Game profiles: The art of simulating imagination

And from tabletop RPGs we go to electronic RPGs with another fantastic piece by one of our volunteers: Ben Manolas surveys the meteoric rise of the Western RPG, a form whose time came with the rise of the computer.

The evolution of roleplaying games (RPGs) is a subject which could easily fill volumes, from children role-playing as other people or fictional characters to the most detailed and complicated pen-and-paper RPG. There are an almost endless number of ways for individuals to create an entirely new persona and explore places that may or may not exist. For this game profile piece, however, I will be looking at the evolution of Western RPGs on computers and consoles from text-based adventures to fully immersive graphical epics with the potential to last for hundreds of hours.

Computer RPGs found their beginnings in Text-based RPGs in the mid to late 70s, heavily influenced by Dungeons & Dragons. From this starting point, basic quasi-graphical symbolic interfaces soon started to appear, with ASCII characters representing objects and characters in the game world; probably the most famous of this type of RPG was Rogue, the game which lends it name to the entire genre dubbed ‘roguelike’. These games featured procedurally-generated levels where players could explore, find treasure (loot) and encounter enemies in an effort to level up and get as far down the dungeon as possible. These games had a massive influence on later action RPGs (ARPGs) such as Diablo, Sacred and Path of the Exile.

The next step in the evolution of the Western RPG was the introduction of full graphical user interfaces (GUIs) which allows developers to create games that can be easily identified as the ancestors to the games we enjoy today. In the Ultima and Wizardry series players find the introduction of plot, parties, colour graphical representations of players, objects and enemies in the game world and, beginning with Ultima III, the ability to use keystrokes to move a character rather than having to type out commands. While Ultima stayed with the traditional top-down view found in roguelikes, the Wizardry series used a first-person perspective to attempt to more fully immerse the player.

From this point many beloved franchises continued to produce sequels and new franchises emerged including Might & Magic and my personal favourite, Lands of Lore (this being the first game I ever purchased). Gameplay was improved, graphics continued to get better, sound effects and speech were introduced – I can still remember sitting at the computer with my father and going crazy when the noise of a horse’s hooves changed as it went from a dirt road to a wooden drawbridge in the first Lands of Lore, or Patrick Stewart’s amazing voice work. Unfortunately, over time, the Western RPG marketplace started to stagnate with many sequels not showing enough improvements over previous instalments to warrant interest and new franchises feeling much like carbon copies of more popular entries in the genre.

Then along came arguably the most influential studios in the history of Western RPGs, Black Isle, BioWare and Blizzard. Together these studios released some of the greatest RPGs and ARPGs ever including Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, Fallout and Fallout 2, all three entries in the Diablo series, Neverwinter Nights and Neverwinter Nights 2, Planescape: Torment, World of Warcraft, Mass Effect etc. The list is large and almost all of the games these studios released were instant classics, redefining how people approach not only RPGs but games outside of that genre, while also pushing both technical and artistic boundaries.

Arguably the most revolutionary of these games was Planescape: Torment. In this game the player wakes up in a morgue with no memory of who they are or where they have been and quickly acquire a talking, floating skull as a companion. What made this game so revolutionary was not only the amount of script created for the game (approximately 880,000 words) but the amount of choice players are given: the focus of the game isn’t conflict, but rather the story itself and the question that underpins it – “What can change the nature of a person?”. Planescape: Torment helped RPGs move away from the “dungeon crawl” past exemplified by roguelikes and showed what can be achieved if a game focuses on storytelling, allowing the action to be a plot device rather than the plot itself.

One of these studios is also responsible for the leviathan of a sub-genre known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG). World of Warcraft (WoW) is an online RPG based in the world of the Real Time Strategy series Warcraft, both of which were developed by Blizzard Entertainment. Since its release in 2004, WoW has been the biggest MMORPG in existence; there were others before, such as Ultima Online and Everquest, but it was WoW that really pushed the MMORPG genre to the front of stage, gaining it attention from gamers and non-gamers alike. This is due largely to the number of subscribers peaking at 12 million individual players in 2010, something that has never been accomplished by an MMORPG before. Many large MMORPGs have been launched since, such as Guild Wars 1 and 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic and The Elder Scrolls Online, each with their own features to try and set them apart, but none has come close to repeating the success the Blizzard found with WoW.

Modern-day RPG enthusiasts are spoilt for choice, with Steam and allowing them to reach back (almost) to the start of the Western RPG and play all the classics right up the present. There are a huge number of quality modern RPGs out there such as The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, The Witcher series, the Mass Effect series, the Dragon Age series, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, Grimrock… and with Kickstarter allowing developers to resurrect the classic franchises of the 90s, such as a new Torment game, Wasteland 2 and a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate in form of Pillars of Eternity. Even better is the ease with which fans are modding games, creating whole new stories and even entirely new games based on the engines of the original (of particular note are Skyrim and Dragon Age: Origins). RPG elements are bleeding in to other genres more than ever, with quest and levelling systems now found in everything from First Person Shooters to Strategy games. I don’t think there has been a better time to be an RPG gamer, so maybe it’s time to lose yourself in another world for an hour or 300.


Ben Manolas is a Children’s and Youth Librarian at the City of Melbourne. He has been playing RPGs since he was 8, has lived in far too many other worlds for his own good and considers himself a chaotic good battlemage.

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