Sunday, October 26, 2014

Mind of the Beholder
Part 1

"This post isn't late, nor is it early"

When I think on my role playing game history I have to go back to Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss and more memorably: Ultima VII. When these games were released I was a strapping lad about ten years of age with boundless ambition, destiny and special purpose. I set out into the world of Britannia because it looked impressive in the screenshots but was soon stumped as to what was supposed to happen in this 'game'. It started out with a pretty gruesome murder scene. I could deal with the pixelated blood, but the quartered body was a bit much. The villagers of the town, horrified and stupified, cried out to a future-inter-dimensional-travelling type, the Avatar, to figure it out for them. Unfortunately they got pre-pubecant me to sort it out, which it never did.

The opening of Ultima 7. I nabbed this nice HD screenshot from this fine blog, I hope that's ok.

My English then was of the budding sort and whatever needed to happen, my party members needed food first and they needed it all the time. I particularly remember a needy old geezer who's primary job alternated between taking in all the food I could rob from the townsfolk and nagging me for more when I didn't. The guy consumed entire village stores like a man-shaped tamagochi, yet not once did I see him run off to the privy.
Ultima VII, I remember you fondly for your immersion and interactivity but you shared disk space on the EA collection CD with Wing Commander Academy and thát had space ships that exploded when you shot at them and I was, even at the time, an acclaimed air combat veteran.
The next RPG I got into was The Legend Of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the SNES. My child brain couldn't figure out it wasn't an RPG but it had a top down perspective and that was reason enough. After that followed a fallow period. I tried various RPGs, some Hack and Slash from the demo CD's that came with a magazine called PC Gameplay but nothing, save Rage Of Mages, really stuck by me. Until I got the game called Baldur's Gate from Black Isle Studios. Baldur's Gate was a very big deal for me. Like Falcon 3, it changed the structure of my mind.

Now look at me.

Baldur's Gate Logo Baldur's Gate's Logo made quite clear this wasn't a game to take lightly

Like a recurring nightmare, Baldur's Gate starts off with a murder scene. This one even more gruesome. This time I was forced to observe the murder of my foster father. As horror ensued I fled, desperate and alone, towards the safety of any ally I could make in a world who's interest limited itself to either robbing, recruiting or eating me. It was motivating. I was no longer reclining with eyes wide open like I was as the Avater. There was a base purpose. Hunted like a fox, all that mattered right then was to survive. The game presented me with a malleable character with statistics that made the game understandable. Abstracted, yet every element had a use. After the violent intro, the world became open, oddly calm and inviting. NPCs banter amusingly. Most were open to conversation. Every enemy became less threatening given the many tools the game provided. Black Isle even raised the bar when it came to suspension of disbelief when I read, in the manual, that player characters use the latrine when I wasn't looking. My first character was a neutral good half-elven multiclassed mage/thief. I made numerous characters after that but you will never forget your first.

Baldur's Gate Logo Don't scoff, even Baldur's Gate's visuals were very impressive for its time.

For the first time ever I had come in contact with the Dungeons And Dragons ruleset and loved it. Maybe you've heard of it. It's one of those that needs 20 sided dice to roll for effects. It has classes, it has parties, dungeon parties and presumably Dungeoned Dragons. I wasn't aware of it at the time but in the future it would become a benchmark for me. Years later still I found out that D&D has been quite influencial in cRPG design. The influence was still palpable in the seemingly unrelated Mass Effect by way of Knights of the Old Republic.

These last are but a few games that you'll see mentioned in the coming posts. This is but an introduction to a series of pensers on the topic of role playing game design. There'll be a fair bit of ranting, suggestion making, finger pointing, derailing and theory crafting. I often find that I am rather opinionated when it comes to RPGs and as such see a lot of right and wrongs in games today. Elaborating on this topic has become a compulsion. Writing about it: therapeutic. I may get things all wrong. The upside is we'll all get to learn how to get something, if anything, right.

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