One of the favorite things I like to ask my guests on Matt Chat is about their gaming history. What games did you play that sealed your fate as a lifelong gamer? I could talk about that for awhile, actually–because some designers admit to (really) not liking games very much anymore. My guess is that they’re into it mostly for the technical challenge of making them or the economic challenge of selling them. But anyway, on to my own CRPG History!
The earliest memory I have of CRPGs is a cassette tape my dad had labeled “Dungeons & Dragons.” I believe it was a game for the VIC-20 we had at the time. I asked him about it, but received only the mysterious response, “It’s too complicated for you now. You’ll need to be older to play it.” There are few things you can tell a 6 year old that will stimulate a lifelong interest better than that. However, sadly, I never played whatever that game was.
The first CRPG I played was Jeff McCord’s Sword of Fargoal. Appropriately, Jeff was also the first of many interviews with designers on Matt Chat. I was too young to really grok the mechanics (I’m guessing I was still 6, maybe 7), but I did love the sound effects and scary fog.
However, the game that really started me on the road to CRPG fandom was Bard’s Tale, or, more obscurely, Tales of the Unknown Vol. 1: The Bard’s Tale. I reviewed the game in episode 71 and even composed a theme song for it! I was still too young to really grok the mechanics, but the pirated copy I had was loaded with saved games. I enjoyed loading up those super-powered parties and blasting my way through town. I also had a good time creating parties, though they tended to die as soon as I left the safety of the guild!
I’ve seldom had the opportunity to play tabletop D&D. Indeed, I think I’ve played it maybe three times in my life. That didn’t stop me from being fascinated by the franchise. Just the words “Dungeons & Dragons” were enough to pique my interest. In short, by the time Pool of Radiance debuted in 1988, I was 11 years old, up to the challenge of the mechanics, and eager to jump into the franchise. The vague unease my religious family had developed that time about “possible Satanism in role-playing games” only fueled the fire. Naturally, it was this game I turned to for my first-ever Matt Chat, and it’s one of only a handful of CRPGs from that era that I still find engrossing enough to play today.
My grandmother (God rest her soul) purchased the game for my Commodore 64. I had to turn to her for this purpose, since my dad was a strict pirate (buy commercial software? Ha!). However, I knew I wouldn’t stand a chance without the instruction manuals. There was no in-game help back then, and even with a cracked copy that got me past the infamous code wheel protection, I’d still be SOL when it came to reading the journal entries. You see, since memory was scarce in those days, and, after all, it was a pretty good way to make folks ante up for a legit copy. At the same time as POR, I also got Bard’s Tale, which I luckily found in a bargain bin at the same time. Having the manual for that game was essential, too, especially since the magic system in that game relied on codes from the manual (ARFI!). You literally needed those codes to make the magic happen!
My grandmother was very strict about making us wait until Christmas before opening up anything, but I convinced her that it was okay for me to open up my games. She was so strict, in fact, that she’d actually taken gifts back if we found out what they were beforehand (“Oh, my little brother opened that up!” Yeah, right! Back to the store.) However, this situation was different, I argued. couldn’t actually play them without a computer, and reading the manuals wouldn’t hurt anything. I’m still amazed she went along with this. I guess she could see that reading the manuals would only make me more excited to play them on Christmas, which they most certainly did.
Unfortunately, Pool of Radiance intimidated the hell out of me. I got the party created, but it really is a complex game for the uninitiated. I fell back on The Bard’s Tale, since I was already somewhat familiar with it, and being able to cast spells for the first time was a huge draw.
However, that shiny gold box and fierce looking warrior on the cover kept me coming back to Pool of Radiance. Finally, it occurred to me that I should buy the “official clue book” for the game. With that in hand, I was able to finally fully grok the mechanics and get all the way to the end of the game. That was a first for me–to this day, I’ve never beaten any of the Bard’s Tale games.
When I say I “got into” Pool of Radiance, I’m not kidding. I felt a close, personal connection to my characters, and would think about them when I was at school or (gasp) church. Indeed, I’ll never forget one Sunday night when my brave adventurers conquered Kuto and I was awarded his hideout for my own secret base! Then I had to go to church and sit in a pew for an hour. Ugh…I couldn’t wait to get back and explore that well!
