Saturday, August 27, 2005

5th grade RPGs & X-ray vision

In the summer of 1987, my parents decided to stay in Pennsylvania, much to my chagrin. I wanted to return to suburban Maryland. My family moved out of a large farm house with an expansive woods behind it, into a cramped row house in Carlisle proper, to await the purchase of a more permanent home. During the summer, my brothers and I were ferried back and forth to the community pool, and I was sent to Computer Camp at the near by Shippensburg University, where they taught Logo, and only Logo. My family also purchased a new computer, a Tandy 1000SX, to replace the TI/99-4a, which we'd owned for five years. I would spend ten to twelve hours a day, parked in front of the computer, mostly playing games, with the Oliver North hearings droning in the living room behind me. That summer my parents bought me two games, which in hindsight, have qualities essential to the computer RPG.
The first was entitled Below the Root, which was the story of a race of tree dwelling elves (hippies!) who were unknowingly menaced by a threat from the caverns beneath the roots of the trees that they built their homes in. The game was very unstructured with an immense and varied game world. This made it largely unwinnable, which would bother many gamers, but not myself. Each game session, though usually never making any progress in the prescribed "plot", was an adventure different from the last.
The second game was Shōgun by Mastertronic. It was built around a simple social network simulation. The player was expected to befriend, murder, and subjugate his fellow game characters. This game took a while to get interesting, but the politics and tactics of a fully developed session were very exciting. After the player had accrued a number of followers, rival lords would begin sending their subjects to attack. Surviving required assigning one's followers to the appropriate offensive, defensive, and diplomatic tasks. This idea of social simulation as game play would be utilized later by video game auteurs like Peter Molyneux and Will Wright. Several months later I got Ultima 5, a masterpiece of a game, which had many of these qualities: varied characters and allegiances, and an expansive game world. Many other RPGs, like Bard's Tale and the SSI gold-box games, focused much-too-much on combat, levels, and loot.

Disharoon, Dale and Snyder, Zilpha. Below the Root. Telarium: Windham Classics, 1984. Based on the fantasy novels of Zilpha Snyder.
Lee, Steve. Shōgun. Mastertronic, 1987. Based on the book by James Clavell.

One of the skills that I'm going to need in architecture work is the ability to see how things are put together from cues on the surface. This manner of x-ray vision is quite similiar to the skills necessary to draw people well, that is, knowing the fundamentals of anatomy and drapery, and being able to see things from the inside out.

Gilbert Gorski,"Random Access Memory", 1989.


Don Jason said...

Ultima IV is the best computer roleplaying game. . . EVER. I have yet to find a game with so many options and such an expansive world even though it was based on very simple game structures. I think Ultima V was essentially the same game with better tiles and fixing the bugs that tended to pop up, especially in the dungeons. With a new epic plot of course.

In one of the Emerson essays I am reading right now he stated that people should not be allowed to be architects if they have no understanding of anatomy. This could be construed in a number of ways . . .

Pete said...

Epic quest indeed. I played Ultima 5 for many, many hours in my grade school days. And, after looking at some of the walkthroughs for the game, I didn't even get a tenth of the way through. Granted I spent most of my time roaming about, occasionally getting clobbered by the Shadowlords or Blackthorne's troops.
Lots of the abandonware sites rate "Ultima 7- the Black Gate" as the best in the series. So I plan on giving that game a serious playing through, someday.

Don Jason said...

Isn´t Ultima 7 the one where they changed to a diablo style, sort loot, dungeon crawl?
Ultima IV is the best. You get to sing mantras and become an AVATAR!

Pete said...

No that's Ultima 8.

Pete said...

I bought Ultima 8 the week after classes ended in the Spring of 96, and played it for a few days after the dorms emptied out. I was quite deranged... Ryan shaved my head!
Maybe it was that game that drove me mad.

Pete said...

They also did a "Ultima - Worlds of Adventure" series, using the Ultima 7 engine to explore different genres. One was a "land of the lost" deal where you ran about blasting dinsaurs. The other was a Jules Verne trip to the moon.
One old RPG, by Microprose Labs (the people that brought us Pirates!), that looks interesting is a game called Darklands. I haven't gotten too far into it, but it looks like an effort was made to be as accurate to the medieval period as possible. The saint worship and the alchemical system are particularly interesting.

Mr. Alex said...

"The saint worship and the alchemical system are particularly interesting."

If we ever have an Astromen! collectible card game I want this to be the quote on the back of your card, Pete.