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Computer Role Playing Game

Entry updated 1 April 2024. Tagged: Game, Theme.


Term used to describe a form of Videogame derived from pen and paper Role Playing Games. This entry only deals with the single player variant; the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, a related form in which many individuals share the same virtual world, is considered under Online Worlds. Computer Role Playing Games are characterized by detailed and extensive fictional settings and by the existence of characters wholly or partially controlled by the player who have markedly different abilities to their master. The characters thus serve not only as alternate personalities for the player, but also as their physical incarnation within the game world. Players' actions are mediated through the skills of their characters, which could include such mundanities as a minor proficiency at lock picking or reality altering levels of Psionic power. Battle systems in Computer Role Playing Games often resemble those found in tactical Computer Wargames, whether they are turn-based (meaning that the player's and the computer's characters make alternate moves) or real time (indicating that events occur continuously). Where a player's success at combat in a First Person Shooter depends primarily on their own physical skills, in a Computer Role Playing Game it is determined by a combination of the character's abilities and the player's tactical intelligence and (in real time versions) their ability to make decisions rapidly. Another important feature of the form is its openness; players normally expect to be able to move freely within the simulated environment, and solve problems using a variety of different approaches. Gameplay typically revolves around exploration, interaction with computer controlled characters, combat and puzzle solution. These elements may be combined, as in a puzzle which can be solved by persuading mutually antagonistic characters to resolve their differences and work together.

Almost all Computer Role Playing Games borrow concepts from the pen and paper designs, especially from their archetype, the original epic fantasy game of Dungeons and Dragons (1974 Tactical Studies Rules [TSR]) designed by Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson. Some examples of the computer form are licenced from specific RPG systems such as Traveller (1977) or d20 (2000), and implement their rules in detail. Many others make use of such ideas as class, a particular role which a character must fulfil (such as Spaceship pilot or Esper), and level, the degree of skill which a character has attained with the abilities associated with their class. As players progress through a Computer Role Playing Game using these concepts, and their characters become more experienced in their professions, their levels – and hence their power within the game world – will grow. Profession is not the only customizable feature of these simulated personas; options allowing the player to specify characters' gender, species and physical appearance are common. Another frequently used idea is that of attributes, numerical ratings for such characteristics as strength and dexterity which define the basic nature of a character and suggest what classes they might be best suited for. An individual who was exceptionally strong but moderately clumsy might make a good soldier but a poor pilot, for example. Many sf games, however, describe characters' abilities primarily in terms of their physical and mental skills rather than by class and level, an approach which was first used in Traveller. RPGs are generally played by a group, one of whom will be the Gamemaster while the rest adopt the role of one character each. Early Computer Role Playing Games often reproduced this model by giving their single player an entire group of characters, though their control was not always complete; in some games characters could refuse to obey the player's orders or decide to leave the group altogether. Later examples often allow the player only one character initially, though they may be able to persuade computer controlled individuals to join them during the course of the game. Another notable divergence between Computer Role Playing Games and their pen and paper equivalents has emerged in their treatment of narrative. Many recent "storytelling" RPGs include mechanics which allow the players to explicitly influence the shape of the ongoing narrative, rather than simply respond to decisions taken by the Gamemaster. This is not possible in a single player digital game, where all possible paths through the plot have been decided in advance. Videogame developers have instead chosen to improve the sophistication and flexibility of their storylines by increasing the complexity of the predesigned plot to a degree which would make a professionally written RPG scenario difficult for a human Gamemaster to grasp. The differences between the computer mediated and pen and paper forms can be summarized by saying that Computer Role Playing Games automate the manual calculations and rule interpretations required by Role Playing Games, but are unable to provide the kind of intelligently guided narrative which can be crafted by a human Gamemaster. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, on the other hand, often suffer from a lack of meaningful story, since their worlds must remain essentially unchanged by the players' actions. These games, however, provide a shared social experience in a similar way to pen and paper RPGs, a feature that single player Computer Role Playing Games cannot offer.

Early Computer Role Playing Games typically employed a two-dimensional plan view, with a three-dimensional display seen from the characters' perspective sometimes being used for exploration. Later works often adopted Isometric three-dimensional displays or used the characters' viewpoint throughout the entire game; current ones almost always use true three-dimensional graphics, with either a first person perspective (seen from the characters' point of view) or a third person one (in which the player characters can be seen by the camera). Thematically, most Computer Role Playing Games have followed their pen and paper forebears by concentrating on epic fantasy inspired by the works of J R R Tolkien; science fiction is the next most common theme, followed by alternative forms of fantasy derived from Chinese and Japanese folklore, gothic romances and Steampunk. Interactive Narrative has become increasingly important in Computer Role Playing Games. To a degree, they have recapitulated the evolution seen in RPGs, from designs concentrating on simulation of physical events and tactical combat to ones that emphasize character interaction and story development. Computer Role Playing Games often employ multilinear and modular forms of story construction, with many optional subplots, reflecting the form's concern with exploration and freedom of choice.

