(This was originally written several months ago in the run up to Dragon Age II’s release for another site. The editor at the time was swamped with work and it got lost in the shuffle. As time went by I forgotten I had wrote it until a conversation on twitter reminded me about it. I asked the present feature’s editor if it would be ok to take it back for my site. He said it’s a bit late to use it, so it would be fine. A lot of the my conclusions below are based on more research than I probably should have done for news site feature, but some is merely conjecture and sampling of the zeitgeist at the time. Still I think this cultural family tree holds up. No deep meaning, just some fun looking at the past and seeing what connects to what. Here it is in full.)
With Dragon Age 2 coming out last week, I thought it would be a neat idea to look at the long lineage that led us to this point. The history of the cRPG and really the RPG in general is a long, wide and as I learned when getting the details down, very intertwined. I wont bore you any further with an introduction, because we have a lot to get through. After all the story starts all the way back in 1913.
Wargaming was a hobby derived from tactical schooling and actual military application for decades by this point, but these had been limited to the military and specialized clubs. The niche spread out to include non-war tactical offerings, but it wasn’t until 1913 a book was published that codified a rule set for the general public to use toy soldiers in a war game. Little Wars by H.G. Well (Yes that H.G. Wells. The War of the Worlds, Invisible Man and The Time Machine H.G. Wells.) did just that. It set down the rules and even offered scenarios by which the player could play the game out. Unlike private club installments at the time, Wells believed that the game should not use dice and let what happens happen. The toy soldier sets had spring-loaded cannons and could knock down enemy units.
There wasn’t much advancement in the area of wargaming. It was a niche hobby and soon after there were two world wars and great depression after all. In the 1950s Donald Featherstone wrote the biggest contribution to the genre of game since Wells himself. Wargames and Advanced Wargames among many other books were mainstream publications and inspired many other writers to add their hand to the genre. In 1952 Charles S. Roberts found some success with miniatures, tiles and counter type games. After breaking even with a game called Tactics he founded the game company Avalon Hill. He is now know as the “Father of board wargaming.” The company had success in the 1960s with games that utilized hexagonal boards and historical battles. Things exploded in the 1970s however.
The 1970s brought with it a before untold interest in wargaming. Two new companies sprung up: Game Design Workshop (GDW) and Tactical Studies Rules (TSR). The latter released a game called Chainmail in 1971, a medieval tactical miniatures game that later got a fantasy supplement. And here is where the complexity begins.
Around that time a man named Dave Wesley created a game called Braustein and showed it off to a friend of his Dave Arneson at the University of Minnesota in 1969. It was a wargame set in Napoleonic times where each person would represent an individual instead of division. It wasn’t until a year later they played Braustein again.
Meanwhile, Jeff Derren and Gary Gygax were working on the fantasy supplement to Chainmail. Gygax had codified a new system for resolving combat using dice. Later Arneson got a hold of the Chainmail system and used its combat mechanics in combination with Wesley’s Braustein, but added the fantasy elements of Gygax’s expansion and that combination was Blackmoor. As of 2008 that role-playing campaign is still being run, making it the longest RPG game is history. Blackmoor innovated many ideas at the time including hit points, experience points, character levels, armor class and dungeon crawls. It used many of the same trappings as board wargames, but allowed the players to set their own goals.
Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax eventually got together and developed the system so in 1974 Dungeons and Dragons was released. In addition to the new rule system, setting and purpose of this new genre they added influence of two book series: the Dying Earth novels and stories where they derived the need to memorize spells and Three Hearts and Three Lives which added the concept of alignment, most notable the concept of law, neutral and chaos.
It would take a few years to pick up steam and popularity, but it spawned a cottage industry and many imitators. Some were blatant rip offs while others had their successes like Chivalry & Sorcery and Traveler (Remember the latter one, it will come back up.) In the late 70s a new set of hardcover books were released with a polished system after initial feed back and called Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition.
