The Representation of Roleplaying in Computer Games

by Lev Lafayette


Just as there is a representation of computers in roleplaying games over the history of the hobby there has been a representation of roleplaying within computer games as well. Whereas the former has been a combination of an (often poor) simulation of computer systems combined with an (often good) representation of the literary fiction and speculation of such systems, the representation of roleplaying in computer games has been dependent on the programming capacity of the era for the user market and secondly the commercial genre orientation of the market. In this regard, five broad categories of games are described, roughly in order of historical development. The story begins with text-based adventure games, followed by early graphic RPGs, then MUDs and MOOs, followed by advanced graphic games, and ultimately a convergence of the two technological streams into MORPGs. A conclusion suggests that even at this level however there are certain features in roleplaying which cannot be computerised, even on a theoretical level, which suggests a future potential market.

Differentiated from real-time dexterity-based games, the player of an adventure game assumes the role in an interactive story which can be based on a narrative or as a sandbox for exploration. Because success in such games depends on criteria which are pre-established by the game's program (even allowing for random elements) in many ways the game is a puzzle, although the simulation of roleplaying is possible depending on the complexity of the dialogue and their incorporation into the game's success criteria.

Text Adventure Games

The first game of this genre was Colossal Cave Adventure (aka Colossal Cave or Adventure) first written in 1976 on a PDP-10. The original author, William Crowther, had been introduced to Dungeons & Dragons and was also a keen spelunker, based the layout and experience on the Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the world, but also included some fantasy elements. A further development of great note was the Zork series first written between 1977 and 1979, and the first game to become a commercial success released on a variety of early personal computing operating systems. Eventually some sixteen different Zork games would be released along with a book series.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1984) is considered the classic example of the puzzle-orientated text-based adventure game. The plot fairly much follows the novels, however the sequence of tasks can prove critical from the very start where Arthur Dent encounters the local council planning to bulldoze his house, the the notoriously difficult and critical aquisition of the Babel Fish, necessary to complete the game and with success required in a number of steps.

The relative complexity of the text parser is an important component of roleplaying representation in these game. Those which allow more than just able to apply verb-noun commands (e.g., some simple prepositions and conjunctions, such as Zork), had greater immersive quality. The complexity of text parsers for information and the depth of dialogue trees, along the maintenance of "logical space" (i.e., a path from A to B should mean the return from B to A applies) are considered critical components of text-based adventure games. A huge adventure game of this sort with a poor parser, limited dialogue range, and illogical space, is less enticing or interesting than a smaller game that pays attention to these features. Indeed these components are more important than traditional adventure-game components such as the inventory or complexity of the combat system, or in-game puzzles.

Basic Graphic Adventure Games

Some text-based adventure games made use of graphics to supplement game play. These can still be considered text-based as long as the the main interface of the gameplay was based on text-commands, such as the original Leisure Suit Larry game (1987). An impressive more contemporary example is the Gloranthan-based game King of Dragon Pass (1999) also can come under this category. Without animation in game play, this still can be classified as a text-based adventure game despite the use of illustrative artwork. It also stakes a claim as a roleplaying game as well, although echnically without an single person alter-ego, the player takes the role of the collective wisdom of the inner council of a clan, making tactical decisions, engaging in HeroQuests and so forth.

In terms of roleplaying representation the same applies for those games that have a higher level of graphical interface for movement and action. Thus classic "dungeon crawl" games like Temple of Apshai (1979), or Wizardry (1980) (whose frame-display of opponents and locations constituted advanced graphics for its time), can be evaluated not against the graphics, but rather on the interactive roleplay in the game. The same applies for follow-up games like, The Bard's Tale (1985), games like Ultima (1980, excluding the arcade-game shooter interlude!), for Rogue-like games (1980 onwards), Phantasie (1985), combination strategy and roleplaying (e.g., Sword of Aragon, 1989), various Sierra games (e.g., Space Quest (1986)), SSI gold-box Dungeons and Dragons games (e.g., Pool of Radiance (1988)), and even console game (e.g., The Legend of Zelda, 1986). As a small example, by the later versions of Ultima a virtue-based alignment system had been introduced with NPC responses on the dialogue tree varying according to the in-character language evoked by the player.

Multi-User Domains

Inspired by Zork, Rob Trubshaw of Essex University wrote a multiplayer dungeon environment in 1978 spawing a new genre and game architecture, a multiplayer real-time virtual world, combining some features of tabletop role-playing games, dungeon crawl hack and slash, competitive player versus player, interactive fiction, and online chat. The orginal game was simply called "Multi-User Dungeon", and is often referred to as MUD1 to distinguish from the genre as a whole. The game included gains in experience points until one gained a wizard level, which granted character immortality and powers over the environment.