The first Computer Role Playing Game may have been pedit5 (1974 Mainframe) designed by Rusty Rutherford, a simple graphical game in which the player wandered through a subterranean dungeon looting treasure and killing fantastic monsters, inspired by the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons. The game was created on PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations), a mainframe computer system made available in many contemporary US universities for the purpose of computer assisted learning. Inevitably PLATO, with its then state of the art capabilities for graphical display and connecting multiple users to the same program, was used by many students to write games. Equally inevitably, the system's administrators disapproved of this activity, and deleted such programs whenever they were discovered, a fate soon suffered by pedit5, despite its creator's attempt to preserve it by giving it a misleading name. It was, however, soon succeeded by the similar dnd (1975 Mainframe) designed by Gary Whisenhunt, Ray Wood and a host of other descendants of gradually increasing complexity. The most significant of these was perhaps Rogue (1980 Mainframe; 1983 DOS; 1986 Amiga, AtariST, TRS80; 1988 Amstrad, C64, Spectrum; 1989 Atari8; Others) designed by Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, in which the dungeon is randomly generated every time a player enters it, ensuring an endless supply of new (if not particularly subtle) experiences. Despite its simplicity, Rogue has spawned popular modern successors known as Roguelikes (which see).

The first such game available on personal computers appears to have been the American Beneath Apple Manor (1978 AppleII; 1983 Atari8, PCBoot) designed by Don Worth, a Sword and Sorcery work greatly resembling the later, more famous Rogue. Several more examples were published in 1979 in the US, including Akalabeth: World of Doom (1979 AppleII; 1998 DOS, Win) designed by Richard Garriott – named after a misspelling of a word invented by J R R Tolkien, and notable chiefly for being the first entry in the Ultima fantasy series – and Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai (1979 Automated Simulations, PET, TRS80; 1980 AppleII; 1981 Atari8; 1982 DOS; 1983 C64, VIC20) designed by Jon Freeman, Jeffrey Johnson, perhaps the most interesting of the first generation of Computer Role Playing Games. Temple of Apshai is based on plundering the buried temple of the titular insect god, a similar plot to that of dnd, but the game's manual includes extensive descriptions of the areas a player might enter which add texture to the experience. The first sf example was Space (1979), a game so closely based on Traveller that it was withdrawn from sale following a lawsuit by Game Designers' Workshop for unauthorized use of their intellectual property. Space was rapidly followed by the Starquest series (from 1980), a science-fictional spinoff of Dunjonquest set in the universe of Starfleet Orion (1978). Two other contemporary sf games, Universe (1983) and Sundog: Frozen Legacy (1984), could be regarded as precursors of the space exploration game (see Space Sim) as well as Computer Role Playing Games. Meanwhile, a related but UK dominated subform appeared and then rapidly disappeared: that of the Computer Gamebook. These works were based on volumes from printed Gamebook series such as Fighting Fantasy (as in Citadel of Chaos [1984 Puffin, C64, Spectrum] designed by Darryl Mattocks, Simon Ball), Choose Your Own Adventure (for example in The Cave of Time [1985]) or Lone Wolf (the first of which was Flight from the Dark [1984 Five Ways Software, Spectrum] designed by Joe Dever). Narrative decisions were made by selecting an explicit branch in the multilinear plot, as in the original Gamebooks but quite differently to Computer Role Playing Games in general, while the results of combat were either determined automatically or (in the more successful Lone Wolf games) played out in real time. While this was an interesting approach to the problems of transferring pen and paper role playing to a computer, the school did not prove sufficiently commercially successful to survive the demise of its printed parent.