The First Video Games
The 70s also saw the rise of another hobby industry. With Pong released in 1974 and computers coming to universities, video games had got their start. While the arcades were capturing the public imagination, programmers didn’t have a lot else to do with their computer mainframes, because no one knew what to do with them. So they programmed games. Several of those people were looking to bring Dungeons and Dragons to the computer, since there happened to be a lot of crossovers between the two cultures. Some of the games that were directly inspired by Dungeons and Dragons were Tunnels of Doom, Wizardry, and Aklabeth. Each of these was a dungeon crawl game with slightly different implantations. Most used wireframe representation of the dungeon walls and doors or solid blocks of color for the same purpose. Some were shown with a first person perspective, some from an overhead third person perspective. You would create your party of six character, choosing race, class and stats before beginning.Â Wizardry went as far as to add a rudimentary alignment system of making your characters Good, Neutral or Evil with gameplay consequences. The combat systems were text input only, as the mouse DID NOT EXIST YET. (All PC nerds get on the ground and thank the technicians at Xerox.)
I’m not going to go through every single change, it’s reception, how it interconnects at large and now to PC gamers as it had to wargamers and pen and paper RPG gamer it seems like there are going to be a lot of omissions and dead ends when they really aren’t. Remember this is the lineage of one game, Dragon Age 2, and not everything influenced it.
SSI, a company that mainly dealt with the computer wargaming scene decided to try their hand at tactical RPG genre. Based off Tunnels of Doom they created their third effort at the RPG, their first two being Qeustron and Phantasie, Wizard’s Crown. Wizard’s Crown at the time was described as the most hardcore RPG ever.
Meanwhile, Michael Cranford looked at Wizardry and thought to himself, I can do better than this. Indeed he did, while much of the gameplay is the same, The Bard’s Tale updated the graphics with color and real representation of locals. He wanted the world to feel like a real place in the computer while you were playing, not just a wireframe representation. It came with a map of the town in the box to facilitate this. It also added character and monster portraits to help you identify with the world further.
Again meanwhile, (I swear this will all come together, just be glad this isn’t the whole history.) in 1980 after Aklabeth’s decent reception, Richard Garriot (Yes that Richard Garriot) aka Lord British took his game, almost wholesale, created a new world and story and with a few minor tweaks called it Ultima.
DnD -> Tunnels of Doom -> Wizard’s Crown
DnD -> Wizardry -> The Bard’s Tale
DnD -> Aklabeth -> Ultima
Back at SSI, TSR which had published DnD and owned all the rights looked around to see if they could have a company make an officially licensed Dungeons and Dragons game. They liked SSI seriousness to the original material that they had with regards to their wargame adaptations. So TSR chose them. They took Wizard’s Crown as the base design, but also were heavily influenced by the world and nature of The Bard’s Tale. Both games were based off games that were originally based of DnD were now influencing the first official DnD computer game, Pool of Radiance. Known as the first of the Gold Box games it would spawn three sequels and other titles using the DnD license like Eye of the Beholder.
Now we got back to Richard Garriot and his Ultima series. As time went on he made several sequels, some advanced the genre in earth shattering ways like Ultimas III and IV. Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar had a unique design concept that would come back later in all forms of games, the morality meter. The entire game’s goal was about learning to be a moral person to become the Avatar rather than one of killing an evil wizard that nearly all computer RPGs had been up to this point. Others not so much. The big one we are going to talk about is 1992’s Ultima VII: The Black Gate. Ultima VII has one of the best stories of the series, but it also introduced several noteworthy mechanical things about the world. You could pick up and move items on the screen. It did away with the window box that would show the world with everything else being key-coded possible actions and stats. Instead the entire screen was the world and the mouse interface was brand new and allowed direct control of actions. It also had a not quite overhead view that will seem recognizable soon.
That same year at Microprose, designer Arnold Hendrick, who had worked on the board wargames Trireme and Dwarfstar at Avalon Hill (Remember them, they also licensed out their wargames to SSI.) and Sid Meir’s Pirates. The openworld nature and the chose your own objective ideas of the game were his. He convinced his boss to stray from the strategy genre and try and RPG. At the time they were a company with a heavy foundation on history and research and that is what they did. They found a place and time that had not been done before, dark ages Germany, but had certain qualities (ahem, cough, no horses) that allowed for technological limits of the time. The RPG design of the game came from the pen and paper Travelers system (told you it would came up again.) and the open world, open choice nature that made Sid Meir’s Pirates so unique. Darklands is a game with a cult following, but upon release a huge number of bugs, but one in particular rendered it unplayable. It was a memory leak. (It has been since patched out by fans and is worth it if you have the patience of an old school RPG.)
