focus heavily on mechanical puzzles. They don't quite rise to AAA level, but games of this type still get made today.
  • Pool of Radiance (1988), and the entire D&D "Gold Box" line. They showed that Dungeons & Dragons could be adapted faithfully to computer play, paving the way for the Infinity Engine games of the late 1990s, which in turn gave rise to the entire BioWare approach.
  • I haven't proven it yet, but I continue to believe that Interplay's Lord of the Rings, Vol. I (1990) and its sequel influenced the later Infinity Engine games. They're an interesting take on your questions about narratives, incidentally. They started with a defined narrative and then tried to find a way to give players meaningful choices while not departing so significantly that they lost sight of the plot.
  • Ultima Underworld (1992) pioneered the realistic, continuous movement, 3D dungeon crawler.
      
Ask me again in 10 years, and I may have a more thorough answer. Keep in mind, of course, that my list is heavily biased towards western RPGs for the PC. I could give the same answers that everyone else gives for console RPGs and Japanese RPGs (of course, there's a lot of overlap there), but I wouldn't be speaking from my own experience.

Those are my answers; I hope some of my commenters take up the challenge and supplement them or provide alternative perspectives below. If my correspondent has any follow-up questions, he or she is welcome to use the comments or e-mail them to me, and I'll append the answers to this entry.

APA Style:
Bolingbroke, C. (2022, August 3). Some musings about CRPG narratives. The CRPG Addict. https://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2022/08/some-musings-about-crpg-narratives.html
 

Eye of the Beholder III: Faith and Unfaith

 
"For instance, without the exile of the Dark God, rakshasas cannot return to these ruins to try to resurrect Tyranthraxus."
         
I'm narrating this entry in real-time, describing in detail what I encounter as I go through the first level of the Temple of Lathander. I like to do one entry like this for a long game, usually somewhere in the middle. I'm writing everything as it happens, so none of my paragraphs are tempered with knowledge of future events.
         
The level we're exploring.
         
The title card tells us that the temple was once an "icon of light, goodness, and purity," but it now lies in a shadowed ruin, with no trace of its former holiness. We enter the foyer, a single square with alcoves to the east and west. Down a short hallway to the north is a 3 x 3 room with what looks like a baptismal font in the center. Clicking on it leads Gaston (ranger/cleric) to murmur sadly: "This fountain has been vandalized. Doubtless its holy waters once held the very power of prayer."
      
Are we sure it isn't a bird bath?
       
As we contemplate the font, an enemy wanders in from the north. It looks like a black pudding, so I pause the game and open the manual to verify that's what it is. It isn't a black pudding but rather a "living muck," for which authors lazily re-used the torso of the previously-encountered slithermorph. The manual indicates that it's appearing for the first time in a Forgotten Realms CRPG, so it's described in full. It's a non-intelligent, amorphous blob that attacks living beings on sight, has 11 hit dice--so I guess 6 to 66 hit points? I never really understand how hit dice work. How do you know what type of dice to roll? Anyway, the number of hit points isn't the hardest part. They're immune to acid, lightning, and poison, and fire only does half damage. Worse, there's a chance that they can destroy any weapon that touches them, and they can paralyze. This needs to be an all-spell, all-range battle, and (as per the last entry), I've just given up most of my offensive spells.
  
Fortunately, the font gives us something to lead it around. We backpedal in circles around the font while Marina tosses off three "Ice Storms," accidentally catching the party in the blast of one of them. The beast is still alive. A "Fireball" cast from a scroll passes through the creature. Suddenly, a shadowy enemy steps in from a side corridor and blocks our path. This appears to be a shade. The manual is light on details (it's been in Forgotten Realms games before), but nothing about the description indicates that I need worry about attacking it with weapons. I execute an "All Attack," and it dies in one hit, allowing us to continue the chase around the fountain. I imagine "Yakety Sax" playing in the background.
   
I equip Marina (mage) with a Wand of Cone of Cold, which I hate because the animation takes about half an hour. The beast dies on the fourth salvo. I turn and find another one right behind me. I instinctively hit "All Attack" and watch as most of my character's weapons disappear. This is not a situation I'm interested in trying to recover from, and I reload. 
      
Do any of you have the role-playing will to continue after such a mistake?
   
This time, knowing what we face, I dump the buffing spells I memorized last time and load up with hot and cold-based offensive magic and buff with "Haste" before entering the building.
  
There are exits from the font chamber in all cardinal directions. My near-overwhelming urge is to follow the right hallway, but I'm trying to train myself to take the leftmost path these days instead of the rightmost. It makes more sense, as things that are meant to be encountered in an order, like signs or plaques, are almost always arranged left-to-right, or clockwise. It's really tough to break the habit, though, and feels very wrong, like writing with my left hand.
     
The "shade" just seems to be the blackened re-use of some other monster, but I can't identify it.
    
I'm mapping in Excel as usual. I denote the font with a bullet--my usual symbol for something that blocks movement but is not interactable. At least, I don't think it is. Maybe some later puzzle will require me to bless something. 

