The Rise of the RPG

How dungeoneering crawled out of the dark ages

Colossal Cave Adventure - C64
Zork I Box Art - Atari ST
Witcher 3 Townscape

Guest essay courtesy of SweetMrGibs

Back in the early Eighties, the general perception of a hardcore role-player was a yellow fingered loner with a level five beard and a penchant for graph paper and Devenish ale. They’d rather roll a die in a darkened room than roll out of the pub at closing time. They were intimately familiar with the works of Tolkien long before Peter Jackson brought them into the public consciousness via the big screen (and they probably disapproved of the exclusion of Tom Bombadil). Dungeons and Dragons provided the ruleset for life, the anchor. Level 42 meant lessons in conjuring, not love and Necromancers were the height of fashion, not New Romantics.

This view was probably unfair – they’d simply chosen a form of escapism different to most others. And anyway, who’s to say what’s more acceptable; venturing to the local park for a game of football, or venturing into an imaginary dungeon looking for imaginary treasure? Regardless, things have changed in recent years… the modern gamer is as likely to pick up the latest Witcher release as they are FIFA 18 – Rooney Hair Transplant Edition. And it’s not just the Witcher series which has risen in popularity; Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, Diablo, Mass Effect, Fallout – they have become as well-known as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. So what changed? When did RPGs become a form of mainstream entertainment? Didn’t I get the parchment?

Role Playing Game Dice
Role Playing Game Dice

In the past RPGs were a niche market, outshone and over-whelmed by arcades and the games they spawned. Shoot-‘em ups and racers remained popular throughout the Eighties, but arcades didn’t lend themselves to the more complex nature of RPGs with their persistent stats and ponderous long-term gameplay. However, as gaming platforms became more powerful, they allowed developers to not only render beautifully crafted worlds, but flood them with life, mystery and virtual bodies.

One of the earliest forms of RPG was the MUD, i.e. the Multi-User Dungeon. To say that the graphics were basic would be an understatement. In fact many, like the reputed first ever text adventure Colossal Cave Adventure and close relative Zork, were entirely text-based…

Zork I - West of House
Zork I – West of House

“West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.”

Now, many of us are than more capable of using our imagination to flesh out this scene. However, the ‘TL; DR’ brigade wouldn’t stick around for long. That’s not a slight – it’s merely Science Fact, as Ron Burgundy would say. But modern RPGs take that requirement away – nowadays that same white house wouldn’t be formed of a few words; it would be formed of a thousand meticulously crafted polygons, the sun glinting cheerily from every virtual window, shadows dancing over lovingly rendered textures. Of course the need for imagination hasn’t been removed, it’s been transposed. The modern gamer now has a world filled with life – it’s up to them to decide what they do with it, and perhaps that’s the most important thing… It allows the focus to shift to the player’s role.

Witcher 3 Townscape
Witcher 3 Townscape

But it’s not just about making beautiful worlds come to life that has invigorated RPGs. As graphics have improved, its allowed developers to integrate gameplay in more a naturalistic way. Take The Witcher 3 for example. You can enter a mode where you use your heightened Witcher senses to track and locate things hidden from mere mortals. Moving from ‘Mr Oblivious’ to ‘I can smell you Clarice’ mode is a seamless transition and as such it doesn’t break immersion – you’re not aimlessly moving your mouse around a screen looking for objects or clues to click on. You’re not entering text such as “Open cupboard.” to see if it contains an important key. Also, you don’t need to know how to spell ‘Cupboard’ in order to open it.

As for fighting, whilst most RPGs have retained some form of ‘under the bonnet’ dice rolls, the onus has shifted towards the player themselves to execute well-timed blocks and parries, followed by a decisive thrust when the enemy makes itself vulnerable. ‘Roll a five or more’ to perform a successful shield block won’t do anymore; it’s down to the player to judge what they see on screen and react accordingly. And that means something very important – they’re engaged. The popularity of the rock-hard Dark Souls series bears testament to this (as do the controller-shaped holes in my living room wall and my newly curved TV which was flat when I bought it).

Perhaps ultimately the real reason is that we’re well into the second generation of gamer, and with it, many previously held prejudices towards RPGs – and gaming in general – has been left behind. And whilst you could argue that becoming mainstream was never the main quest of RPGs, they’ve succeeded nonetheless.

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