Darklands was mostly menu driven city exploration with multiple-choice dialogue when speaking to people. Combat was rendered in an isometric viewpoint with sprite characters and most importantly featured real time combat (Holy wow) that, get this, could be paused to allow the player to adjust tactics by pressing the spacebar. (You should all know where this is leading by now.)
Wizard’s Crown + The Bard’s Tale -> Pool of Radiance -> Eye of the Beholder
Ultima -> Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar -> Ultima VII: The Black Gate
Travelers + Sid Meir’s Pirates + Trireme + Dwarfstar = Darklands
From Dead to Peak
In 1996 many people called the cRPG genre dead. The last Ultima game came out in ’93, the other major series were stalling their new releases and SSI couldn’t seem to get their act together and put out a non-junky product like Pool of Radiance or Eye of the Beholder. I still call them reactionary idiots, but call it dead they did. Then Diablo came out. This has no relevance to the lineage, but is instead one of the biggest f-yous to reactionary idiots in video games ever, always good for a laugh. 1997 gave us Fallout. Both have completely different lineages with nothing to do with anything I’ve said so far. Amazing huh, that’s how broad the whole history is.
In 1998 all the games I talked about brought their elements together. Pool of Radiance, Eye of the Beholder, Ultima VII, The Bard’s Tale, Darklands with the addition of a new copyright license of ADnD 2nd edition came Baldur’s Gate. This is one of those moments in the history of a subject. The first was the original DnD when all the elements before it coalesced into a single thing that then exploded to influence so much after it. Ironic that the second such event would be with a DnD licensed game.
Baldur’s Gate is, let me put this in the only terms I can convey this, the greatest damn computer role playing game ever if not best game every crafted by human minds. It took all before it and added it’s own imagination and fresh perspective in something often ignored in the RPG genre, ironically, story. You can see the influences in the progression and story arc from Ultima VII, but it adds so much. Side quests, actual side quests and dialogue options from Darklands, but expanded and detailed to degree not seen before. And for good measure, probably the greatest critique of the fantasy genre within a fantasy game played for laughs. And then it started off, downplayed at the time, one of the biggest modern trends in video games: the morality meter. It was tied to the DnD alignment you chose and those of your party members. It was limited, but this is where it started. It also broke the trend up to this point in character creation in that you did not create an entire party. Instead you only created the main character, your avatar, and you find your companions out in the world.
And then it spawned a sequel.
Baldur’s Gate not only got a sequel to continue the now epic storyline, but also did so with a villain containing so much flash, disdain, methodical cruelty and at times tragic sympathy. All while David Warner’s dulcet tones soothingly terrify you. The original Baldur’s Gate also influenced the other Infinity Engine games like the Icewind Dale series and Planescape: Torment. Baldur’s Gate II of course improved the graphics and added wider options, but also introduced us to the now seemingly mandatory romantic options. The game had four, three for male characters and one for female characters. The game also brought back a feature back from the days of Wizardry: the ability to import your character from one game to the next. In Wizardry it was the only way you could progress in the newer titles, here it was for story and character value. This is where we get the next great split.
The Bioware Era
Despite competition in the western RPG from Bethesda and now Lionhead, it is still undoubtedly the Bioware Era, maybe even the Black Isle era, the people who actually made the Infinity Engine games. But I wont spread my wings too much. Have to stay focused, but first we leave Bioware to go quickly dart back to Ultima VII. (I said this was intertwined.)
