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Richard Cobbett, a well-known pundit when it comes to RPGs, has put together a comprehensive guide to PC RPGs, starting from way back in 1975. With the sheer scope of the RPG genre, some titles get overlooked, but for the most part, this extensive, four page-long guide covers all the main bases. Here are but a few snippets to give you a general idea of what to expect:
Bringing it home
For those outside universities, the genre really began around 1980. There had been games for home systems before that, including Temple of Apshai for the TRS-80 and Beneath Apple Manor for the Apple II, but few of them made real waves. 1980 saw the launch of Rogue, the first true dungeon crawl game, whose combination of randomly generated content and permadeath set the tone for today’s ‘roguelikes’. It would be a few more years before it and its clones would be available on home computers—the PC version landed in 1984—but the basics were here.
The most successful dungeon crawler of all time is, of course, Blizzard’s Diablo. But Rogue’s longest-lived descendent is arguably a much more interesting game—1987’s Nethack. Technically, it was based on a Rogue clone called, yes, Hack, but let’s not quibble. Nethack takes the basic dungeon crawling concept and adds several decades worth of development. Ever wondered if throwing a custard pie in a basilisk’s face will stop its petrifying stare? Nethack not only answers that question (it will), but also implements blindness if you get hit by a pie yourself, causes you to break your code if a vegan character eats one (seriously), and ensures the attack doesn’t count if you’re on a pacifist run (it does no damage, no matter your combat bonus). This level of detail lead to the saying “The Dev Team Thinks Of Everything”. Many versions are now available, from the original ASCII-based game to graphical overhauls like Vulture’s Eye. All are free, as a condition of the distribution licence.
As home computers became more popular over the ’80s, they began to take over—and many of the big names are still with us. Wizardry, for instance, launched in 1981, and the series ran until 2001. It used simple graphics and played out mostly using menus, in a way that most Western RPGs would soon try to move away from. However, its popularity in Japan led to it largely defining what that market thought an RPG was. Later games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest still follow its lead today, albeit with those systems endlessly refined and prettified. The Bard’s Tale followed in its footsteps in 1985, with three games, and returned last year courtesy of a $1.4 million Kickstarter.
War. War changes dramatically
Some games land softly. Others land with the force of a nuclear bomb. In the desolate year of 1997, Fallout was definitely one of those. It was the spiritual sequel to Wasteland, though the two were actually quite different takes on the post-apocalyptic world. Wasteland was more comedic and surreal, with Monty Python style killer badgers, as well as more futuristic and developed—the world had ended, but civilisation had largely rebuilt. There was greenery. There was water processing. Your role was that of a Desert Ranger, assigned to keep the radioactive landscape safe from do-badders, and foil evil plots as time permitted. Fallout, meanwhile, used the 1950s as a jumping off point for a far more desolate, less reconstructed world of psychopaths, mutants, drug-dealers and all the other scum that you can imagine rising to the top. Your goal was simple—retrieve a water chip so that your protected Vault could continue hiding from the outside world. For you, hiding was not an option.
Fallout was the most adult, most brutal RPG around at the time, not because other RPGs hadn’t had bad people in them, but because this time it was entirely up to you if you joined them. It’s dark. It’s cynical. It’s also one of the most beautifully designed RPGs around. Create a low-intelligence character, for instance, and all your dialogue is replaced with little more than incoherent grunts. Follow the path it lays out for you and you get a great tour around the world, but it’s so open that if you know what you’re doing, it’s possible to run to the end and just finish it in about ten minutes.
Its Perk and Traits system allowed incredible character creation abilities, with skills ranging from Mysterious Stranger, which would sometimes spawn an ally in combat, to Bloody Mess, guaranteeing that every kill-shot ends as messily as possible. It was funny. It was challenging. It was huge and complex, despite the relatively small map. It was everything that players had been crying out for, with the exception, perhaps, of looking a bit prettier. And, like most of the best RPGs of the decade, it almost got killed. Interplay wanted real-time combat instead of turn-based, and favoured multiplayer action over single-player—a focus based on the runaway success of Blizzard’s Diablo.
The shadow of Fallout still lingers over the more recent games, which are part of the same universe, but very different in style. Fallout 4 in particular is essentially a shooter strapped to a building game, where conversations inevitably end in bloodshed. This is a far cry from Fallout, a game where you can defeat the final boss by convincing him that his plans for a mutated wasteland simply aren’t going to work. The sequel, Fallout 2, also features one of the most beloved locations in any RPG—the city of New Reno, where RPG design superstar and living Kickstarter stretch goal Chris Avellone first came to people’s attention. New Reno is a gloriously seedy place full of feuding mobsters and opportunities for violence, as well as the memorable chance to have your hero become a porn star (complete with a porn star name, such as ‘Arnold Swollenmember’).