The mid 1980s is sometimes seen as the beginning of a "Golden Age" for the form. As with the Golden Age of SF, this is perhaps better thought of as a first flowering than a glorious culmination. The games of the era often closely resemble contemporary mainstream Role Playing Games, with long manuals describing the rules and an emphasis on turn-based tactical combat, generally displayed using an Isometric view. Nevertheless, the Golden Age saw the first real appearance of story and characterization within the form, as well as an increasing emphasis on originality of world creation. Among the significant early works are the Sword and Sorcery The Bard's Tale (1985 Interplay, AppleII, C64; 1986 Amiga; 1987 AtariST, DOS; 1988 Amstrad, Spectrum; 1989 Mac; 1990 NES) designed by Michael Cranford, a game distinguished largely by the charming roguery of its eponymous central character, and Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985 Origin Systems [OS], AppleII, DOS; 1986 Atari8, C64; 1987 AtariST, MSX; 1988 Amiga; 1989 NES; 1990 MasterSystem) designed by Richard Garriott, notable for its explicit confrontation of ethical issues within the fantasy land of Britannia. The player's main character must become an embodiment of eight cardinal virtues, as demonstrated by their actions in the game. Significant sf games from the same period include Autoduel (1985) (see Car Wars) and Starflight (1986).

Perhaps the most significant Golden Age game, however, was Pool of Radiance (1988 Strategic Simulations Inc, AtariST, DOS; 1989 AppleII, Mac; 1990 Amiga, C64, NES), which licenced both the mechanics of the fantasy RPG Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1977 TSR) designed by Gary Gygax and its pseudo medieval Forgotten Realms setting. This game was not especially innovative, but its design combined most of the best elements of previous efforts, and its fiction benefited greatly from its richly detailed (if somewhat generic) milieu, developed for the pen and paper version. After it proved to be extremely popular a number of other games were derived from its design, including the retro pulp sf series beginning with Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday (1990) (see Buck Rogers XXVC). Meanwhile, the Ultima series produced both Ultima VII: The Black Gate (1992 OS, DOS; 1994 rev vt Ultima: The Black Gate SNES; 2006 PSP) designed by Richard Garriott, an epic fantasy noted for its impressive scope, detailed characterization and openness to exploration, and the science-fictional spinoff series Worlds of Ultima (1990). Many of the best sf games of the era were derived from existing RPGs and Wargames, including BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception (1988) (see Battletech), the Hard SF Space Opera games The Zhodani Conspiracy (1990) and Quest For The Ancients (1991), based on MegaTraveller (see Traveller), and the impressively colourful and wide ranging Steampunk work Space: 1889 (1990) (see Space: 1889). Other notable games are the post-apocalyptic Wasteland (1988), Darklands (1992 MicroProse, DOS) designed by Arnold Hendrick, set in a fantastic fifteenth-century Germany in which all the medieval beliefs about religion and the supernatural are made real, and Betrayal At Krondor (1993 Dynamix, DOS) designed by John Cutter, Neal Hallford, part of Raymond E Feist's Heroic Fantasy Riftwar Saga series, and co-written by the author. Circuit's Edge (1990) combines Computer Role Playing Game design with elements taken from the Adventure form to present a story which forms part of George Alec Effinger's Marid Audran: Budayeen sequence; it was also scripted by the original author. Neuromancer (1988 Interplay, Amiga, AppleII, C64; 1989 DOS) designed by Bruce Balfour, Brian Fargo, Troy Miles, Michael A Stackpole similarly uses elements drawn from Adventures as well as role playing, but suffers from its unsuccessful attempt to fuse the plot of William Gibson's eponymous novel with moments of light-hearted comedy.

A separate line of development was popularized by the Sword and Sorcery Dungeon Master (1987 FTL Games, AtariST; 1988 Amiga; 1989 AppleII, DOS; 1991 SNES) designed by Doug Bell, which featured real time combat in a three-dimensional display seen from the characters' point of view, though the player's freedom of movement was limited by technical restrictions. This tradition led to several notable games, including the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons licence Eye of the Beholder (1990 Westwood Associates, DOS; 1991 Amiga; 1994 MegaCD, SNES), set in the Forgotten Realms milieu, Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992 Blue Sky Productions, DOS; 1997 PS1) designed by Paul Neurath – a spinoff from the Ultima fantasy sequence – and the science fiction series System Shock (1994), which combines role playing and First Person Shooter elements. Later examples do not suffer from the technical limitations of Dungeon Master, and this approach has become increasingly common in modern games.