Another memory I have of this era is my C64’s 1541 conking out on me (it may or may not have had something to do with my striking it with my first when that battle at Sokal Keep went particularly badly). I wasn’t quite finished with the game, and had to wait for weeks for my dad to get it repaired. When he finally announced it was coming home, I wrote out a “Welcome back!” sign and hung it on my desk. Yeah, I was a bit too excited. I also never hit the poor thing again.
From then on, getting a new gold box game for my C64 was a Christmas and birthday tradition. There was Curse of the Azure Bonds, with that oh-so-sexy lady on the cover, Secret of the SIlver Blades, and then onto the Dragonlance games and finally the Savage Frontier. Honestly, I could have continued playing these games all along if they’d kept making them.
By this point, though, the C64 was definitely obsolete, and I didn’t have any good CRPGs for the Amiga (which my dad had upgraded to). Sure, we had Faery Tale Adventure, but it just wasn’t the same, and our stupid ol’ Amiga 1000 didn’t have enough juice to run Dungeon Master or Eye of the Beholder. So I just had to make do with the classics.
Around this time I discovered the first Wizardry game and played it on the C64. It was then that I realized that, just because a game is considered “obsolete” or doesn’t have the best graphics, it’s stupid to overlook their potential. The classic Wizardry is a hell of a great game, even today, and “primitive” as it might seem, can still have you looking up at the clock and saying–“What the hell? Four a.m.?”
Once I got to college, the CRPGs in the stores were much different than what I remembered. I really liked the gold box games for their combat engine and full character control, and none of these games seem to have them. However, once I got a PC (er, my girlfriend’s PC) I felt obligated to try one, and Might and Magic VI: Mandate of Heaven at least had the appropriate cover art. I was skeptical at first, but once I got over the shock of the first-person, shooter-style interface, I found plenty to love. The game had wonderful aesthetics and vibrant personality. It also a huge world to explore and so much to do! I reviewed it for episode 123, and continued to play long after that review was done.
I went through my first huge breakup during that game–I had to move out, and, worse, the PC wasn’t coming with me. NO PROBLEM. I called Gateway (I think their number was 1-800-gate-way) and talked to their salesman. Back then, I was still convinced that the Amiga was superior to PC, and I’d heard that Gateway had bought the rights and were planning to release a new Amiga. I asked the salesman about this, and he just laughed: “Why would we do that when we already make the best PCs in the world?” was his line. Ugh. I hated him. But, hey, I wasn’t going to play M&M VI without one, so I made the order.
I was going through a hell of a time. First off, I’d been dumped, and this was that first great stupid love that you never really get over. Second, I had moved out and into a real rat’s nest of an apartment. This place was a dump. A guy got shot right up the street sitting in his car–I kid you not. Third, I was working a horrible job at a sawmill. My task was to do fun stuff like clear brush around an old drainage pond, paint all the fire hydrants and pipes, and basically do the bidding of a 70+ year old toothless guy who loved snuff–all in the 100+ degree, 100% humidity of a Louisiana summer. There were days when it got so hot and muggy that I felt I had a warm, soggy blanket wrapped around me. At least the pain kept my mind off my heartache. Perhaps the greatest torture, though, was all that waiting–for the damn boxes from Gateway to arrive!
So, imagine my pleasure when I got back to the rathole and saw a note on the door: “UPS has a package for you.” How nice. But, the office was closed by the time I got back home (the sawmill was quite a distance away). Ugh…Another day without M&M 6! I tried calling them, but of course it wasn’t during business hours. I wrote out my own note: “I’ll leave the door unlocked. Just put them inside.” It was a huge, stupid risk in that neighborhood–but I couldn’t think of anything else.
Lo and behold, though, when I got back and saw those boxes! Yippee! I literally did a happy dance. It took me about five minutes to get that computer up and running, and–ergh. Well, looks like the “best PCs in the world” didn’t extend to monitors. I couldn’t see a damn thing! I called up their tech support (at least that was 24-hours) and was talked to like an idiot for a couple hours. Did I check the drivers? “I can’t see anything.” Am I sure it’s plugged in? “Duh.” Let’s try resetting the computer. “What for?” We can try re-installing Windows. “I CAN’T SEE ANYTHING ON THE DAMN MONITOR!” Well, I guess we’ll send you a new monitor. “THANK YOU.”
