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Editorial Note: Where Are You, CRPG?

I met a guy, someone’s someone, a young one. We talked some, mostly about games, and it turned out, I quote it: “I only played one RPG, Diablo II.”

I told him that’s not an RPG, as I know, it was only diversified with a character development system. For this he said, who the f*ck am I to know better? I answered no one, no one, steady on, let D2 be an RPG. That was all.

But in real, who am I to tell an opinion? The boy was around sixteen, and I’m playing pen and paper and computer RPGs for seventeen years now. There are approx. 20-22 different role-playing games laying on my shelves with 5-6 strategy games. Some of them are written by my own hand because I just borrowed the originals to translate them for me and my friends.

akalabeth_gdBut it is surely more interesting for a Gamedroid-reader that CRPGs were not waiting for long. I was a third grader in high school when I got my first desktop computer, a 286 brought by dad for a piece of homemade salami. It’s display was a small mono Unost television tinkered to be acceptable for the 4-color CGA. Particularly the PC was able to force 16 shades of gray out of this configuration. Well, this stuff saw a lot of interesting thing like STUNTS and POP 1-2, besides such curiosities as Ultima IV, Death Knights of Krynn and at least two parts of the Eye of the Beholder series.

So, maybe there are some basic experience behind my opinion. Well, this is enough from the whining framed introduction. Let nostalgia come.

Richard Garriott counts as the creator of CRPG with a cute little software titled Akalabeth, which was like ten white lines on black background. Like a dungeon crawling with stickmen. Then nine chapters of the Ultima series was developed from this – one of the most popular Ultimas, the fourth one can be found at the Doggies (www.homeoftheunderdogs.net) in a renewed version. I don’t guarantee it works on Win7, but if it does, you can get to know the feeling of Pen&Paper role-playing games from it. Take, for example, that tiny little option that you can talk to NPCs by typing whole sentences. (Sooner or later tricky and lazy gamers can find the useful keywords, or they search for a list – but that’s a mood killer.)

ultima4_gdSo the genre existed even before the titles above, but they show that once CRPG was either based on a PnP system and setting, or beat the level of PnP RPGs. Dragonlance games were excellent representatives of the former category – anyway, the setting seems like an everlasting favorite of D&D, thanks to the perfect trilogy of books from Weiss and Hickmann.

Another favorite, the Forgotten Realms setting was trained to the digital scene by the Eye of the Beholder series in the end of the nineties. Every right was in the hand of Strategic Simulations Inc, and SSI games surely worthed their price. Particularly, regarding screen conversions of AD&D system and feeling the company gave the available maximum on the given technological level. This programmer crew did Pool of Radiance and Panzer General too, which latter game can be known by older fans of strategy. And also a hundred titles, before the company became a part of Mindscape, then Mattel, finally Ubisoft, which nicely made the brand retire.

The last buyout happened in 2001, nine years ago, and let’s see what the webshop of Ubi throws for us searching RPG: Beyond Good & Evil, Lost, CSI, Catz, Dogz, Horsez, Grey’s Anatomy, Dark Messiah. I don’t want to put smileys into the article, but I think it’s understandable if I imagine some dumbfounded little faces with rolling eyes.

Step on some other nostalgic portalstones, if I may pen it with a so falsely style and mannered. Yes, yes, dear “older” gamers, I speak about Baldur’s Gate and its companions like BG2 and Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale. In their time these were a nice drag of action RPGs, in which only the applied Pen and Paper RPG rule system was evidently responsible for the lack of refined social aspects. I don’t write its name down here (AD&D and D&D – here it is, I wrote it down after all). In that time CRPG fans invoked the holy name of Bioware in their prayers, and they still hold it there, even if the company doesn’t deserve the worship.