Meanwhile, a largely distinct form of digital role playing game was evolving in Japan. The Japanese designer Horii Yuji played early Ultima games such as Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress (1982 Sierra On-Line, AppleII; 1983 Atari8, C64, DOS; 1985 AtariST, Mac) designed by Richard Garriott and the more combat-oriented Wizardry series, which began with Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981 Sir-Tech Software, AppleII; 1984 Mac, PCBoot; 1987 C64, MSX, NES; 2003 WS) designed by Andrew Greenberg, Robert Woodhead, and was inspired to create something similar. The result was the Heroic Fantasy Dragon Quest (1986 Enix, MSX, NES; 1993 rev SNES; 2000 rev GBC; vt Dragon Warrior in the US), the prototype for role playing games on home consoles (as opposed to personal computers). These games – referred to in this encyclopedia as Console Role Playing Games – have generally been created in Japan, while most Computer Role Playing Games have been developed in the US and Canada. The form has a number of other distinctive features. Most notably, Console Role Playing Games have significantly simpler mechanics than most of their computer-based equivalents – a feature designed to appeal to a mass audience – and generally have strongly linear plots (see Interactive Narrative) in which the player is assigned a predefined character, as opposed to the original variant's tendency (inspired by pen and paper RPGs) towards open narratives featuring characters designed by the player. The console approach has the advantage of making it easier to create strong personas and emotionally involving storylines, but the drawback that the narrative may not in fact be very interactive, leading some players to feel confined by the need to follow the script. One common issue with the gameplay is an over reliance on "random encounters", repetitive battles with enemies who abruptly appear for no obvious reason; this is perhaps best seen as a form of padding intended to extend the game's playing time. The better examples, however, generally have fewer random encounters, or none. Console Role Playing Games often make use of themes and visual styles also seen in Anime, as well as sharing that form's narrative tendencies towards cuteness and intense (sometimes melodramatic) emotion. As with Computer Role Playing Games, the most common subject is fantasy, though often influenced by Asian as well as European traditions. Another frequent theme is Science and Sorcery; Console Role Playing Games often combine technology with forms of magic derived from mysticism and the concept of a world formed from five or more basic elements, including such exotica as lightning or Poison. Significant early examples which can be categorized as sf or Science and Sorcery include Final Fantasy (1987), Phantasy Star (1987) and Mother (1989). A separate form concentrating on tactical combat which evolved from the Console Role Playing Game, the "tactical RPG", is considered under Computer Wargames.

The Golden Age of Western Computer Role Playing Games is generally felt to have ended in the mid 1990s, after the release of a number of disappointing games. The late 1990s, however, saw the appearance of several works which combined the explorative gameplay of the Golden Age with a depth of story and characterization rarely seen in previous examples. Complex role playing systems were still present, but largely hidden from the player unless they wanted to investigate the mechanics in detail. The first to appear were the post-apocalyptic Fallout (1997) and Baldur's Gate (1998 BioWare, Win; 2000 Mac) designed by Ray Muzyka, James Ohlen, an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms game which (together with its sequel, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn [2000 BioWare, Win; 2001 Mac] designed by Kevin Martens, James Ohlen and the expansion pack Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal [2001 BioWare, Win; 2003 Mac] designed by Kevin Martens) essentially allows the player to shape the story and final resolution of a skilfully told epic fantasy trilogy reminiscent of the works of Patricia A McKillip or Barbara Hambly. These games were followed by the sf Deus Ex (2000), which blends First Person Shooter and role playing elements in its design, the Steampunk and Sorcery Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (2001 Troika Games [TG], Win) designed by Jason Anderson, Leonard Boyarsky, Timothy Cain, set in a high fantasy world undergoing an industrial revolution, and the Forgotten Realms game Neverwinter Nights (2002 BioWare, Win; 2003 Lin, Mac), designed to allow players to run the equivalent of a traditional Role Playing Game in a persistent Online World in which one individual takes the role of the Gamemaster and others adopt the personas of characters within the game. Perhaps the most impressive of all these works, however, is Planescape: Torment (1999 Black Isle Studios, Win) designed by Chris Avellone, Colin McComb, an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons licence set in the Planescape milieu, where many planes of existence cross in Sigil, the "City of Doors", which resembles a fantasticated Victorian London. Torment is a morbidly philosophical epic far more concerned with conversation than combat, featuring such characters as Fall-From-Grace, a retired succubus who has opened the Brothel For Slaking Intellectual Lusts, and Nordom, a poorly socialized ambulatory cube.