We head back in and go west from the entrance chamber. It ends in a T-junction, and we turn south. The corridor ends in a room with a pillar in the middle and three alcoves on the sides. The south alcove is empty. The east one has a plaque that says, "War is averted by forsaking the sword." The west one has an elaborate altar with ankh and caduceus symbols and an alien but friendly face. I don't know what puzzle I'm solving, but I imagine the solution is to put a sword on the altar. I toss an extra longsword in there, and the face's eyes open.
      
"Awake again! Now get me two scoops and a tub of raisins!"
     
A shade is entering the room as we go to leave. We return to the T-junction and go north. Here, we meet a setup that's a mirror to the south. The plaque reads, "Drought is dispelled with a drink of clear water." That's a problem. I don't have any water and haven't seen any water in the game. I also do not have, and have not seen, empty flasks. (When you drink potions, they just disappear.) 

A muck is in the font chamber when I return, and I kill it with spells. A couple of shades wander in during the combat. I kill them, too. These are depicted as armored men, while the previous ones looked like women in gowns. The manual does indicate that both depictions are the same creature.
   
We kill two or three more shades as we head north from the font chamber. The short corridor ends at a metal door with a sun symbol on it. The corridor splits east and west. We head west, still following the pattern, but soon it becomes clear I've made a mistake with the map. While I backtrack to figure out where I went wrong, I notice that at some point, a wall opened at the place where there had been the T-junction before. I follow it west into a large chamber with several items on the floor: three bags of incense and a long sword. Marina identifies the long sword as a long sword +4, which is what we had put on the altar (and it remains there). I don't know whether this is a coincidence or the game has duplicated my offering.
      
When I refer to the "sun door" several times below, this is what I'm talking about.
      
A west alcove has a nude statue of Lathander, and a south one has--aha!--a goblet full of water. I take that to the northern altar. Again, the eyes open, and this time we hear the sound of something unlocking. More shades and mucks are around us as we turn around; they must be spawning in rooms we've already cleared.
       
It makes sense that Lathander is the god of spring, because he's definitely a "grower."
     
I can't find anything that changed in the immediate area, so I return to the area north of the font chamber, then take the corridor west again. A hallway branches off to the north and has stairs down. A room past it has a button, which opens a secret door in a western alcove. The hallway beyond dead-ends at a niche with a key called the Fire Key.
   
A hallway south of the button leads to another stairway, which I'm not ready to take yet, so I return to the sun door. There's a muck blocking the way, and I'm running out of spells. I've noted that missile weapons don't seem to get destroyed by the monster, so I quickly unequip melee weapons and make the party an all-missile party. We kill the blob, then head back outside to rest and memorize more offensive spells.
     
Father Jon's hammer streaks away from him while Marina's dagger returns to her.
      
Back inside, the sun door yields to a single click. Beyond, a corridor splits into east and west branches. At the point of split is a plaque reading, "SURELY GOODNESS SHALL REPLACE THE EVIL WHICH LURKS IN OUR MIDST." Enemies suddenly attack from both sides--shades from the left and a living muck from the right. I use the "Camp" menu to re-equip melee weapons, take out the shades, and then get the mucks with a combination of missile weapons and spells. Constantly having to worry about my melee weapons is getting tiresome already, and I won't mind when this level is over.
    
The area I'm in turns out to be shaped like a double-barred cross. Each lateral protrusion--the parts of the cross that stick out to the left and right--has a message. On the lower bar, the messages on both sides are the same: "INTO THE PIT OF DESPAIR YOU ARE CAST WHILE THE CURSE OF THE NIGHT STILL LASTS." At both ends of the lower bar are stairways down.
        
You'd think that engraving a golden plaque and affixing it to a stone wall in a monster-filled dungeon would take more effort than just putting a few holy symbols in a few alcoves.
      
The two ends of the upper bar also have the same message: "THE VIRTUOUS LIGHT OF THE DAWN DRIVES BACK THE NIGHT." Near these messages are two altars with "black crosses" on them, represented as upside-down ankhs. The northern apex of the cross has a third, identical altar. 
   
I think I know what's happening. The black crosses need to be cleansed and blessed, then returned to their altars, at which point I'll be able to take the stairs down to something productive. In the meantime, the stairs will take me to something bad. To test out my theory, I save and go down the stairs, and sure enough, I find myself in a featureless, endless room with no way forward, back, or out. 
        
So, we're talking about one of those literal Pits of Despair.
      
I suspect the way to cleanse the crosses is to bathe them in the font in the first room, and I suspect the puzzles I solved to the east of that room are part of the solution in returning water to the font. I have yet to explore the area to the east of that room, so I return to do that now.

I am attacked by multiple shades and mucks while exploring the cross area, and it becomes clear that enemies on this level are respawning. Because the only thing everyone loves more than enemies who eat their weapons are enemies who eat their weapons and cannot be cleared out.

The rooms east of the font are a mirror of those to the west. The northern room has an incense burner and a sign: "PESTILENCE IS SUBDUED WITH A WAFT OF SWEET AIR." I put a packet of incense that we previously found in the burner, and a pleasant aroma fills the air.
    
I have stared at this for five minutes and can think of no caption that is amusing or informative.
        