Evolution and forks of the code-base led to a variety of other implementations, the most important giving additional emphasis on particular game features. DikuMUD (1991) and its deriviatives, for example, emphasized "hack and slash" fantasy gaming, up to an including GodWars II (2002) which combined dark fantasy with player-versus-player competition. In rather stark contrast the TinyMUD system and subsequent systems emphasised player cooperation, especially in terms of the ability of the players to create their environment. Combining both traditional gaming orientation (although with a leveless and classless system), in a medieval fantasy setting, with a high level of roleplaying expectations, even to the extent of preventing inappropriate names, was Genesis LPMud (1989). This particular MUD is still in operation ( Also still in operation include derivations include Lost Souls (1990) and Ancient Anguish (1992). Lost Souls is notable for a specific Discordian orientation, and innovations such as an overland map environs, an emphasis on realistic combat, and, as character traits, varied languages.

Late Graphic Adventure Games

The term "late graphic adventure games" refer to those that have a consistent real-time graphic element along with roleplaying features, of which games like the Japanese First Queen (1994) is a notable precursor, with Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat (1995) containing some elements, Diablo (1996), Blade Runner (1997), Fallout (1997), and Might and Magic VI (1998) which was also notable for its use of full motion video for cut-away scenes. The Infinity Engine games are perhaps the most well-known and complex examples (e.g., Baldur's Gate (1998), Planescape: Torment (1999), Icewind Dale (2000)).

The classification is a difficult for whilst there is an obvious technical change in game game from the turn-based text-command adventure games, there is no equivalent change in the roleplaying component in such games - just a transformation from turn-based to at least plausible real-time simulation in tactical as well as strategic movement. This is not to say that the roleplaying complexity of such games was equivalent - those featured in the Infinity Engine games were quite notable for the time - it is just that there was no obvious qualitative improvement.

The MMORPG Convergence

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) represent a convergence technology between the multiplayer text-based MUDs and the complex real-time graphics and deep dialogue trees and complex text parsers from late graphic single-player adventure games. Precursors include the pseudo-graphical MUDs such as Island of Kesmai (1985) and Habitat (1986), and the full-graphical AOL-hosted Neverwinter Nights (1991). Some of these graphical MUDs, like The Shadow of Yserbius (1991) were playable in offline or online modes. With lead designer for Ultima, Richard Garriott, coining the term Massively multiplayer online role-playing games in 1997 along with the release of Ultima Online in that year. Ultima Online was the first game to reach 100,000 subscriber-players and continues to this day. EverQuest Online Adventures (2003) is recognised as the first MMORPG to be released on a video-game console, and World of Warcraft (2004) has the highest number of paid subscribers although the free (and notably less graphics-intensive) RuneScape (2001) has twenty million accounts.

Whilst MMORPGs, like MUDs before them, are notable for sometimes ensuring that behaviour is appropriate for the setting and player-selected character profession or moral code, one of the great strengths has been the independent development of communities within the game between players. As a form of roleplaying independent of the game system, but as part of the game environment, this provides the opportunity for additional immersive experience, although metagaming issues can still arise in such cases (e.g., the notorious World of Warcraft funeral raid). The high fantasy setting of Guild Wars 2 (2012) argues that it alone among MMORPGs has a storyline that is responsive to player actions, a common feature of single-player RPGs, and certainly notably absent in MMORPGs. In addition the usual MMORPG static quest has been replaced by a dynamic equivalent as a result of this innovation.

Overall: Can Roleplaying Be Represented?

On a theoretical level various linguistic philosophers will point out that meaning and understanding can only be generated between and for conscious actors. In this regard all roleplaying systems incorporated in a computer game are dependent on existing in game established meanings with alterations and new meanings out-of-scope. Nevertheless, the complexity of this "canned roleplaying" can become extremely sophisticated with highly developed text parsers, detailed NPC behaviour, and alteration of the game environment through character actions. Out-of-system too, multiplayer roleplaying games have the ability to generate their own virtual communities within the environment itself, but independent of the game design. A more complex feature would allow for player advancement (distinct from character advancement) and control over the setting to be incorporated within the game system, although this is a feature that is relatively new in the narrativist tabletop roleplaying games. Certainly - and this is a notable reason why computer RPGs have gained such popularity relative to their pen-and-paper traditional alternatives - the incorporation of roleplaying, storyline, NPCs etc., does have a strong and successful history.