The main problem with Fallout 2, as well as being rushed out and suffering from the buggy RPG problem that afflicted many a ’90s game, ended up being a lesson to everyone. Fallout occasionally enjoyed a naughty pop-culture reference or two, which players appreciated. However, hearing that, and with every designer having their own section, Fallout 2 often feels like nothing but shout-outs to everything from Tom Cruise and Scientology to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It broke much of the sense of place, and proved that yes, you can indeed have too much of a good thing. It’s not that later games would stop making pop culture references—WoW loves its little nods. After Fallout 2, though, most designers just needed to be told ‘remember Fallout 2?’ to know when to tone it down a bit.
As the decade ended, it became clear that they would have the chance. Despite a few franchises riding high throughout, there hadn’t been much to laugh about during the majority of the ’90s. That energy had to be spent on simply staying alive, and keeping the genre going. With Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, though, it finally had the shot in the arm it needed. And in 1998, the tables would turn.
Unusually, while Baldur’s Gate struck a chord with players and became a huge hit, it was its engine, Infinity, that players came to love. When Obsidian ran its Kickstarter for Pillars of Eternity, it wasn’t the prospect of a game like Baldur’s Gate that excited people, but an updated Infinity Engine.
Exactly why Infinity became so famous is a bit of a mystery. There were only five games that used it—Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, Icewind Dale, Icewind Dale 2 and Planescape: Torment. The likely answer is that, because both BioWare and Interplay development group Black Isle Studios were using the engine for different projects (BioWare on Baldur’s Gate, Black Isle on the others), it was easier to identify the games by what unified them—the things that ensured everyone knew exactly what subset of RPGs was being discussed. Sprites over renders, pausable real-time combat, and so on.
Baldur’s Gate was the traditional RPG of the set, with the sequel going even further to try to give the experience of playing the pen-and-paper game in all its glory. Both games responded to your character, alignment determining who would stick to your party and who would walk off in a morally upright huff. Both also offered lots of exploring, whole areas dedicated to optional side-quests. Baldur’s Gate 2 cranked it higher still, with vast amounts of dialogue, inter-party chat, a second act that was like seven full AD&D modules glued together, optional romances, and more. The plot was better, and hugely helped by bringing in voice talent such as David Warner as the villain, Irenicus. The writing was funnier and sharper. Instead of a million NPCs willing to join the party, most of them forgettable, it trimmed the cast down to just the team’s favourites.
At the same time, Baldur’s Gate 2 didn’t sit on its laurels. It took some dramatic risks, including setting much of the action in a city where casting magic is against the law. This might not sound like much, but compare it to later games like, hypothetically, BioWare’s own Dragon Age 2. Few mainstream RPGs have the guts enforce a rule that makes one of the most popular classes that hard to play: casting a spell in public summoning a Cowled Wizard to demand an apology or justice. Baldur’s Gate 2 did, forcing mages to keep the magic to a minimum until they can either afford a licence, or become bad-ass enough to smack down the Cowled Wizards and convince them that you’re out of their league. It’s a shame too, because reaching that point of untouchability really is a wonderful feeling, versus simply being told not to use magic and having every guard you pass turn a blind eye to your firestorms in the name of game balance.
Away from Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and its sequel offered a different spin on adventure. While they still had a story, quests and so on, their focus was tactical combat. You had a whole team from the very start, and had to use them wisely. Between you and the final boss was a gauntlet of fights. The focus was on managing your team’s firepower and tactics, rather than worrying about who liked who (or even who might be up for a tersely written sex scene.) They’re easily the most Marmite of the Infinity Engine games, but developed a huge following of their own.
The RPG grows up
BioWare hasn’t had the entire decade to itself of course. The 2000s saw Bethesda go from strength to strength with its open-world Elder Scrolls games, selling millions upon millions of copies of Morrowind, Skyrim and Oblivion to players looking for more of a freeform experience. It would also add a string to its bow by picking up the Fallout licence—along with a tangled knot of assorted legal issues—and restart the series with Fallout 3 in 2008. Much like BioWare, having a leg in both science fiction and fantasy hasn’t hurt, even if the best of the new Fallout games remains New Vegas, developed under contract by Obsidian Entertainment.
Many other companies started the new decade by going out of business. Origin’s final chapter of the Ultima series, Ascension, took over from Descent To Undermountain as the new Duke Nukem Forever of the RPG genre, only worse, because millions of players actually cared about Origin. Ascension crawled out of development hell in a barely functional and not remotely enjoyable state, ending the once proud Ultima series with a flatulent note of despair. Other companies, like Interplay, which should have been in a position to enjoy the genre’s resurgence, were too far into the red. On the plus side, many of the individual people involved were able to escape and form new companies. The Fallout team, for instance, recoalesced as Troika Games, while other Black Isle employees formed Obsidian Entertainment and survived by focusing on contract work rather than creating self-owned properties.