Believe it or not, I had to go through the same rigmarole as before with the UPS guy. He wrote on his note that he really wasn’t supposed to put boxes in people’s houses, so I’d have to come by the office this time or have someone sign for it. I wrote back: “Please just do this one last time. I work all day and don’t have anybody here to sign for me.” I guess he felt sorry for me, because when I got back the next day it was there. AND IT WORKED.
So I finally got to complete M&M 6. If you remember those games, you know at the end there’s a little certificate of completion you can print out and sign. Naturally, I hit “PRINT.” And the Gateway printer didn’t work. Yes, I had to go through the same shit again to get a replacement.
I never, ever, ever bought anything from Gateway ever again in my life.
After M&M 6, of course, it was on to 7 and 8. By 8, though, I could see they’d really let the quality drop. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what that means–on the surface, it had everything you’d need for weeks of fun. But something was just missing. It looked like beer, smelled like beer, tasted like beer, but I couldn’t get drunk no matter how many I drank.
Fortunately, help was on the way–from a very unlikely source. My new girlfriend (major love interest #2), was also a fan of CRPGs. However, she liked something called Baldur’s Gate. That was a sore spot for me. Sure, it had the right artwork. Sure, it had the right license. But, ugh, it had that “real-time with pause” combat, and you only got to make one character. I just couldn’t bring myself to play it.
“What about Icewind Dale, then? That lets you make a whole party.” I was with this woman for two, maybe three years–hell, she even moved to Florida with me when I attended USF. And that line is the only thing I remember her saying word for word.
As with M&M 6, it took some adjusting–both mentally and emotionally–to get used to the new interface. I still don’t really care for it. It seems at this point that designers had begun caring more about flashy graphics than really tight controls. I just never felt like a tight grip on the damn thing. But it did let me make a whole party, and the aesthetics were great.
After that, I said, oh, hell, why not give Baldur’s Gate a try? My skepticism about it lasted about ten minutes. Even if the combat wasn’t great, there was no arguing with the characters, script, aesthetics, and story. Those guys nailed it. Even today, it’s hard to see that opening sequence and not feel drawn back into that universe. The sequel was even better, with a more sophisticated leveling system.
Now it’s 2014, and I still think Baldur’s Gate I and II were the pinnacle of the single-player CRPG. That’s not to say I haven’t loved other games–I love the first two Fallout games, for instance, and Neverwinter Nights had its appeal. However, none of these games, nor the various Elder Scrolls games I’ve played over the years, have sucked me in like Baldur’s Gate.
However, after Baldur’s Gate, I was discovering a new world of role-playing via the MUDs on campus. That was a strange experience. I was in a computer lab one day, and one of those “weird” types (you know, the kind you generally want to stay away from) was playing some text-based game that looked suspiciously like D&D. So I worked up the nerve to ask him what he was doing. He turned back with that oh-so-condescending stare and said something like, “Oh, just MUDding.” Thank you. Now what the hell is that? “It’s a game.” Duh. “Well, do you play D&D?” Not really, but I like the computer game versions. “Oh. Well, I can show you this.”
Thanks to him, I was soon immersed in the weird world of massively online role-playing games, though we didn’t call them that. It was just “MUD.” Though the mechanics in the games were about as complex as the graphics, there was something very compelling about playing something like this with so many other people. Who were those folks? Were they like me? I never made any lifelong friends or anything, but the folks there were chatty, and there were some parts of the game that obligated you to help (or be helped). “Can anyone help me get back to my corpse?” was a good one.
I even did some recruiting. Turns out, some of my new friends (and my best friend from high school, Max,) were fascinated by this, too. It’s a beautiful thing when something you’ve done by yourself for so long turns out to be even more fun with other people. I’ll spare you the obvious analogy.