The southern one has an altar and a sign: "FAMINE IS DRIVEN AWAY BY THE GENEROUS." I curse. I suspect the altar is looking for food, but I don't carry extra rations since "Create Food & Water" is so easy to cast. I remember some apple trees in city ruins outside the temple, so I head back there, grab a couple, bring them back, and place them on the altar. The eyes open, indicating success, and the third room opens to the east.

Like its mirror to the west, the room has a statue of Lathander in the far east. Its right arm is broken off and lying on the floor. I pick it up and restore it to the statue. A blinding flash erupts, and a "supernatural presence" rises before us, speaking: "I would thank you for your efforts to restore both this temple and this city." The apparition goes on to explain that he is Lathander, Bringer of the Dawn, Lord of Birth and Renewal, Patron to Spring and Eternal Youth, and Mentor of Self-Perfection. He says that he is also working to banish the Dark God, and he tells us that to banish him, we will need to defeat his "physical manifestation" at the top of the temple. He says that he'll heal us whenever we need it (we just need to touch a statue), and that he might be able to do more if we finish cleansing the temple. "Many changes lie in store for your world," he says, a bit ominously "Changes that if the Dark God were to control would bring about utter chaos and decay for generations to come." He finishes by giving us the spout to the fountain.
       
Does this Dark God have a name? Have we heard of him before?
     
Cutting through more mucks, we return to the font chamber and put the spout in place. This provides a huge boost in experience to the person who does it, in this case Marina. There are a few places in the game in which this happens, and I'm not sure why the experience isn't shared. While the font casts the "Prayer" spell on the party, it does nothing to restore the black crosses. Meanwhile, the mucks are getting thick in this area and we're almost out of spells again, so we flee the temple to rest and heal.
        
Returning the spout.
       
When I return, I find a new hallway has now opened east of the sun door--which as you'll see from the map is necessary to complete the symmetry of the level. There's nothing in the new area but two more stairways down. I take the second one I find. As expected, it leads not to an actual lower level, but just a lower area of the same level--specifically, a corridor that dead-ends at a keyhole. There are doors to the left and right. I try the Fire Key in the keyhole, and both doors open. Each opens to a chamber with a pile of treasure. The west room has four regular shields, and the right room has a mace +4, an arrow +2, and two more bags of incense. That seems like the waste of a key.

We return upstairs and try the second stairway. It leads down into a skull-shaped chamber with incense censers in alcoves on the walls. In the middle of the chamber. we stumble across the "battered and broken frame" of a paladin of Lathander. In pained, halting speech, she introduces herself as Tabitha. She offers to join the party, noting that she'll need healing almost immediately. I'm tempted, but the party doesn't really need another front-line fighter. Since I saved recently, I say yes just to check out her statistics: she's a Level 10 paladin with high strength (18/65) and charisma (18). Reloading, I offer the second option: "Stay here and rest, Lady. We will finish your work."
      
So, we're just forgetting that party members can be evil?
     
There are a number of burial drawers in the area, but fooling with them doesn't seem to accomplish anything. (They're all closed by default, unlike the ones in the mausoleum.) We put incense in the censers, and a holy symbol appears in the middle of the room.
   
Back upstairs, we go back to the sun door and then west to the staircases we had previously mapped. The first one takes us to a skull-shaped chamber that's a mirror of the last one. There are no braziers in this one, and no encounter in the middle of the room. There are only six drawers, all open. Closing them makes a second holy symbol appear. 
      
Dealing with another muck.
     
We head to the last staircase that we haven't taken (except for the two that lead to the eternal prison). We have to kill two living mucks along the way. I expect it to take me to a mirror of the hallway with the two treasure rooms, but instead it's another double-barred cross. Plaques on either side of the hallway at the bottom of the stairs read: "THE MORNINGLORDS SHIELD YOU FROM THE NIGHT." The ends of both bars have pressure plates with holes in the walls above them, and I confirm after saving that stepping on the plates launches fireballs at the party. There's an empty niche on the south wall.
  
It's immediately obvious what I need to do. I return to the treasure room on the other side--two more mucks along the way--and gather the four plain shields. I bring them back and put them on the plates. A bell rings and a third holy symbol appears in the formerly empty niche.
        
When four regular shields showed up this late in the series, I should have realized they were quest items.
    
With three new holy symbols, we return to the northern part of the level (killing three shades along the way) and replace the three black crosses. I note in doing so that the regular holy symbols I use for casting spells also work, so theoretically we could have skipped a lot of this level if we'd brought the extra holy symbols we'd found at various points in the first two games. I dumped them somewhere thinking they were useless.

As we put the third holy symbol in place, there's a rumbling somewhere, and we find that the two "down" staircases in this area (the ones that led to that weird limbo) are now "up" staircases. Living mucks are closing in, so we dodge them, take the closest, and find ourselves face-to-face with a shambling mound. At least we don't have to worry about destroying our weapons when we attack him.
     
Is it just me, or does that shambler look taken aback?
      
I suppose this wasn't the most exciting level on which to do this detailed blow-by-blow, but it illustrates how the game tries to create interesting puzzles but ultimately makes them too easy.

Time so far: 24 hours