This was a tricky time for RPGs. Baldur’s Gate had become a huge success by going back to the genre’s roots, but at the same time, players were expecting the next big thing. On PC, that was Deus Ex, which combined RPG and FPS in ways that should need no explanation here. Even then, it was easy to slip up, as was seen with Deus Ex’s own sequel, Invisible War. A big problem was that, while consoles offered a whole new audience, the gulf between Xbox and PC in terms of power was ridiculous, forcing any game that went for both to play to the lowest common denominator. In the case of Invisible War, that meant going from levels that modelled the whole of Liberty Island in New York, to levels that are literally ten seconds between load screens. The controller was also no match for a PC’s keyboard and mouse, making it impossible to carry many of its best experiences across.
The consequence was that developing for both was a gamble, but so was focusing on the PC and ignoring the wider market. Troika quickly became the most high-profile casualty of this. Its first game tried to fuse what players loved about Fallout with fantasy, in a new Victorian-style world where magic and technology coexisted. Unfortunately they called it Arcanum: Of Steamworks And Magick Obscura, a title so relentlessly geeky that players reported their virginity growing back just from hearing it. It was a popular game with those who played it, though not a megahit by 2000s standards. Next, the company tried going back further to the genre’s roots with a conversion and upgrade of the classic AD&D module The Temple of Elemental Evil. Unfortunately, its adherence to the mechanics wasn’t enough to compensate for the lack of things like a plot, or how old-fashioned it felt. (For starters, the game’s village is called Hommlet. Not Gary Gygax’s most inventive moment.)
Finally, the company released one of the 2000s’ most beloved and poorest selling games, Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines—the second attempt to bring the World of Darkness universe to the PC. Best summed up as “Deus Ex, but with vampires”, it bombed at release, and Troika didn’t survive it. Players kept it alive through word of mouth and fan patches, and it’s still being updated and praised today as one of the few adults-only RPGs that earned its place through dark atmosphere and intelligence. It wasn’t that it avoided the sexy vampire trope, but that its vampires were designed and written to be more than just that—pieces in a game that, among other things, punished you for trying to do the right thing by inadvertently condemning an innocent college girl to be your mindless thrall, dealing with the broken personalities of an abusive family, exploring a crazed mental asylum, and, in its most famous level, exploring a haunted house that’s strangely effective at creating scares—despite the fact that you are a powerful vampire yourself.
Diamonds in the rough
The Witcher’s path to greatness isn’t unique to CD Projekt. As we approach ‘now’, it’s worth highlighting a few of the other games that have slowly but surely become legendary over the last decade. Larian’s Divinity series, for instance. It began in 2002 with Divine Divinity (the publisher’s choice of name, the developer is quick to explain). It was popular, but still best described as a company attempting to make Ultima 7 without first having made Ultimas 1-6. The series was constantly besieged by two factors. Financial issues on the outside led to the third game, Divinity 2, being a “release it now or lose the company” affair. (To its credit, Larian later tried to fix up the mess created by such a rushed release.)
But also, Larian had a tendency to let the cool, big ideas overshadow the foundations needed for a good RPG. Let’s make the player character psychic! Let’s have the player turn into a dragon! In the case of the strategy-focused Divinity: Dragon Commander, let’s have the player be a dragon wearing a jetpack! You know? That kind of thing. With the Kickstarted Divinity: Original Sin, however, the company finally found its footing, and created one of the best new RPGs in years. It was an instant classic, which earned everyone involved the credit they deserved, and led to the even more ambitious but equally grounded sequel, Divinity: Original Sin 2, currently in Early Access over on Steam.
Many others have also found new life thanks to Kickstarter, both games that have found their due and those that deserved better. The Bard’s Tale. Wasteland. The Infinity Engine, through Pillars of Eternity. Planescape: Torment, through Torment: Tides of Numenera. Shadowrun. Shenmue. Underworld. System Shock. Pathologic. Outcast. The list goes on, and is mostly filled with titles that did something so amazing that nothing else has come close in five, ten, sometimes even twenty years. It’s not just the hunger for something familiar that’s driven it, though. This isn’t simply a plea to nostalgia. It’s a combining of genuine classics with top quality developers—teams that do enough justice to the original idea that they stand up against any game you could possibly want.
Their original stories may now be over, and the quests long since complete. But these are legends that live on. May they do so forever