One little bastard told me one day I should try making the fountain invisible (I was playing a game). Why not? I tried that, and then the MUD informed me that my character had been banned. Whaaa? A joke, right. Nope–I was broken a rule. I appealed, but it was pointless–the chief asshole in charge just kept saying I’d agreed to the policy when I signed up; wasn’t his fault if I didn’t bother to read it. Well, that just sucks. I tried another MUD for awhile, but this little kick in the balls had really dampened my enthusiasm. Other people suck.
Subsequently, I sat out the whole Ultima Online and Everquest eras. Indeed, I really wasn’t playing many games at this point, instead focusing on my studies as an English major and trying to fool myself into thinking I was a novelist and, cough, poet. I’d also started a little rock band with a couple friends, and we were having the time of our lives. Beer, women, music–hell, who needed games? Those were for kids, virgins, and dorks.
I didn’t return to gaming in a major way until the latter half of my PhD program, when I met a professor named Joe Moxley. He was the only professor I’d ever had who was really into computers. The others, in fact, had been almost anti-computer, which must have rubbed off on me. Moxley, however, was fascinated by stuff like blogs and wikis, and his enthusiasm was contagious. I was soon drawn once again to computers, and, of course, by extension, games.
Still, I wasn’t playing many CRPGs at this point. I just didn’t care for the “action RPG.” Instead, I played games like Unreal Tournament with my friends on a private LAN. I also got into adventure games, starting with Myst and leading on to the Lucasfilm classics.
When World of Warcraft came out, I couldn’t have cared less. Another MMORPG. So what? However, a year or so later, I’d graduated and gotten my first real job–as professor here at St. Cloud State University. Happily, I was considered mostly because of my interest and knowledge of computers–turns out, they were far more of an asset than a hindrance for an English major. For reasons I’m still not clear about, though, the faculty there decided they needed to hire another “techie” prof, and so I met Dr. Kevin Moberly.
Kevin was really into WoW. Far more than I’ve ever been. The guy considered it a second job–“Can’t do anything after 9 p.m. any day except Sunday, my day off.” Whaa? He finally took the time to show me the game. He was so convincing–and there was a 2-week free trial–so I said, why not?
I created a warrior (bad move) and went into it headfirst. Kevin tried to give me advice, but I shooed him away. I’ve been playing CRPGs since I was old enough to talk! And this one doesn’t really impress me. In fact, I don’t see what the big deal is. Why are so many people into this? Look at all the flaws…Ugh. I’m stopping this once I get to level 20. Okay, make it 30. 40. I guess I need that damn expansion after all.
Then a funny thing happened. I was on the phone with Max, and he started talking about this new fantasy game he was playing. What was it? World of Warcraft? Really? Oh, man, we should roll some new characters and play together. Epic! And so it goes. I still don’t like that game, and I’ve spent at least a thousand hours playing the damn thing.
Nowadays, I go through WOW phases. I won’t play for months, then, disgusted with everything else out there, will go back and roll a new character–and the same seems true for my friend. It’s usually fun as long as you haven’t maxed out your toon, but after that, you’re pretty much sucked into interacting with those damn other people again. You can do that in PVP (where they literally kick you in the nuts) or PVE (where they’re just snotty and rude to you). Either way, once I run out of ways to have fun playing it solo, I cancel my subscription for awhile and see what else is out there.
So that’s about it for my CRPG history. Lately, I’ve been playing a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Sadly, nothing has hooked me. I’m holding out hope that the batch of Kickstarter-games will do that, though–so I’m really optimistic.
Still, it’s comforting to know that, whatever happens, I can always return to Skara Brae, Phlan, or Candlekeep if things get rough. And the funny thing is, each time I do, I develop a whole new appreciation for their aesthetics and design. I’ve changed a lot since my days playing Bard’s Tale and gold box games on the C64. My parents threw me out when I was 16; I haven’t spoken to them since. I’ve loved and lost to the point of disillusion. I’ve had my house surrounded by police snipers (boy, wouldn’t you like to know that story?). I lost a friend to suicide and others to addiction. I got my PhD and am now a published author. I’ve done things that my 12-year old self would have thought impossible and plenty he would’ve found immoral. But there’s always been one element of stability in my life, one haven from absurdity and the abyss.
Good CRPG gameplay never changes.