Richard Garriot and Warren Spector (Yes that Warren Spector.) got to talking while working on Ultima VII about the changing dynamics of the industry and technology. Doom had put 3D on the map as the way to go. Garriot contracted out a side project of Ultima to a then untested studio Blue Sky Productions which then merged with Lerner Research and changed their name to Looking Glass Studios (Yes that Looking glass studios. How many times do I have to do this?) Their first game Ultima Underworld based off the Ultima series and Dungeon Master which itself spawned from Wizardry, probably by now one of the most influential games of all time. Dungeon Master was a first person action RPG set in a dungeon’s corridors with a click interface designed to let you move and turn. Influenced by Doom as well, Looking Glass upgraded to a more fluid movement style that allowed for much more granule movement. This was 1992. This is important because two years later it would become the direct influence of their next game System Shock, this widened the gap between itself and it’s Ultima predecessor. More shooter than RPG it kept many of the elements of its forbearers. It added new ways to convey story through logs and environment. A sequel came in 1999 headed by Ken Levine (Yes that Ken Levine.) Now that we’re all caught up on that front, back to Bioware.
Baldur’s Gate II spawned a number of little children running with what it accomplished.Â The three relevant ones are Neverwinter Nights, Planescape: Torment and most of all Dragon Age: Origins some nine years later.
Neverwinter Nights altered the genre by giving us full 3d environments. The Elder Scrolls and others had done this years before, but Neverwinter Nights was the direct descendant of Baldur’s Gate and itself spawned another great RPG Knights of the Old Republic in 2003. KotOR was a revolution. It is the first to get away from the DnD license and instead used the Star Wars license. It changed the party line-up. Instead of a party of six characters, five of which you find in the world, you gather all the playable characters and can choose whom to take with you at the home base before heading out into the world. It expanded on the morality meter and integrated it more in the conversation and story choices aspect of the game. This time is was Light side vs. Dark side instead of Good vs. Evil.
The shooting gameplay of System Shock 2 along with the Bioware RPG touches and structure of advanced by KotOR is the direct lineage to Mass Effect. But Mass Effect brought about another new change. You couldn’t create your main character, your avatar in the game world. She was already created, Shepard existed, you merely molded her from the clay given to you. Even up till KotOR you were creating your shell from scratch and only once in the game did you mold them. This is where Planescape: Torment’s influence is apparent. Planesecape gave us the Nameless One, as empty a shell as any other, except he paradoxically had a name: Nameless One. In that and other regards he was an already formed character, he didn’t know who he was, but that was part of who he was. His amnesia and ability to not die are apart of him you could not choose and were written by the designers before hand. You could only mold him afterwards.
Conversations took a different turn. Instead of having full responses written out word for word what your character would say, instead you have short snippet impressions of what your Shepard would say. This allowed the main character to be fully voiced in conversation because it wouldn’t be tedious. The morality meter also changed a bit. Mass Effect didn’t use a single scale to determine your place on it, it allowed you to gain both Paragon and Renegade points and the game would give you more or less options depended on those point values.
Mass Effect of course led directly to Mass Effect 2. It was an upgrade and streamlining of the first game. It brought in more shooter elements and faster play. It got rid of inventories and focused more on character.
Back to Baldur’s Gate II. I said before that it was the direct influence to Dragon Age: Origins. I know this because the developer’s tag line for the game was “spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate.” The tactical, isometric, pause/play combat was there as was the full dialogue options instead of Mass Effect’s impression system. The interface is just a shinier version of the Baldur’s Gate one. Even the menus look the same. The biggest changed, which was in the original Baldur’s Gate is how characters in party would react to your reputation level, aka your morality meter. Now each character has his or her own meter, which is moved based on their character instead of overarching world metrics.
Now comes the final moment. Dragon Age 2 is Dragon Age: Origins + Mass Effect 2. Hawk is a predefined character that you do not create, but instead mold. Everything has been much more streamlined from the character creation to the action oriented combat. It ditched the dialogue options in conversation for the Mass Effect impression system, with some admitted upgrades as well. But on the positive note it kept the no overarching morality meter. Instead it keeps the individual party member’s approval meter. Really, the easiest and simplest way to understand Dragon Age 2 is that it is the child of Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2.
The Wrap Up
It has been a long road up to this point. Starting in 1913 with H.G. Wells we come 88 years later to arrive at Dragon Age 2. There are dozens if not hundred of games left out from this little sliver of history. So many great games in the meantime and many left off on the periphery that went on to spawn and influence other games and franchises, even entire genres. But for now, focusing on this one game is enough. Hope you enjoyed this little history lesson of where the latest AAA RPG came from.
(This probably needed an editor for clean up and someone to tell me no with regards to some style choices.)