Another variant was made famous by the release of Diablo (1997 Blizzard Entertainment, Win; 1998 Mac, PS1) designed by David Brevik, Erich Schaefer, a Sword and Sorcery game resembling a much improved version of Rogue, with an immediacy inspired by Dungeon Master. This form, generally known as the "action RPG", emphasizes real time combat, often seen from an overhead view, and simplified role playing mechanics; the narrative aspects are typically either minimized or constrained to fit a strictly linear storyline (see Interactive Narrative) within which the player undertakes specific missions. The commercial success of the excellently crafted Diablo led to a number of successors, including the epic fantasy Dungeon Siege (2002 Gas Powered Games, Win; 2003 Mac) designed by Chris Taylor and the science-fictional Freedom Force (2002).

During the same period Japanese Console Role Playing Games were becoming steadily more sophisticated. Later examples such as Chrono Trigger (1995) offer significantly more flexible storylines, generally by including a range of possible endings, and works such as Xenogears (1998) and Chrono Cross (1999) (see Chrono Trigger) are notably more adult in tone than their predecessors. Other games of this kind which deal with science-fictional or Science and Sorcery subjects include the Xenosaga series, beginning with Xenosaga: Episode I – Der Wille zur Macht (2002) (see Xenogears), Star Ocean (1996) and later entries in the Final Fantasy sequence such as Final Fantasy VII (1997 Square, PS1; 1998 Win) designed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yoshinori Kitase. The console form remains highly popular worldwide, significantly more so than the computer one, though it is less involved with science fiction.

Recent Computer Role Playing Games have experimented considerably with the form as it was developed in the late 1990s, often with the aim of attracting the larger audiences required to justify the ever increasing costs of Videogame development. These works typically display the player character and any allies they may have recruited in a fully three-dimensional environment, and frequently employ real time gameplay that can be paused while instructions are issued to the characters (effectively allowing the player to choose between real-time and turn-based approaches). One example is the Elder Scrolls series, which concentrates on providing an extremely detailed simulation of its (somewhat generic) fantasy world, within which characters have a great deal of freedom of action, without any requirement that they follow the predesigned plot. Unusually amongst Computer Role Playing Games, members of this sequence make heavy use of environmental narrative (see Interactive Narrative). The most successful iterations of the series are the most recent: Morrowind (2002 Bethesda Game Studios [BG], Win, XBox) designed by Todd Howard, Ken Rolston, Oblivion (2006 BG, Win, XB360; 2007 PS3) designed by Todd Howard, Ken Rolston and Skyrim (2011 BG, PS3, Win, XB360) designed by Todd Howard, Bruce Nesmith, Kurt Kuhlmann. Fallout 3 (see Fallout) transposed the approach taken by the Elder Scrolls games to a science-fictional Post-Holocaust landscape. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (2004 TG, Win) designed by Jason Anderson, Leonard Boyarsky, by contrast, is an erotically charged gothic fantasy licenced from the RPG Vampire: The Masquerade (1991) (see Fading Suns), with a strongly multilinear story. The UK developed Fable (2004 Lionhead, XBox; 2005 rev vt Fable: The Lost Chapters Win, Xbox; 2008 Mac) designed by Dene Carter, Ben Huskins, Mark Webley, Peter Molyneux resembles a fairy tale; its central conceit is that any action taken by the player as they progress through the broadly linear plot will affect their character's appearance, social status and personal relationships. Though the actions required to cause such alterations can seem superficial, the end result is an interesting game of personal transformation. The Witcher (2007 CD Projekt Red Studio, Win) designed by Michal Madej, Artur Ganszyniec, based on an eponymous series of fantasy books by Andrzej Sapkowski and created in his native Poland, employs a profound sense of moral ambiguity in its brutally realistic depiction of a world where the monsters are by no means the most evil creatures to be found. Perhaps the most significant development, however, is the integration of elements drawn from Console Role Playing Game design into the Computer Role Playing Game form. Anachronox (2001) and the earlier Septerra Core: Legacy of the Creator (1999) both represent attempts to transpose the console form directly to home computers, within an sf or sf like setting. Commercial success, however, was reserved for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), which combined the guided storyline of the console games with much of the openness characteristic of the personal computer form. The developers, the Canadian company BioWare, later used a similar approach for the mystical martial arts game Jade Empire (2005 BioWare, XBox; 2007 rev Win), set in an ancient China that never was, the Space-Opera Mass Effect (2007) and the "epic fantasy" Dragon Age: Origins (2009 BioWare, Mac, PS3, Win, XB360) designed by Mark Darrah, Brent Knowles, Mike Laidlaw, James Ohlen. Regardless of such changes in design, it seems likely that the Computer and Console Role Playing Game forms will remain highly significant in the future development of Interactive Narrative in Videogames. [NT]

see also: Albion.

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