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Welcome to our newest columnist for 1998, Shadow Sprite, and the "Foaming at the Mouth" series of looks into gaming's darker niches.

Computer Role Playing Games and
How Most Aren't

by Shadow Sprite

January 20, 1998

Note: MUDs, MUSHes, MOOs and other on-line RPGs are not covered in this rant. The reason is quite simple. Shadow Sprite is merely conveying his thoughts to the recent experiment of RPGnet reviewing CRPGs and most to all of the on-line games most likely won't be take part within the reviews.

I'll admit it. I was against RPGnet adding a review section for computer-based RPGs. Its not that I'm against allowing reviewers to get nifty demo copies of games - hell, I want some too! My problem lies in the fact that an extremely large percentage (99.899% is a pretty large quantity!) of CRPGs simply aren't role-playing games! There actually seem to be two kinds of CRPGs; the adventure game, in which the player solves problems and normally has limited interaction between various characters; and the standard CRPG, in which the player creates a character or characters and walks them through numerous dungeon crawls.

Computer adventure games (or eye-candy/mouse-clickers as one of my friends puts it) like "Phantasmagoria", "Myst", "Zork Nemesis", and "Sam and Max Hit the Road" are good examples of the puzzle solving qualities that role-playing games present us with. The puzzles provided range from pathetically easy (rarely) to intensively challenging (common) to insanely difficult/stupidly impossible (not as rare as it should be) and normally only require an item that is located elsewhere in the game.

...And that item is also hidden in a puzzle! The puzzles normally only have one answer as well, not allowing for any additional creativity on the side of the player. How I love thwarting some of the GM's toughest puzzles simply because my character carries the "handy-man's secret weapon", duct tape (thank you, Red Greene Show)! These adventure games usually deal with dialogue as well within the item hunt. However, the conversations that computer games present us with can be a bit lacking. Even the games that allow you to type in your statement don't allow for the fulfillment that pen and paper RPGs provide. An Example:

GM "As you approach the townsman he quivers in fear, unsure of what you're about to do next."
Player "I narrow my eyes menacingly and jerk my head towards the empty street."
GM "The man flees, leaving only a small yellow puddle where he was standing."
Player laughs insanely.
Wasn't that nice? Not necessarily the player's actions (although they were fun!), but the simple interaction between the player and a nameless NPC.
Player "Bartender, tell me about Holy Grail"
Computer "Bartender doesn't know anything about Holy Grail!"
Player "Bartender, tell me about King Arthur"
Computer "King Arthur and his nights are famous for the quest to find the Holy Grail."
Player screams ineffectually at the monitor "Where's the ROLE-play? I want to hit this jerk!"

To make matters worse, adventure games offer little to no chance to improve your character throughout gameplay and even less chance of combat!

Standard CRPGs, like "Might and Magic", "Wizardry", "Ultima", and any of the AD&D computer games, on the other hand, provide plenty of opportunity to improve your character, provided you live through the barrage of enemies presented to you. CRPGs are, for the most part, huge, semi-linear dungeon crawls. They offer little need to up any skills that don't deal in combat (outside of magic users who may also need to identify items). If the character(s) aren't fighting a monster or two, then they're on their way to. The puzzle solving is either non-existent or so pathetic it shouldn't have been included and once more are the standard item scavenger hunt (You know, kill a monster, find a clue that leads you to another monster to kill who has another clue...).

Even worse, the dialogue within a CRPG is either a pre-generated speech by a shoddy voice actor or so dry it almost seems monotone when read! A perfect example of the lack of perfection is Bethesda's "Elder Scrolls" games, there was a host of NPCs and yet they all had the same reactions to my character. Despite the fact that I created a character with good looks and a high personality attribute I was treated the same between a baker and a prostitute! To make matters worse, my thieving misshapen lizard-man was treated the same as my previous character! On top of all these problems the story line or campaign hook is paper-thin and as weak and full of holes as delico baby swiss cheese!

RPGs for Console systems aren't much better. Sure, the story-lines are much more gripping and the graphics and commands easier and more pleasing to the eye, but I always wonder why no-one ever gets mad when my characters walk into a habited house and walk out with every takeable belonging! I always imagine that after the game ends and the credits roll seeing my characters hauled off to jail for stealing everyone's stuff - despite the fact that they were using it to save the universe, again!

But, all of these games I play. Why? Because they are fun, and some of them can keep me going without food for weeks (Final Fantasy is my ultimate diet plan). I simply object to the word role-playing being tacked onto the game title to make a buck, or because no one expects more. I know none of the pen and paper RPGs I've played have simply been an item hunt or a slugfest, the simple fact that there's player/character interaction keeps it from sinking that low! The point is, until character interaction and true interactivities with the environment become available within the game the title of RPG is a misnomer that we should rebel against.

On a happier note, there does seem to be one game out there that fits the description of a role-playing game for the computer: Interplay's newest game, Fallout. Originally going to use Steve Jackson Games' GURPS engine (imagine the character generation!) Interplay instead created their own system known as SPECIAL. Not only does the game combine the best elements of adventure games (puzzle solving and character interaction) and CRPGs (level building & combat), the designers of Fallout allowed the character to be able to change his attitudes and mannerisms; and better yet, the NPCs remember how they were treated and act accordingly! This game is the first step in an evolution towards true Computer-based RPGs and I can only hope that other companies take notice and follow Interplay's lead. ...But add multiplayer capabilities! :)

Happy Gaming!
Shadow Sprite

Feedback encouraged to sprite@rpg.net!

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What do you think?

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All Foaming at the Mouth columns by Erich S. Arendall

(plus earlier items from the Sprite archive)
  • Hanging up the Dice Bag February 7, 2001
  • It's All In The Details August 8, 2000
  • Regarding Reviews July 5, 2000
  • Rest, Relaxation, and Role-Playing May 23, 2000
  • Gaming, Yes! Gamers, Argh! April 18, 2000
  • Kudos, Komplaints or Kriticism, I don't Kare! March 28, 2000
  • Three Little Words February 1, 2000
  • Stories, Characters, Supplements, and Modules December 7, 1999
  • Real Roleplayers? Real Snobs. October 12, 1999
  • Socialism and Systems September 14, 1999
  • Same Earth, Different - You Know the Rest... August 17, 1999
  • It's Evolution, Baby! July 20, 1999
  • Buried in Dice June 8, 1999
  • Look Ma! No Dice! No Rules! May 18, 1999
  • Oh, Servant! April 27, 1999
  • Motivational Evil March 30, 1999
  • Love and Sex... In Gaming! February 9, 1999
  • You're Doing What On-Line? January 19, 1999
  • I do it for the Toys December 9, 1998
  • Everybody Else is Doing it... November 24, 1998
  • All the Game's a Stage October 20, 1998
  • Nobody Wants to GM! September 15, 1998
  • Ugly, but not Frightening August 20, 1998
  • ...And I'll Be a Baker! July 21, 1998
  • Cultish Followings and Golden Ages June 16, 1998
  • Hocus Shmocus May 19, 1998
  • Crossbows over Characters? (or, Gaming Mentalities) April 21, 1998
  • Hey! You're Not Smart Enough to Play that Character! (Part 2) March 17, 1998
  • Hey! You're Not Smart Enough to Play that Character! (Part 1) February 17, 1998
  • Computer RPGs and How Most Aren't January 20, 1998
  • Sprite's first guest column, on The Economics of Gaming December 23, 1997 (or, "How to Dissuade Those Pesky Non-Gamers")

    Other columns at RPGnet

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