beholder_gdBecause, admit it, Commander Shepard with his or her simple little character development system and two per ten social environment (you have no particular effect on the story in Mass Effect) offer a tight and fast and story-driven action game in vain: I feel some exaggeration when they call it RPG. Even so after they cloned and simplified the system for a second part. Add an earlier one, Jade Empire to the bunch and it becomes cleaner that we get no unique ideas but a well working recipe from the creators. Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t disparage these games – they are exceptional in action-adventure category –, but don’t tell me that the donkey is kind of a horse, I mean, don’t scam on those who are longing for RPG experience by expanding the meaning of “CRPG”! Dragon Age gives some shade of hope, but somehow BW isn’t able to step over the idea of making heroism equal to killing a few millions of mobs during his or her adventures. But there was a time when (in Planescape: Torment) you could solve situations with no fighting but thinking with a clever character.

Besides BW, Attic took a chance with the so-called German D&D, Drakensang and its world by making the Realms of Arkania trilogy. No wonder, Bioware games overshadowed the series, but we can find such examples later too. Fallout was the next game with real uniqueness. It came in the first half of the nineties as a forerunner of retro-futurism, and it had no hard time to sit near the aforementioned fantasy celebrities. First and second parts were made by Interplay, which crew were always mentioned in two contexts: Their games were famously genial and infamously bugged.

arcanum_gdArcanum was a hard evidence for this, with a highly detailed, improved game system of Fallout and a hybrid steampunk/fantasy world. Does it sound wild? It was. It’s enough to tell that this was the only game in the world in which every dialog was based on your character’s race, gender, beauty, charisma, intelligence, alignment, background and relation to magic/technology in the same time. (I have a feeling I missed something. Tell me, if I did.)

After these all we silently marched into the 2000s, and we cried about seeing no real CRPG in the market. After at least five years buddies were still playing with Baldur’s Gate and Fallout or Arcanum (the first was enhanced with internet support), because Neverwinter Nights from Bioware was an action-adventure again. Ok, it was based on D&D, so we waited nothing else, but just the more we hoped for some social things in the second part, or at least for some more opportunities.

Mainly after the fact that Morrowind was released in the same year as Neverwinter Nights 1, and Gothic was a bit faster. It would take half a page to tell how much you could do with the Speech skill in the former, and another half a page would go for the interactivity of the environment in the latter. The point in short: They were something to learn from, but NWN 2 was so boring that I couldn’t walk it through – it was a typical “monster-XP-artifact” run, as we characterize such games.

vanburen_gdThe essence and parody of such games were summarized long-long years ago in one of the first web-based fantasy and RPG magazines (in that time this all was so new as the unimaginative title “Net-Paper” rose curiosity in people, and yes, I had articles in that) by the next dialog:

“Where?”
“Mountains.”

“What is it?”
“Dragon”
“How much?”
“100 golds per head.”
“Ok, get ready with the reward. We bring the head here tomorrow.”

Let’s loose the lazy timeline and pay attention to the content, I jump to the end of it all. It’s clean-cut and perfectly proved by a daily broadening of the product list of MMO games that action is marketable above all. Considering this, no wonder that CRPG genre went bitchy, and some rare jewels like Fallout 3, The Withcher and Fable are praised to the skies. They conquered the hearts of the fans on their own right, with their unique settings and rule systems.

baldursgate_gd(Before someone overly feels to criticize me for this, I tell you that Dragon Age stayed out of the list because of its marketing. BW claimed the game an intellectual descendant of Baldur’s Gate. If it’s true, then DA is a modernization of BG – but if it isn’t true, then DA tries to dethronement BG. Anyway, it’s not a unique stuff in neither case, even if the spectacle drives the mind away.

Moreover, lots of others stayed out, for example the few PC-ported parts of the originally console series, Final Fantasy. Or the Might and Magic series. And so on. The cause is simple: this is not a documentary or knowledge-spreading article.

I don’t want to give answers. Furthermore, I don’t wanna get any answers, because I believe they will prove not my hopes but my fears. But I gladly put the unanswered questions in:

If we must search for uniqueness so much in recently released games, then where do you go, where are you now, dear CRPG?

—Garcius—

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