A complete history of role-playing videogames: Part 1

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Role-playing games have a fascinating history – one that stretches back much further than you might at first suppose. It’s a genre of videogame much beloved by its fans, and I daresay that few other genres have created as rabid or divided a fan base (with the possible exception of first-person shooter games, but that’s a history lesson for another day). To best understand where RPGs are today and where they’re going, it’s best to take a look at where they’ve come from. The RPG equivalent of cro-magnon man and the eventual devolution to the ape, one might say.

This is going to be a fairly long treatise in multiple parts, purely because RPGs have done so much, come so far, and have been a part of videogames almost since the rise of the computer processor. The story goes back much further than that, however, to a game many of you are probably quite familiar with. Look into my crystal ball… let the murky mists of time part for you… let your mind open and see days long gone.

Once you stop coughing from the time smoke, you’ll find that this history lesson, curiously enough, starts back about as far as 600 A.D. in the Far East with a little game that we can think of as one of the early precursors of modern RPGs: Chess.

RPG History: Chess Board

One could, I suppose, argue that role-playing games stretch further back and into ancient Rome and Greece with mock naval battles and the like, but what I like about chess as a starting point is that it has a lot in common with modern RPGs: One player acting as a proxy for a party of characters faced with a common adversary and quite conceivably staring defeat in the maw. Each character has their role and their place in the system. Combat is turn-based. There’s a mini-boss that, in the hands of a skilled player, can torment you over and over long after you’ve killed it, and the end boss is usually pathetic. Narrative wasn’t important, although a simple one could be concocted quite easily to describe the game at hand. Damage numbers had yet to be invented, but still, not half-way shabby for a game that’s still popular.

Chess eventually made its way to Japan, and one variant, shōgi, became incredibly popular, in a way that can only happen in Japan. Shōgi’s difference from garden-variety chess is relevant to us because that East/West difference is the root of the distinctions between Western and Eastern RPGs. Due to the greater number and roles of the pieces, shōgi lent itself more to a kind of narrative and its complexity informs the Eastern RPGs of today. We’re going to leave the East for now, so keep shōgi’s part in this history at the back of your mind until the rest-stop at Eastern RPGs (just around the corner from lingerie).

RPG History: Shogi Board

From the murky, incense-scented mists of the ancient East, we jump forward more than a millennium to very early 1800s Prussia, where the precursor to Warhammer-style games was being enjoyed by the Prussian military. The game had even more in common with our modern games than did chess, but much more in common with today’s real-time strategy games than role-playing games. What makes the Prussian wargames interesting as far as RPGs are concerned is that each toy military unit had an assigned amount of health – HP, if you will.

Furthermore, damage dealt by and to units was determined by the roll of a die – randomly, in other words. Jump forward another 150-or-so years, and these games were seeing more in the way of fantasy settings – settings popularized by a similar rise in fantasy fiction, chief among them being J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings.’ In fact, by the 1970s, fantasy wargames were beginning to influence the settings of fantasy and sci-fi novels, and vice versa.

RPG History: Gary Gygax The reason you are all enjoying your Mass Effects, your Diablos, your Dragon Ages, and your Final Fantasys can be traced, essentially, to a single man: Gary Gygax. Mr. Gygax (who sadly passed away a few years ago) was the man who would eventually go on to create one of the most popular tabletop role-playing games ever: Dungeons and Dragons.

D&D, as it became known, contains many of the same elements that we now consider almost essential parts of a classic RPG: hit points, mana points, armour, damage numbers, strategic play, copious quantities of enemies, and most importantly, epic narrative.

It’s at around this point that we get up from our metaphorical table and start heading for the world of digital gaming.

The largest consumers of D&D, university students, were also discovering the wonders of computers at around the same time. Arguably the very first RPG was a little game called pedit5, which came out the same year that D&D did. It only featured a single level, but it was the essence of RPGs triple-distilled to glittery perfection: kill monsters, acquire money. Very little in the way of narrative, of course – the mainframe computers at the time didn’t have even a thousandth of the power of today’s cellphones. But it was a start.

RPG History: Pedit5

As if some sort of digital floodgate had opened, the short-lived pedit5 was soon followed by similar games. Many of these games carried most of the stat-based characters that D&D popularized, and soon students were programming narrative structures into these games too. The very early 1980s saw games such as Akalabeth (written by Richard Gariott, aka Lord British, the man who would eventually go on to write the infamous Ultima series of games), Wizardry and Rogue.

These three games alone have given many of today’s games much of the features we see as standard. Rogue, for example, is the ASCII precursor to Diablo-style randomized dungeon crawls with tons of random inventory items – story was minimal, but because of the randomized dungeons, it had endless replay value. Ultima is the precursor to today’s morality-based gameplay as seen in The Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect. Wizardry gave us menu-based and party-based battles, deep, storylines, and first-person combat.

RPG History: Rogue

1982 saw the release of Telengard, which was essentially Rogue in real-time. Play was no longer turn-based, and monsters came at you whether you moved or not. This was a huge step forward in RPGs and Telengard did splendidly in terms of sales. It was popular to the point of being ported to five different computer systems, allowing more and more people to experience real-time combat.

Let’s press ‘START’ to pause the history for a bit, and head East again, because the rise in Eastern RPGs started at approximately the same time that Rogue and Wizardry were busy becoming popular in the West. If you know anything about Eastern RPGs, and if you’ve been paying attention up till now, you’ll have a very good idea of what happened and where all this is going.

RPG History: Bokosuka WarsJapan saw a fair number of computer systems that were never released to the West. Most of these systems – including the Sharp F-1, the NEC PC series, and the MSX – were superior to Western systems in a number of ways, not limited to a higher screen resolution and a better sound processor (many of which provided by Yamaha). These key differences meant that, although Western games were easily ported Eastwards, the reverse was almost never the case.

Important highlights in Japan’s RPG (JRPG) history include ドラゴン&プリンセス (which quite literally translates, and transliterates, to Dragon and Princess — see for yourself!), 剣と魔法 (Ken To Mahou, which translates as Sword and Magic), and important to our understanding of the evolution of Japanese RPGs, ボコスカウォーズ (Bokosuka Wars) and 信長の野望 (Nobunaga No Yabo, or Nobunaga’s Ambition).

Nobunaga’s Ambition, in particular, was a turn-based strategy RPG that gave rise to an entire sub-genre of strategy RPGs that focused heavily on battles and conquering regions. Many of Japan’s early RPGs were heavily story-driven, much more so than Western RPGs, and often enough gameplay not only took a back seat to story, it was often shunted into the trunk of the last car in the JRPG cavalcade. In fact, a further sub-genre of JRPGs unique to Japan had their genesis here: visual novels—story-driven RPGs quadruple distilled to story and very, very little else.

RPG History: Wizardry Anime

Here comes the ‘aha!’ moment: Wizardry’s popularity in the West meant that it was inevitably ported to Japan. The game was badly translated, of course, but it was a roaring overnight success. So popular was Wizardry, in fact, that a whole metric bunch of merchandise and spin-offs were produced solely for Japanese consumption; manga, novels, anime, new Wizardry games, and more besides – it became big in a way that can only happen in Japan.

Many of the structures that made up Wizardry’s gameplay became a heavy staple of future JRPGs. Suddenly, the intense prevalence of the menu and party-based combat in modern JRPGs make a lot of sense. Combine this with the heavily story-driven nature of early popular RPGs, and the roots of games such as Final Fantasy becomes clearer.

But that was not to be for at least another five years…

Thanks for reading part one of Fayyaad’s feature on the history of role-playing videogames – look forward to part two soon!